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NFL playoffs: Four things to watch for in Texans-Ravens in AFC Divisional Round

Last we saw the Ravens, at least when they weren't resting starters, they were the best team in the 2023 regular season.

Prior to the meaningless (for them) Week 18 game against the Steelers, Baltimore won six straight regular-season games to clinch the AFC's top playoff seed, with statement victories over the Bengals, Rams, Jaguars, 49ers and Dolphins down the stretch.

The final two of those games -- victories by 19 points at San Francisco, and by 37 over Miami in Baltimore -- ended most questions on that matter.

Of course, the playoffs are a different deal entirely. There might only be a handful of players remaining on the Ravens' roster from the 2019 team that steamed to a 14-2 regular-season record, only to be shocked at home in the playoff opener to the Titans. But those who remain, including John Harbaugh and Lamar Jackson, remember the pain all too well, and they're determined not to let history repeat itself.

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Standing in the Ravens' way are the upstart Texans, who are flying high after their thumping of the Browns during Super Wild Card Weekend. C.J. Stroud, who made his NFL debut in Week 1 at Baltimore, is coming off one of the best rookie quarterback seasons in this (or any) era.

The Ravens' excellent defense contained Stroud back in early September, holding him and Houston out of the end zone in the 25-9 win. But DeMeco Ryans' Texans have come a long way since then and are brimming with confidence -- and don't have much to lose after few predicted them to make a playoff run following a 3-13-1 season in 2022.

Baltimore is a big favorite, but the Stroud-led Texans certainly can be qualified as a dangerous opponent.

Here are four things to watch for when the Texans visit the Ravens in Saturday's Divisional Round:

1) This is a legacy game for Lamar Jackson. Jackson already has one MVP in his trophy case, and his 2023 regular-season performance seems to have made him the favorite to receive a second. But Jackson's playoff shortcomings to this point of his career are almost as big a part of his story as his successes have been. In Jackson's four playoff starts, the Ravens are 1-3. He's averaged double the number of turnovers in playoff games (1.8) as he has in his 77 regular-season contests (0.9) and has completed a far lower rate of his passes (55.9% in the playoffs, compared to 64.5% in the regular season). Jackson also didn't get a ton going in Week 1 versus Houston (17 of 22 passing, 169 yards, interception, fumble lost, four sacks; 38 yards rushing), but he was effective enough as the Ravens won comfortably. It was a battle of new coordinators -- Ravens offensive coordinator Todd Monken against Texans defensive coordinator Matt Burke -- and both were feeling each other out a bit. The Texans had a ton of success pressuring Jackson, doing so often with four rushers and blitzing selectively (Jackson's one pick came against a blitz) and playing mostly zone behind it. They're predominantly in nickel packages, and only a handful of teams play zone as often as Houston. This could limit Jackson's scrambling chances somewhat, but the Ravens' screen game can be an effective antidote to the Texans' pass rush. Not everything falls on Jackson's shoulders in this playoff game, and there are some possible weather elements forecasted for Saturday's game and his 20-day layoff to factor in. But Jackson playing up to his standard and leading Baltimore to a win would quiet the anti-Jackson playoff narratives that are still out there.

2) C.J. Stroud has a chance to atone for so-so NFL debut. By no means was Stroud bad in his first regular-season game, even if it ended up being one of the rookie's least-impressive outings (28 of 44 passing, 242 yards, five sacks, lost fumble; 20 rush yards). But if there's an area Stroud must be more mindful of in this rematch, it's navigating pressure better. Four of the five sacks he took were in the second half when it remained a winnable game. And all of them were painful, too, racking up minus-46 yards. In five of his 16 starts, he's taken four-plus sacks, but he's been sacked only three times in his past three games combined, with zero turnovers. The Ravens know they are facing a different version of Stroud than the one they saw back in Week 1. He's shown rare poise and confidence for a rookie, even after suffering a late-season concussion against the Jets that caused him to miss parts of three games and despite two of his best targets (wide receivers Tank Dell and Noah Brown) on injured reserve. Stroud will attack all parts of the field and has found confidence in WR1 Nico Collins and veterans Robert Woods and Dalton Schultz, as well as emerging weapons in John Metchie, Xavier Hutchinson and Brevin Jordan. This will be a daunting challenge against a Ravens secondary that does a great job of eliminating the shot plays that Stroud has been so effective on this season. The Texans' run game can be hit or miss, too, so at some point this game is going to fall on the shoulders of Stroud. It's reasonable to think he won't crack under pressure, but can Stroud thrive in this tense playoff atmosphere?

3) Mark Andrews not likely to play, but there are other options. Mark Andrews is expected to remain on injured reserve due to an ankle injury after being listed as questionable to play, but if he can't return for this game, it won't spell doom for Baltimore. Since his Week 11 injury, the Ravens have spread the ball around in his absence quite effectively, and Andrews' replacement has actually carved out a fairly big role. Isaiah Likely has caught 75% of his targets since Week 12 and leads the Ravens with 322 receiving yards and five TDs since then. He's a great run-after-catch target who poses coverage issues with his length and athleticism. Rookie wide receiver Zay Flowers has led them in targets (36), catches (24) and first-down receptions (15) in that same span, and he proved to be a tough cover for the Texans in Week 1 (nine catches, 78 yards on 10 targets) in his NFL debut. The Ravens also have gotten wideouts Rashod Bateman, Odell Beckham Jr. and Nelson Agholor going a bit, too, and have used Justice Hill as an occasional receiving threat. Houston's defense has made some notable strides this season, currently riding an 11-game streak with at least one turnover forced after its back-to-back pick-six showing in the blowout of the Browns. But the Texans also have yielded a ton of passing yards this season, allowing the third-worst yards per attempt (7.7) this season. With a few exceptions, the Texans have held their own stopping the run this season. But even without Andrews, the Ravens appear to have enough weaponry to stress Houston's secondary, even if the pass rush gets home now and again.

4) Texans need every playmaker they can to step up. It's not a stretch to say the Ravens featured the NFL's best defense this season. They ranked in the top 10 in yards allowed, pass yards allowed, INT rate, sack rate, first downs allowed and points allowed. If there was one area where the unit struggled at times, it was against the run, especially down the stretch. The two teams to beat the Ravens in Baltimore (prior to Week 18), the Colts and Browns, featured successful commitments to the run; the Rams, who lost in OT there, also had some success on the ground against them. The problem? This isn't exactly the Texans' superpower. Devin Singletary has had some moments since taking over the lead backfield role from Dameon Pierce, but the results have been inconsistent. The Texans tried to run the ball on early downs in Week 1 but were forced into a heavy passing attack in the second half once they trailed by two scores. That's not the kind of game the Texans can win readily. Look for them to build in a screen game to complement the ground attack and help set up the deeper shots to Collins and others so that Stroud isn't put in too many tough spots. The Ravens' pressure and coverage have been excellent this season, but the Texans can take advantage of their sometimes-shaky tackling. Will that be enough to help spring a massive upset? The Texans are going to need every yard after contact they can find in this game, especially if the weather has an impact on the passing-game conditions.

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