Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh talks about the Texans' J.J. Watt and preparing to face either of Houston's two quarterbacks. (BSMG)
As the Ravens were struggling to put away the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, their final two opponents of the regular season were dealing with issues of their own.
The Houston Texans lost their starting quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, to a broken tibia and rookie backup, Tom Savage, also was injured in a loss to the Indianapolis Colts that puts the Texans on the brink of postseason elimination and leaves them relying on a fourth-string quarterback.
Cleveland Browns rookie Johnny Manziel bombed his much-anticipated first NFL start, putting the Browns on the verge of a 12th-consecutive season without a playoff berth.
Victories over the Texans and Browns, two capable teams who are dealing with significant issues at quarterback, are all that separate the Ravens (9-5) from a return to the playoffs. The Ravens, who are now in possession of the AFC's sixth seed and the second of two wild-card spots after their 20-12 victory over the lowly Jaguars, face the Texans (7-7) on Sunday afternoon at Reliant Stadium.
"Two games left, two wins needed," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "It hits it right on the head, actually. That's probably what I'll be saying to the guys tomorrow. Seriously, it's perfect."
A victory over the Texans, coupled by a Cincinnati Bengals (9-4-1) loss to the Denver Broncos (11-3), could put the Ravens in first place in the AFC North with one game remaining. The Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5) play the Kansas City Chiefs (8-6), so that result will significantly impact the division standings as well.
As for the wild-card picture, the Ravens would clinch a postseason spot with a victory and losses by the AFC's three eight-win teams: the Chiefs, San Diego Chargers and Buffalo Bills. The Chargers play the San Francisco 49ers (7-7) at home on Saturday, while the Bills will travel to Oakland to face the Raiders (2-12) on Sunday.
"We control our destiny," outside linebacker Pernell McPhee said after Sunday's game. "The only thing we've got to do is stay focused, prepare and do what we do best and that's play Ravens football."
For the past several weeks, the Ravens have been right in the middle of a muddled AFC playoff picture. But now, their path to a sixth postseason berth in Harbaugh's seven seasons at the helm is more clear, and the road may have gotten a bit easier.
Texans coach Bill O'Brien announced Monday that Savage, who relieved an injured Fitzpatrick during the 17-10 loss to the Colts, will not be able play Sunday because of a knee injury. The Texans will decide in the coming days between journeyman Thad Lewis or recent pickup Case Keenum as the starter versus the Ravens, who have 14 sacks in the past two weeks.
Lewis, who signed with the Texans 2 1/2 weeks ago when starting quarterback Ryan Mallett went on injured reserve, has started six games over four NFL seasons and has five career touchdown passes and four interceptions. Lewis, 29, started five games for the Bills last season, but he hasn't seen any regular-season game action since and he has very little experience in O'Brien's offense.
Keenum was signed Monday by the Texans off the St. Louis Rams' practice squad. He was with Houston in 2012 and 2013 before he was cut by the organization in August. Keenum, 26, started eight games last year — all Texans losses — and threw nine touchdown passes and six interceptions.
"We'll prepare for their system and their scheme," Harbaugh said. "We'll try and anticipate the best we can how we think they'll attack us — scheme-wise and philosophically and how they'll approach the game, and we'll try to gear our game plan and our reps accordingly as we best we can. Who plays quarterback is definitely part of that. We'll be looking at that. We'll have to prepare for both of those two possibilities."
The Ravens have increased familiarity with Keenum because their current offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and quarterbacks coach Rick Dennison were in Houston the past couple seasons.
"We know these guys," Harbaugh said. "We know them, we've seen them in the league and we'll watch everything that they've done, tape-wise."
If they're able to get past Houston, standing in the Ravens way will be the Browns and their struggling offense.
The Browns, who have been held to 34 total points in losing three straight games, are at M&T Bank Stadium for the Dec. 28 regular-season finale, likely giving the Ravens their first extended look at Manziel.
Manziel, the former Heisman winner who was a first-round pick in May and backed up Brian Hoyer for the first 13 games, was just 10-for-18 for 80 yards, threw two interceptions and had a quarterback rating of 1.0 as the Browns were shut out by the Bengals.
Of course, the Ravens aren't going to spend any time this week thinking about Manziel. Their focus will be on containing Texans standout running back Arian Foster and exciting second-year wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, and dealing with the indomitable J.J. Watt. The defensive end has 16 1/2 sacks and five total touchdowns: two on defense and three on offense.
"If it doesn't apply to next week, we couldn't care less about it," Harbaugh said. "If it applies to next week, then it's very important to us."
Harbaugh's point was that the team wasn't going to dwell on a closer-than-expected victory over the Jaguars. They trailed the two-win Jaguars at halftime and the game's outcome hung in the balance until the final seconds, but Harbaugh called it a "great win," and the exact type of victory the Ravens need in December. He vowed that the team would try to build on what it did well and correct the things that it didn't do well against the Jaguars.
The Ravens offense never got in rhythm. They rushed for just 93 yards in the game and 49 came on their final full possession. The defense shut out Jacksonville in the second half, but the unit did give up considerable ground before halftime as the Jaguars had five field-goal attempts in their first seven drives.
And after scoring on a blocked punt earlier in the first quarter, the Ravens' special teams allowed the Jaguars to convert an onside kick and a fake punt, and committed three penalties.
But as Harbaugh noted, none of that will matter this Sunday when the Ravens have an opportunity to move even closer to the postseason.
"We can't really worry about too much other than going out and winning next week," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "We know what's in front of us, and we've just got to make sure we take care of one piece at a time. Nothing is really new this week than last week. We know what we have to do. We've just got to go do it."