As the Ravens (9-5) square off with the Houston Texans (7-7) at 1 p.m. Sunday at NRG Stadium, here's Baltimore Sun reporter Aaron Wilson's checklist of things to keep an eye on:
1. Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs
The Ravens' formidable outside linebacker tandem has combined for 28 sacks this season, with Dumervil's 17 tied with Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston for most in the NFL. Between Dumervil, Suggs and outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, the Ravens have built an extremely dangerous pass rush. That should pay dividends against relatively inexperienced quarterback Case Keenum, who is expected to start Sunday. He lost all eight of his starts last season for the Texans but has not played in 2014, having been on the St. Louis Rams' practice squad. Keenum has a live arm and doesn't lack for confidence, but could be overwhelmed by Dumervil and Suggs. The Texans rank 25th in passing offense despite the presence of two capable wide receivers in Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins. Although the Ravens have the 30th-ranked passing defense, few teams with this vulnerable a secondary feature a front seven like theirs.
2. J.J. Watt
Watt is practically unstoppable. A 6-foot-5, 290-pound defensive end, he combines the speed and moves of an outside linebacker with the bulk and strength of an interior defensive lineman. The primary responsibility for blocking Watt goes to right tackle Rick Wagner, who has allowed just two sacks this season, his first as a full-time starter. The Ravens are unlikely to triple-team Watt regularly, but their strategy for containing him is certain to involve multiple players.
The Ravens need a big game out of their diminutive running back, who has been affected by a knee injury in recent weeks. Forsett insisted that he felt much better this week, and the running game could be a major help to the offensive line in limiting Watt's pass rush. Forsett's productivity has dipped a bit in recent weeks, but he's capable of doing much more when there are running lanes to scamper through and when he's at his peak physically.
4. Gary Kubiak
This shapes up as an emotional return for the Ravens offensive coordinator, who was fired from his job as Texans head coach late last season. Kubiak acknowledged that this wouldn't be an ordinary game for him. He is a proud man unaccustomed to failure, and he'll pull out all of the stops against Houston, which dismissed him weeks after he was released from the hospital following stroke-like symptoms. Tight end Owen Daniels is in a similar situation, having been cut by the Texans after last season.
The Texans' star running back has multidimensional skills. He can run inside or outside, and because he can catch the ball as well as a wide receiver, he frequently lines up out wide and runs slant patterns. Foster has rushed for 1,127 yards this season, and the Texans rank fourth in the NFL with 136.8 rushing yards per game. Since the NFL suspended Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata four games for unauthorized use of Adderall, the Ravens have allowed 63 and 82 rushing yards in the past two games, respectively. How rookie inside linebacker C.J. Mosley performs in one of his toughest challenges of the season should go a long way toward determining the outcome of this game.