When C.J. Stroud stepped on the M&T Bank Stadium turf for his first NFL game in the season opener, few would’ve imagined a team that won just three games in 2022 and was led by a rookie quarterback would be making a return trip to Baltimore 19 weeks later with a berth in the AFC conference title game on the line.

Nobody saw that coming back in early September – not even our supercomputer, which is all-seeing and all-knowing and gave the Texans just a 4.0% chance of reaching the conference championship.

Four months later, however, nothing Stroud does should surprise us, as he has the Houston Texans on the verge of playing for a berth in the Super Bowl.

Let’s pump the breaks just a bit, though.

Standing in their way is a Baltimore team that won more games than anyone else this season – including that 25-9 victory over Houston in the opener – is led by the frontrunner to win MVP and is tabbed as nearly a double-digit favorite by oddsmakers.

Our supercomputer also sees the Ravens as the best bets, giving them a win expectancy of 64.2%.

Projected Winner: Ravens

Win Probability: 64.2%

Baltimore had the luxury of being off for the opening weekend of the NFL playoffs with a bye, and really hasn’t played a meaningful game since Week 17, when it trounced the Miami Dolphins 56-19 to secure the conference’s top seed, allowing John Harbaugh to rest his regulars in the season finale.

While the Ravens were sitting on their couches watching football like the rest of us this past weekend, the underdog Texans were putting football fans – and the rest of the NFL – on notice with a 45-14 thrashing of the Cleveland Browns.

Going up against the league’s No. 1-ranked defense, Stroud racked up 236 passing yards and three touchdown passes on throws of 15, 76 and 37 yards – all in the first half. He finished with a 157.2 passer rating – the best by a rookie with at least 20 passing attempts in a game in NFL history – and averaged 13.05 yards per attempt.

In the past 15 seasons, the only quarterback to average more yards per attempt in a playoff game with a minimum of 20 passes was Tim Tebow, who averaged 15.05 yards per attempt in the Broncos’ 29-23 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in a 2011 wild-card round.

Stroud carved up the Cleveland secondary, but that success started up front. Facing one of the top pass-rushing units in the NFL led by Myles Garrett, Stroud was hit just once.

With ample time to throw, Stroud had little trouble finding the open man, completing 16-of-21 passes – his third straight game completing at least 75% of his throws. Since returning from a concussion in Week 17, Stroud has completed 75.9% of his 79 passes for 751 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions for a 130.3 rating.

The Ravens can’t afford to let Stroud just sit in the pocket unfettered in Saturday’s NFL divisional-round matchup (on ABC/ESPN) like he during Super Wild Card Weekend. They’ll need to create pressure and make him throw under duress – and they have the personnel to make that happen.

But then again, one would’ve thought the Browns also would’ve been capable of pressuring Stroud and that never materialized.

Baltimore Key: Pressure Stroud – Again

No team had more sacks in 2023 than the Ravens with 60.

They were able to create pressure from all sides with three players registering at least nine sacks in tackle Justin Madubuike (13.0), end Jadeveon Clowney (9.5) and outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy (9.0). It marked the first time since 2006 the Ravens had three or more players notch at least 9.0 sacks.

Madubuike earned second-team All Pro honors this year and emerged as a major force on the inside to complement Clowney and fellow edge rusher Odafe Oweh on the outside.

After registering a pressure rate of 11.8 in 2022 – the ninth lowest – Madubuike garnered a pressure rate of 16.0 this past season – the fourth highest among the 38 interior linemen with a minimum of 250 pass rushes.

Justin Madubuike

In the opener, the Ravens defense was constantly in Houston’s backfield and made life miserable for Stroud in his first taste of the NFL.

The Ravens sacked Stroud five times and pressured him 27 times, with Clowney being credited with seven pressures, Oweh with five and Madubuike with three. It was the most times Stroud was pressured in a game this season and tied for the most pressures in a game all year by the Ravens, who matched that total in their emphatic 33-19 win over the San Francisco 49ers on Christmas.

Hounded by a relentless pass rush, Stroud had a pedestrian debut, and ended up completing 28-of-44 passes for 242 yards without a touchdown or an interception for a 78.0 rating.

Stroud has improved by leaps and bounds since then and is the overwhelming favorite for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, but if the Ravens can replicate their pass rush from Week 1, their path to victory becomes much clearer.

On three occasions this season, Stroud was pressured at least 20 times – 27 by the Ravens in Week 1, 25 by the Jaguars in Week 12 and 23 by the Colts in Week 2 – and the Texans lost all three of those games.

