The Houston Texans are, in many ways, a different team than the one the Ravens prepared for when they hosted them back in Week 6. But the fact that the Texans will return to M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, Jan. 15 for an AFC Divisional Round game speaks volumes about their depth — and determination.
When the Ravens defeated the Texans, 29-14, back in October, Houston had already lost its top pass rusher (Mario Williams) to a season-ending pectoral injury and its dangerous wide receiver (Andre Johnson) sat out the game, which was close in the fourth quarter, with a sore hamstring.
Three months (and eight victories) later, the Texans have placed 12 players on injured reserve, including starting quarterback Matt Schaub and his backup, Matt Leinart. But thanks to a strong running game and the steady hand of rookie quarterback T.J. Yates, the Texans won their first AFC South title, then beat the Cincinnati Bengals, 31-10, in the Wild Card Round on Saturday.
"[Coach Gary] Kubiak has done a great job there. I'm happy for them that they have been able to finally break through," Ravens safety Bernard Pollard, who played for the Texans in 2009 and 2010, said Thursday. "It's exciting to see the growth of those players, guys like Arian Foster. That dude is a tremendous talent. I wish them well. … But if we cross paths, it's going to be a good one."
Foster, who got off to a slow start this season after injuring his hamstring during the preseason, rushed for 49 yards on 15 carries against the Ravens in Week 6 (he also had 52 receiving yards).
After that game, the second-year back reeled off three straight 100-yard rushing performances. Foster piled up 919 rushing yards in his final nine games of the regular season — in part because Schaub was lost for the season in Week 10 and Leinart two weeks later, forcing the Texans, who ranked second in the NFL in rushing offense, to rely heavily on Foster and backup Ben Tate.
Foster rushed for 153 yards and two touchdowns in the Wild Card win against the Bengals.
"[Foster is] definitely one of the premier backs in this league, and I'm a fan," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "They're a big, physical group — probably one of the best offensive lines in the NFL."
And despite losing Williams, who had five sacks in five games before getting injured, the Texans have one of the stingiest defenses in the NFL, too, which has played a huge role in their success.
A season ago, they ranked 30th in total defense. But they hired Wade Phillips as their defensive coordinator this offseason, switched to a 3-4 base defense, spent their first five picks in April's draft on defenders, and signed cornerback Johnathan Joseph and free safety Danieal Manning.
With Connor Barwin picking up the slack for Williams, with 11.5 sacks, and rookies J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed playing significant roles on defense, the Texans finished fourth in the NFL in rush defense, third in pass defense and fourth in scoring defense (17.4 points allowed per game).
Many of the Ravens, who were anxious to learn who their opponent would be in the Divisional Round, said they would be watching Saturday's game. And those who turned in saw Foster run all over the Bengals, Watt return an interception for a touchdown and Yates throw a 40-yard touchdown strike to Johnson. The Texans sacked Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton four times and forced three turnovers.
Now that the Ravens know that it is the Texans who will be coming to M&T Bank Stadium next weekend, they will begin preparing for them Sunday morning — if they haven't started already.
"Once we do see who we're playing, that's when you really start to kick it up," Joe Flacco said.