In as odd of a quirk as you’ll find, Sunday’s game between the Ravens and Texans pits the only two AFC teams with winning records against each other.
Of the 16 teams in the AFC, Baltimore and Houston lead the way with 5-1 records and then there’s a glut of seven teams at 3-3, including the entire AFC East.
Perhaps it’s a statement on parity in the NFL. Maybe it’s more that the conference is just that mediocre this season. But despite their faults - the Ravens’ propensity for allowing tons of yards, especially on the ground, and the Texans’ middle-of-the-pack passing offense - Baltimore and Houston are the best the AFC has to offer.
The Ravens take a four-game winning streak to Reliant Stadium and are coming off a thrilling 31-29 win over the Cowboys. The Texans, however, are looking to respond to their first loss of the season - 42-24 to the Packers - after a 5-0 start.
John Harbaugh expects no pity from coach Gary Kubiak and the Texans.
“You can complain all you want, but nobody cares. Nobody is going to feel sorry for you,” the Ravens coach said. “It’s an opportunity. You know the old saying, ‘When one door closes, another door opens,’ right? We’ve all heard that since we were kids, and that’s true. There are going to be opportunities for guys to (play well). As Ray would say, ‘What’s your legacy?’ (They have a chance) to determine their destiny a little bit, and it’s going to be fun to see which guys step up.”
Cornerback Jimmy Smith is excited about the opportunity in front of him to start in Webb’s place.
“I’ve been working hard,” Smith said. “I took this offseason to really hone in on my skills and technique, and I feel like just being a confident player, I’m ready.”
Oft-mentioned in this space, the Ravens head to Houston ranked 26th in the NFL in total yards allowed and rushing yards surrendered after two straight weeks of giving up at least 200 on the ground.
Somehow, the team has continued to excel at keeping the opposition out of the end zone, only once allowing 30 points - on the nose in a win over the Patriots - to stand 11th with 19.7 points permitted per game. Baltimore has been especially good in the red zone, tying for seventh in the league by letting teams convert just 43.5 of their chances inside the 20.
There are three possibilities for the Ravens’ defense now that Lewis and Webb are out: it gets better, it stays the same or it gets worse.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees doesn’t feel at all good about where the unit stands right now.
“To tell you anything other than it makes me sick is the best way I can put it. It really does,” Pees told reporters. “It’s up to me and it’s up to our staff to get this thing corrected. Basically, we’ve gone back and really looked at ourselves this last week or so. To give up the two rushing games after we thought we were getting better in the run for a couple of games, and to digress back there ... there’s a reason for everything,’ so, you have to look at it and find it.”
Pees singled out improved tackling as the key, and that becomes an especially difficult proposition when Arian Foster is the running back barreling toward Ravens defenders.
Foster ranks fourth in the league with 561 rushing yards and an NFL-best seven rushing touchdowns.
On a conference call, Kubiak downplayed the idea that the Texans will be looking to expose Baltimore’s inability to stop the run.
“Well, we’re struggling ourselves,” he said. “We did not run the ball a lick last week, and obviously, weren’t very successful as a football team. We’ve struggled some early. We’ve had some changes. Our offensive line has kind of been redone, with our right side being, basically, two rookies over there. So we’ve had our issues ourselves. The one thing that jumps at me is they may have given up some yards on the ground, but they’re winning those games.
“The bottom line in this league is you have to do what you have to do to win. We have ourselves to worry about right now. We have to find a way to protect our quarterback a little better, run the ball a little better. We came out of last week with plenty of issues to correct ourselves.”
Making Houston a handful is the fact that quarterback Matt Schaub has some talented receiving options in tight end Owen Daniels and wideout Andre Johnson. Altogether, the Texans rank fifth in points per game.
But the Ravens’ offense will be just as, if not more challenged by the Houston defense, which is among the league’s top eight in points and yards allowed.
Defensive end J.J. Watt is No. 1 in the NFL with 9.5 sacks and is tied for third with two fumble recoveries.
“He’s just a relentless player,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron told reporters. “He’s one of those guys that you’re trying to get him blocked, but he doesn’t stay blocked. So you’ve got to be aware of where he is. They play him right and left, but he’s not by himself. This defense is loaded. ... If he was the only guy we had to worry about, we could probably find a way to put two or three people on him.”
Jones and Pollard both said that doesn’t change their approach to the game, with Jones saying he has no ill will toward the organization that cut him loose after last season.
“None whatsoever. It’s a business,” Jones said. “They did what they had to do, now I have to do what I have to do.”
As will the Ravens’ offense, which could conceivably feel more pressure to produce with the significant injuries on the other side of the ball.
Quarterback Joe Flacco claims that’s not the case.
“We’re going to continue to do what we’ve been doing,” he said. “I think we’ve been playing pretty efficiently. When you try to do too much, that’s when you get yourself in trouble.”
Update: According to multiple media reports, the Ravens have activated linebacker Terrell Suggs and cut former second-round pick Sergio Kindle to make space on the 53-man roster.
The move doesn’t necessarily mean that Suggs will be back Sunday after missing the first six games of the season with a torn Achilles tendon. If he does return, that would provide quite a boost to a defense that is playing its first game without Lewis and Webb.
As for Kindle, this marks the end of a tumultuous tenure since he was the team’s top selection in 2010. He was never the same after a head injury suffered from a fall down stairs before his rookie campaign.