January 15, 2012

AFC Divisional Playoff - Houston Texans at Baltimore Ravens

Vegas Line: Texans + 7.5

Rob’s Line: Texans + 6.5

For all you Baltimore fans out there, thank Heavens it’s now the playoffs, eh?! No more having to look over your shoulder at Pittsburgh…not after the wonders of last Sunday, anyway. I haven’t actually bothered to look up any press coverage from, say, The Baltimore Sun, during this past week, but I’ll bet both my bottom dollar and yours that there was more than a couple of celebratory column inches devoted to Tim Tebow, the man who practically single handedly orchestrated the demise of the hated Steelers, and all this after his offense had conspired to collate the grand total of 8 yards in the first quarter; the thought that a city that once adored its hometown stable of Colts was last weekend rabidly supporting a herd of supposedly ragged Broncos lends itself to a poetic equine balance being restored to the resting place of Edgar Allan Poe, after whose poem these Ravens are named.

I decided on offering Houston a fraction below seven points simply because I wouldn’t feel comfortable offering them with a touchdown plus a half point. This looks like the narrowest of margins and yet it can be the biggest of margins and at first glance I find myself leaning towards the travelling Texans and the points. However, there does lie beneath the surface quite the caveat: Houston quarterback T. J. Yates.
Now, I can hear many an NFL fan saying that it may be equally as difficult asking Ravens QB Joe Flacco to cover by eight points and it’s a valid argument, but the simple truth is that Flacco’s playing at home. I wouldn’t fancy being in Yates’s shoes when the going starts becoming a little tough at some stage during the game, which it undoubtedly will.
Two huge moments occured during Houston’s playoff blowout of Cincinnati last Saturday, one relating directly to Yates that may highlight him using up all of his playoff luck in one fell swoop. We can recall Texans rookie J. J. Watt’s fabulous 29 yard pick six with 52 seconds remaining in the first half that turned the game on its head. Strangely, at that moment, you almost felt the air being sucked out of Andy Dalton and the Bengals and I can only imagine being there as a home fan. The sense of carpe diem must have been palpable. However, something even bigger occurred towards the end of the third quarter.
With his team leading 17-10, Yates threw the ball near to midfield straight into the hands of Bengals safety Chris Crocker…who dropped it. Had he held on, Crocker had the whole field to himself to run back and make the score 17-16 (let’s assume 17-17 with the point after). Just three plays later Yates hit Andre Johnson for a 40 yard touchdown and the game was over. On such small outcomes are games decided and it’s difficult to envisage Yates being afforded the same generosity this week by the Ravens defense.
Hmmm, defense…let’s take a look, shall we? After Denver disposed of Pittsburgh last week, Baltimore simply has to possess the number one defense now, right? Wrong. Who said Houston? Pat yourselves on the back for ’tis they who enter this with the stronger D. To be fair to the Ravens though (as though they really need caring and looking after!), they’re not far behind at all when it comes to protecting their own end zone and barely a cigarette paper can be placed between the two. This could prove to be a deliciously hard fought encounter and one that I believe will have only the citizens of Maryland cheering for the home team.
For those fortunate enough to watch this (my 40th birthday celebrations on Saturday evening UK time puts me on injured reserve for Saints/49ers and Broncos/Patriots), we can expect both teams to replicate what I expect the Niners to attempt against N’Awlins and that’s to run as hard as they can as often as they can…particularly Houston with the one two punch of Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Against Cincinnati last week, Foster received 24 carries to Tate’s 9 and it’ll be a major shock if he isn’t given the keys again this week. Having Tate in reserve though is a luxury looked upon with envy by most teams in the NFL.
Foster shredded a Bengals run defense ranked in the top ten in the league for 153 yards at a whopping 6.4 yards a pop, but he’ll have to go some to repeat that on Sunday against a Baltimore run D ranked second, giving up just 92 rushing yards per game. When going to the passing game, Yates has the irrepressible Johnson at hand along with the ever reliable Owen Daniels at tight end, but, due to Johnson’s many absences this year through injury, Foster lies second on the team in receptions, having snared 53 during the regular season and a further three last week.
Baltimore finished the season with a good 24-16 road win in Cincinnati and that is the only real form we can lean on when looking at this one, but M&T Bank Stadium is an intimidating place to go and I predict that Yates will struggle. Foster and Tate will need to bring their A game as will Johnson as the Ravens aren’t even giving up 200 yards per game through the air.
I do find it difficult to see anything but a Baltimore win, but can they cover the spread? In a game I can see being low scoring, it’s probably wise to take the team with the touchdown start, but I actually have a small fancy for the Ravens -7.5.

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