NFL Preview - Baltimore (9-5) at Houston (7-7) (ET)
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Baltimore Ravens hope to clinch their sixth playoff berth in seven years on Sunday when they visit a Houston Texans club that is reaching deep into the quarterback well to keep its postseason chances alive.
The Ravens have won two straight and four of their past five to stay in the mix of an ultra-competitive AFC North. However, at 9-5 they have a chance to secure a playoff spot with a victory and losses by division rivals Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, or a win and a loss by both Kansas City and San Diego.
Baltimore is tied with Pittsburgh for second in the division, just behind 9-4-1 Cincinnati.
The Ravens, who host the Cleveland Browns to close out the regular-season next Sunday, picked up their second win in a row with a less-than-impressive 20-12 decision over the Jacksonville Jaguars this past weekend.
Joe Flacco threw for just 221 yards, including a three-yard strike to tight end Owen Daniels, but defense and special teams also chipped in.
Baltimore recorded a season-high eight sacks -- 2 1/2 by linebacker Terrell Suggs and another two from rookie defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan -- while Darian Stewart blocked a punt that Kamar Aiken returned 11 yards for an early score.
"We didn't play smart all the time. We had too many mistakes, too many errors that kept us off the field or put our defense back on the field, those kind of things," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. "But Jacksonville did a good job. That's a good young football team, especially on defense. That defense is salty and they get after you."
Houston's defense can also get after teams as it proved in Sunday's 17-10 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
The Texans held the Colts to season lows of 17 points and 278 yards, but still failed to win a third straight game while falling to 7-7 on the year.
Already without wide receiver Andre Johnson (concussion) and tight end Garrett Graham (ankle), Texans starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick left in the second quarter with a leg injury that forced rookie Tom Savage into duty.
"I felt for him because he knew right away that it was injured, his leg was injured, and I felt bad for him," said Texans coach Bill O'Brien of Fitzpatrick.
Savage completed 10-of-19 passes for 127 yards with two fumbles -- one lost -- and an interception in his NFL debut.
Fitzpatrick had season-ending surgery on his leg Monday, while Savage will also be out this weekend due to an undisclosed injury. With Ryan Mallett having been lost earlier to a season-ending pectoral injury, Houston will start a fourth different quarterback this season.
That will be either Thad Lewis or Case Keenum, who was signed off the St. Louis Rams practice squad this week. Keenum played with Houston last season and was with the club in training camp before getting released on Aug. 31.
O'Brien, though, has yet to announce a starter, but whoever goes could also be under center for the Week 17 finale against visiting Jacksonville.
"I'm going to keep that one close to the vest," O'Brien said on Wednesday. "Both these guys, Case and Thad, are out there working hard. Right up until game time, that's going to be the way it is."
The Texans have beaten the Ravens only once in seven prior meetings, including a 2011 playoff victory for Baltimore.
This game will also mark a return to Houston for Baltimore offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and Owns, who played with the Texans from 2006-13.
Kubiak, meanwhile, was Houston's head coach from 2006-13, helping the club win back-to-back AFC South crowns in 2011-12.
"I think it will mean everything," Owens said of Kubiak getting a win this Sunday. "That's all we want. Obviously, for this team to go in there and take care of business -- to keep our playoff hopes on track -- that's the biggest thing. And then it's just a little icing on top for (Kubiak) probably to go back into a place (where he was the head coach)."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Both quarterbacks figure to be under heavy pressure this Sunday as some of the top pass rushers will be on the field.
For the Ravens, they rank third in the NFL with 45 sacks and no other duo in the league has more combined sacks than Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, who have 28 between the two of them. Suggs' 11 give him his sixth-career double-digit sack season.
Dumervil, meanwhile, has joined Texans defensive end J.J. Watt in the Defensive Player of the Year discussions. His 17 sacks are tied with Kansas City's Justin Houston for the most in the NFL and match is previous career high of 17 set in 2009.
The Ravens limited the Jaguars to 248 total yards, including just 68 in the second half, and Dumervil also picked up a sack.
"It'll be a good challenge for both offensive lines," said Dumervil of this matchup. "We have guys who get after the quarterback, and (Watt) is a guy who can get after the quarterback. So, I'm sure whoever's defense plays the best wins the game, for sure."
Watt, who has multiple sacks in a career-high three straight games, with seven over that time, agreed that the Ravens have depth at pass rushing.
"(Dumervil's) playing very well. He's playing very good football right now, and their whole defensive line is playing good football," said Watt. "You have him, Suggs and (Pernell) McPhee and Jernigan -- all those guys are playing some good football up there. So, as a defensive lineman, you enjoy watching good football being played, and they're definitely doing a good job of it."
Watt has done a great job of playing football himself. He has 16 1/2 sacks on the year, 10 passes defensed, a pick-six and three forced fumbles, one he returned for a score.
The playmaker also has caught three touchdown passes.
"Where do you start? He does everything well. He catches passes for touchdowns, so what doesn't he do? He's just a great player," noted Harbaugh of Watt.
Houston's Watt-led defense will try to slow down Flacco, who has posted a 107.2 passer rating over the Ravens' past four games. He also is three touchdown passes shy of passing the career-high 25 he threw in 2010, while Baltimore is 23 points short of setting a new single-season record for points score. The 2012 squad scored 398.
Helping Flacco is the fact that under Kubiak, the club has allowed only 16 sacks, second-fewest in the NFL.
Watt figures to challenge that, while Houston running back Arian Foster will attempt to snap Baltimore's string of 24 straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher. Foster just missed the mark versus the Colts, rushing for 99 yards on 26 attempts, and is averaging 102.5 yards per game on the ground this season.
Foster has 11 touchdowns, eight of those rushing, over his last eight games.
Johnson also expects to return this weekend from his concussion and is four receptions shy of 1,000 for his career. Hitting the mark this weekend would make him the second-fastest player to do so, coming in Johnson's 168th career game.
His return should help either Keenum or Lewis.
Keenum passed for 1,760 yards with nine touchdowns and six interceptions in eight games for the Texans last season, while Lewis has passed for 1,296 yards with five touchdowns and four picks in seven all-time appearances, including five starts.
In trying to deal with Watt, Flacco should have some room for error as the Ravens defense is likely to make it a long day for either Keenum or Lewis. Not helping either quarterback is the fact that Houston may not be able to lean heavily on Foster given Baltimore's success versus the run.
The Ravens rank third in that department, yielding a mere 84.3 yards per game, while the Texans are fourth in the NFL with 136.8 yards per game on the ground.
Getting Foster some room to run will be key, but also easier said than done and the Ravens catch a break with the Texans' issues under center.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Ravens 24, Texans 13