After a humbling loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday Night Football, the Texans have a chance to rebound in a Week 7 game against the Baltimore Ravens that could have major postseason implications.
The Texans (5-1) and Ravens (5-1) are the only two teams in the AFC above .500. There are still 10 games left to play, but the winner of Sunday's tilt at Reliant Stadium will have the best record in the conference and a head-to-head tiebreaker that could be crucial for seeding come playoff time.
"I know it's early in the season, but (it's) a game that carries a lot of weight down the road, so we know the importance of the game," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said on Wednesday. "We understand how big the game is. They all carry the same weight, but this one is pretty darn important."
The Texans have never beaten the Ravens, sporting an 0-6 record against them in the regular season and playoffs. They lost twice to the Ravens last season, including a 20-13 defeat in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
Both of those games were at M&T Bank Stadium, where the Ravens are 12-0 since the start of last season. They're 5-5 on the road in that same span.
"It's a good challenge for us," said defensive end J.J. Watt, the NFL sack leader who had a monstrous 12 tackles and 2.5 sacks in last season's playoff loss. "Obviously, they got us both times last year, so we're excited for them to come down here to Reliant, playing in front of our home crowd and get us back on track."
After losing to the Ravens in January, many Texans players said they needed to make sure they weren't in the same situation again this season. They said they needed to do everything they could to make sure their playoff games were at home.
The Texans aren't looking too far ahead, but there's no denying that beating the Ravens will help their potential for homefield advantage come playoff time.
"I think anyone that told you that we didn't know that that was out there would be lying to you," quarterback Matt Schaub said. "We understand who we're playing and what situations we are in right now, but that's nothing that we can think about right now. We just have to go out and find a way to go 1-0 this week... All that other stuff will sort itself out down the road."
Three of the five regular-season meetings between the Texans and Ravens have been decided by six points or less. The Texans lost the last meeting at Reliant Stadium 34-28 on Monday Night Football in 2010. In that game, they overcame a 28-7 third-quarter deficit to tie the game in the final minute of regulation, only to lose 34-28 on a pick-six in overtime.
The Ravens have three prominent former Texans in All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach, wide receiver/return specialist Jacoby Jones and hard-hitting safety Bernard Pollard. The two teams are built similarly, with foundations of a stout defense and a dominant running game led by do-it-all feature backs.
"Their defense is physical; our defense is physical," defensive end Antonio Smith said. "Their offense is physical; our offense is physical. It's basically our team, because they've got the same running game, almost (the same) passing game our offense got and their defense is aggressive as we (are).
"It's almost like playing the man in the mirror, your arch-nemesis. The winner of this game is the big boy around town."
Last Sunday's loss to Green Bay was a drastic departure from what the Texans did so well during their 5-0 start. They allowed 42 points after allowing an average of 14.6 in their first give games. They allowed 427 yards after allowing an average of 275.6. They gave up six passing touchdowns to Aaron Rodgers after allowing six all season. Schaub was sacked three times and picked off twice, matching his season totals in both categories.
"It's something that kind of humbles you, certainly," Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said on Thursday. "I think it's just a clunker. Sometimes, you have those. You go on from that, and I think we will."
And if the Texans do, they'll go into their bye week atop the AFC with a 6-1 record.