Here are five things to watch when the Texans (11-6) take on the Baltimore Ravens (12-4) at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. Kickoff is at 1 p.m. ET (noon CT).
The Texans are 0-5 all-time against the Ravens, including 0-2 on the road. They lost 29-14 to the Ravens in Week 6 at Baltimore.
1. Foster vs. Rice: Two of the top running backs in the NFL will face off Sunday in Houston's Arian Foster and Baltimore's Ray Rice. The Texans and Ravens both rely on their Pro Bowl backs to establish time of possession and move the ball down the field, and Foster and Rice are two of the best receiving running backs in the league.
Foster ranked fifth in the NFL this season with 1,224 rushing yards despite missing three-and-a-half games. He was second on the Texans with 617 receiving yards, led the NFL with 141.6 scrimmage yards per game and finished second in the AFC with 12 touchdowns from scrimmage. His running mate, Ben Tate, ranked seventh in the NFL this season with 5.4 yards per carry.
Tate, a Maryland native, had nine carries for 41 yards (4.6 avg.) with one fumble in Week 6. Foster had only 49 yards on 15 carries (3.3 avg.), but he has never been held to less than 60 yards by the same team twice. He's coming off a 153-yard, two-touchdown performance in the Wild Card round.
Rice led the NFL with 2,068 yards from scrimmage this season. He ranked second in rushing with 1,364 yards and led the AFC 15 total touchdowns. He had an astounding 76 catches, 19 more than any other Ravens player. Rice had 101 rushing yards on 23 carries against the Texans in Week 6, but the Texans had him bottled up aside from a 27-yard run late in the fourth quarter.
2. Defense vs. defense: The game has a potential to be a defensive slugfest, with the top two remaining defenses in football squaring off in chilly weather conditions.
The Texans ranked second in defense in 2011, allowing 285.7 yards per game. The Ravens ranked third, allowing 288.9 yards per game. The Texans ranked fourth in scoring (17.4), while the Ravens ranked third (16.6). Both teams also were top-five passing and rushing yards allowed.
The Texans' defense has come a long way since allowing 29 points and 402 yards to the Ravens in Week 6. That was only their sixth game under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who said this week that about 30 percent more of the playbook has since been installed. It was their first game without outside linebacker Mario Williams, who suffered a season-ending injury in Week 5. Inside linebacker Brian Cushing and Pro Bowl cornerback Johnathan Joseph led the defense to the best ranking in Texans history.
The Ravens have had a top-10 defense in each of the last nine seasons. They're led by two future Hall of Famers in inside linebacker Ray Lewis and free safety Ed Reed. They also have perennial Pro Bowlers in outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who led the AFC with 14.0 sacks this season, and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, arguably the best defensive lineman in the league.
3. Eyes on Yates: With the Texans and Ravens so evenly matched, the difference in the game could be how Texans rookie quarterback T.J. Yates handles the pressure of his first road playoff start.
The Ravens were a perfect 8-0 at home this season. They led the AFC with 48 sacks, 33 of which came at home. They sacked Matt Schaub four times in Week 6, while Yates has been sacked 17 times in seven games. Baltimore allowed only 14.9 points and 254.8 yards per game at home, second-lowest in the league.
Yates, 24, has shown poise beyond his years this season. His first action was a two-minute drill at Jacksonville in Week 12. The fifth-round pick from North Carolina completed 61.2 percent of his passes in the regular season with three touchdowns, three interceptions and an 80.7 passer rating. He was even better on the road, completing 62.7 percent of his passes with a rating of 85.5.
The Texans don't ask Yates to do too much, but he'll have to make plays downfield as he did last week with a 40-yard touchdown pass to Andre Johnson. In his lone road start against a playoff team, Yates threw for 300 yards and two touchdowns in a fourth-quarter comeback victory at Cincinnati. He was 11-of-20 for 159 yards and a touchdown (97.7 rating) in last Saturday's Wild Card victory.
4. The Andre factor: The Texans had Schaub the last time they faced the Ravens, but they didn't have Andre Johnson.
The All-Pro wide receiver was inactive in Week 6, one of six games he missed this season with a right hamstring injury. Johnson missed three games later in the season with a left hamstring injury but is now healthy and working close to, if not at, 100 percent.
Johnson played 15 snaps in the regular-season finale as a tune-up for the playoffs. His snap count was in the mid-40s last Saturday, and he caught five passes for 90 yards, including a 40-yard touchdown.
A five-time Pro Bowler, Johnson waited his entire nine-year career for the Texans to reach this point. The Ravens have talented cornerbacks but no one who can cover Johnson one-on-one. In his last game against Baltimore, Johnson had nine catches for 140 yards and two touchdowns at Reliant Stadium in 2010.
It wouldn't be a surprise to see No. 80 put the team on his back today.
5. Limiting big plays: The Texans were one of the best teams in the league at defending the deep ball this season, but they gave up two 50-yard passing plays to Flacco in Week 6. Those plays were critical in a game that was tight until late in the fourth quarter.
Flacco completed bombs of 51 yards to rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith and 56 yards to wide receiver Anquan Bodin, leading to two field goals. Flacco finished the game 20-of-33 for 305 yards. Boldin had 136 receiving yards, making him one of only two receivers to top 100 against the Texans all season.
After that game, the Texans switched rookie outside linebacker Brooks Reed to the strongside and Connor Barwin to the weakside. Reed recorded a sack in each of the next five games, while Barwin had nine of his team-high 11.5 sacks after the switch. The Texans did not allow another 300-yard passer all season and did not allow more than 19 points in any of their next seven games.
Flacco ranked 26th in the league with a career-low 57.6 completion percentage. The Texans hit him eight times in Week 6 but sacked him only twice.