The Texans are in the second round of the playoffs.
Houston (11-7) faces the Ravens (13-4) in the Divisional Round on Saturday afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium. Baltimore is the top seed in the AFC and had last weekend off with a first-round bye. The Texans crushed the Cleveland Browns, 45-14, in the Wild Card round last Saturday at NRG Stadium. Houston and the Ravens met in the first week of the regular season, with Baltimore winning that home contest, 25-9. Here are five things to watch when they kick off at 3:30 p.m.
1) Not the same C.J. – When these two squads met four months ago, it was C.J. Stroud's first regular season start. He showed flashes, but ultimately the Ravens took control of the game after being up just 7-6 at the half. He's a much better quarterback than he was in Week 1, and both teams are much different than they were in early September.
"We've grown in a multitude of areas," Stroud said. "I think at that point, we weren't really identified as who we are now, and we've grown in a lot of aspects. A lot more experience up front now, both offensively, defensively and special teams, so I think we've grown in a lot of places."
Stroud blossomed into one of the best deep-ball passers in the NFL, as he was the only quarterback this season with more than 1,000 yards through the air on deep balls, without an interception. The rookie completed 58.8 percent of his passes for 1,057 yards and eight touchdowns when he threw it 20 yards or farther. Baltimore safety Geno Stone and the Ravens are well-aware of Stroud's abilities.
"Can make any throw from any part of the field," Stone said. "He has that big arm, and he's playing smart with the ball. He's not putting the ball in jeopardy, so he's making plays for his guys and being smart with the ball. That's my biggest takeaway from [watching] him."
Stroud also finished the regular season with the league's best passing yards per game mark (273.9) and an NFL-best touchdown-to-interception ratio (23-5). The only other quarterbacks in league history to also do so, were Joe Montana in 1989 and Tom Brady in 2007. The former guided his 49ers to a Super Bowl title, while the latter engineered a perfect 16-0 regular season mark for the Patriots, before they were upset in the Super Bowl.
In his playoff debut, Stroud was brilliant. He tossed a trio of touchdowns, didn't turn the ball over, and helped the Texans crush Cleveland. That performance gained him the admiration of Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson.
"From my experience, he played better than I did from my rookie playoff game, I would say that," Jackson said. "He was throwing the ball all over the field, making things happen. He did great."
2) Stay Dynamite – In the first meeting, the lone completion that went for more than 20 yards was a 26-yarder to Nico Collins that came in the fourth quarter with the Texans trailing, 22-9. The longest run of the game was a Stroud scramble for 11 yards.
Compare that to last Saturday against Cleveland, when Stroud and the offense erupted for five completions of 20 yards or more, including a 76-yard touchdown toss to Brevin Jordan and a 37-yard scoring beauty to Dalton Schultz. Plus, running back Devin Singletary got loose for a 29-yard gain and a 19-yard touchdown run.
Offensive Coordinator Bobby Slowik's plan of attack will be fascinating to watch, and he's excited because of all the extra work Stroud does in getting ready for a game.
"C.J. is the ultimate preparer," Slowik said. "He's not a rookie in that regard. He's a rookie in that every lesson he learns, he really tries hard to bank. He puts a lot into making a mistake and making sure he doesn't make the same mistake twice, but he prepares like a vet. He prepares like someone who has been in the league six, seven, eight years, and that speeds up all our conversations. I feel like I'm talking to another coach."
The Ravens defense, among the many things it does excellently, is best in the NFL against the deep ball. The allowed the lowest completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdowns and passer ratings against balls thrown 20 yards or longer in the air.
3) Pass rush – The Texans defense got to Jackson in the first meeting, and will need to do so again. Houston sacked Jackson four times, and one of those was a strip-sack recovered by the Texans defense. Cornerback Steven Nelson also picked off a pass as well.
Defensive Coordinator Matt Burke emphasized how the Texans pass rush must remain disciplined when getting after Jackson on Saturday.
"It's going to be sort of like we've preached all year, but even at a heightened level of rushing as a unit," Burke said. "We can't have independent contractors out there. It's definitely going to be about guys staying in their rush areas."
The Texans are averaging nearly four sacks per game and 12 points allowed in their last three wins, and they're looking to keep that momentum going.
4) Limit Lamar - Jackson put up great numbers against good competition this season. He and the Ravens won 10 games against teams that finished .500 or better, and he threw 21 touchdowns while running for five more in those victories.
He also ran for 821 yards on the season, while maintaining a 102.7 passer rating, which was the 4th-best mark in the NFL. Jackson will likely win the MVP award in a month, and the Texans know the challenge is a supreme one.
"He can attack it through the air and on the ground," Jackson said. "It's going to be important to be disciplined. Don't try to be a hero. Play with clean footwork."
Texans Head Coach DeMeco Ryans thinks highly of Jackson as well.
"You can throw as many things at Lamar as you want to, but he finds a way to make plays," Ryans said. "That's what makes him a special player. No matter what type of looks he's gotten on tape, he's made a ton of teams pay because of his play-making ability."
5) Nasty defense – The names and faces have changed over the years, but the Baltimore defense remains as rugged as always.
The Ravens allowed the fewest points per game (16.5) in the NFL this year.
They led the NFL in sacks (60).
Baltimore also was atop the league in takeaways with 31.
"The Ravens are a great defense," Stroud said. "Definitely one of the top defenses in the league. Everything runs through, really, their linebackers and Kyle Hamilton. They're great players. Their corners do a good job being sticky in coverage. Their [defensive] line gets a good pass rush, they rush as a unit."