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Predicting three stars in Ravens at Texans

Predicting three stars in Ravens at Texans
Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is blocked by former Ravens tackle Bryant McKinnie in the second quarter of their Oct. 21, 2012, game Reliant Stadium. (Brett Davis / US PRESSWIRE)

Some sports name three stars of the game after the game. I'll do that one better: I'm going to name them before the Ravens even play. These will be the three stars of the game when the Ravens travel to NRG Stadium to face the 7-7 Houston Texans.

1. Tight end Owen Daniels

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The longtime Houston Texans tight end, along with his former head coach and current offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, headline a long list of Ravens players and coaches returning to their old stomping grounds Sunday.

All involved have made it clear the game is more than a typical out-of-division matchup, both for playoff purposes and personal reasons. Expect Kubiak and Daniels' emotion to manifest itself in the form of red-zone touchdowns.

Daniels has caught 45 balls for 474 yards and four touchdowns this season, with the longest of his touchdowns from just five yards out. Houston is strong against tight ends, but given Kubiak's proclivity for throwing to tight ends near the goal line on plays that always seem to end up with Daniels wide open, I suspect they'll call a couple of sure-fire scoring plays to get Daniels involved.

For fantasy football championship purposes, Daniels is a must-start this week. Fellow spurned pass-catcher Steve Smith caught 10 balls for 139 yards and two scores against his old team. I don't think Daniels will eat up that many yards, but around 60 yards and two touchdowns will make it a merry homecoming.

2. Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins

Who cares if neither of his possible quarterback options were on the Texans' roster on Thanksgiving? On a team that hasn't throw a ton this season, Hopkins is the man who typically gets the targets and picks up the yards.

His 109 catches, 1,167 yards, and six receiving touchdowns lead the Texans this season, and according to Football Perspective, his 1,167 receiving yards represent the 38.6 percent of his team's receiving yards — the highest percentage of any receiver in the NFL.

Combine the second-year receiver's skills with the Ravens' revolving door at cornerback — defensive coordinator Dean Pees has not said which of Rashaan Melvin, Antoine Cason, or Anthony Levine will start opposite Lardarius Webb — and Hopkins could have a distinct advantage along with Texans star Andre Johnson.

Even as he battles an ankle injury, Hopkins is the type of big, fast receiver the Ravens have struggled with this year and he could be a threat in the play-action passing game to the tune of 90 yards and a touchdown, though the score will be a big one. Expect the lack of opportunities in the passing game to make Hopkins take advantage of the ones he gets.

3. Defensive end J.J. Watt

Ravens coach John Harbaugh said it best when he described Watt as "gigantic" and "really fast," though there's a lot more to him than that. Watt is a game-wrecking defensive lineman who leads the team in pretty much every category with 16.5 sacks, 43 quarterback hits, 10 passes defenses, and 22 tackles for loss.

His matchup with right tackle Rick Wagner gets the headlines, but Watt moved around more than usual against the Colts and could end up on the other side of the Ravens' offensive line and generally be a menace wherever he is. Quarterback Joe Flacco will have to check out of running plays to his side, and blocking will have to be accounted for on every play.

Watt is so good that he's rightfully getting buzz as a Most Valuable Player candidate, and is a shoo-in for Defensive Player of the Year. Even if he doesn't have his typical two-sack performance, Watt will get at least one, swat a couple passes at the line of scrimmage, and force a fumble in the backfield. A bad game by Watt's standards is still a game-changing performance, and he'll deliver just that to keep Houston close Sunday.

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