All in all, he is still putting him above average numbers when throwing under pressure – his completion percentage of 57.7 ranks seventh and his open-target percentage of 77.9 ranks third – but having to throw constantly with a man in his face doesn’t spell success.

This plays into the hands of the Ravens, who led the league in the regular season with an average of 18.1 pressures per game. Their pressure rate of 40.3 was the fifth-highest mark in the NFL, but the team that ranked first at generating pressure at 41.8% was the same Browns team that barely touched Stroud last week.

If Stroud again has time in the pocket, he’ll be looking in the direction of Nico Collins.

Already thin at wide receiver after Tank Dell suffered a season-ending injury in a victory over Denver in Week 13, Houston lost another receiver in last weekend’s wild-card win when Noah Brown sustained a shoulder injury that will sideline for the rest of the season.

It’s no big surprise who Stroud will be targeting early and often and that’s Collins, who with 593 receiving yards has accounted for nearly 40% of Houston’s 1,304 pass yards in the last six games.

Collins had a 38-yard reception among his six catches last week and is one of the NFL’s top big-play threats. Since Dell fractured his fibula, Collins’ average or 16.02 burn yards per target ranks first among the 35 receivers targeted at least 35 times since Week 13.

nico collins ranks

Baltimore’s top priority will be getting after Stroud and preventing him from hooking up with the playmaking Collins.

Without a viable ground game – Houston ranked dead last in successful run plays at 28.5% – the Ravens know the Texans’ best route to victory is on the strength of Stroud’s arm through the air. If they once again can harass Stroud, Houston will have a tough time leaving Baltimore with a win.

Houston Key: Contain Lamar – Again

Lamar Jackson has already been named an All-Pro, and in a matter of weeks will almost certainly win his second league MVP.

He accounted for 29 offensive touchdowns and led the Ravens in passing yards and rushing yards for the fifth straight season, throwing for 3,678 and running for 821 to become just the second player to pass for 3,500+ yards and rush for 800+ yards in a season (joining Kyler Murray in 2020).

His performances in the last two games he played essentially ended any discussion of who would win MVP, as he outdueled Brock Purdy on Christmas and then threw for five touchdowns in Baltimore’s thrashing of the Dolphins six days later.

He’s been a nightmare for opponents to game plan around, but one team that made him look ordinary this season was Houston head coach Demeco Ryan’s defensive unit.

In the opener, Jackson threw for just 169 yards with an interception and without a touchdown. He was sacked four times, fumbled twice and finished with a passer rating for 79.5.

Pressured on 13 occasions, he didn’t have as much time to throw and wasn’t able to throw down field. He averaged a season-low 4.76 air yards on his passes and released the ball in an average of 2.67 seconds. On the season, his average of 8.79 air yards ranked fourth among qualifying QBs, while his average release time of 2.85 seconds ranked fifth.

An argument could be made that like Stroud, Jackson has also improved since Week 1. But like Stroud facing the Baltimore defense, Houston’s defense also presents problems.

One aspect that makes Baltimore’s offense so dangerous is that it is well-balanced and can beat opposing defenses either on the ground or through the air.

Though only the 49ers (491) attempted fewer passes than the Ravens’ 494, Baltimore is efficient when Jackson does throw. The Ravens’ successful pass play percentage of 43.9 was sixth in the league during the regular season.

Baltimore, though, remains a run-first team.

The Ravens were the only team to run on more than half their plays, calling running plays 50.3% of the time and ranking first in rushing yards with an average of 156.5 per game. They’ve reached triple digits in rushing yards in 33 straight games dating to the 2022 season opener – only three teams have had a longer streak in the Super Bowl era.

With Gus Edwards rushing for 810 yards, Baltimore was one of three teams (along with the Detroit Lions and Miami) to have two players gain at least 800 yards on the ground, and it could be breaking in another back this week with Dalvin Cook joining the active roster.

Edwards, though, remains Baltimore’s primary back and has only been tackled behind the line of scrimmage on three of his 77 caries since Week 11. That rate of 3.9 is the third lowest among the 36 backs with at least 70 rushing attempts in that span.

Lowest% of Times Tackled Behind Scrimmage Since Week 11 (Min. 70 Attempts)

  1. Ty Chandler, Minnesota Vikings (2.5)
  2. Isiah Pacheco, Kansas City Chiefs (3.7)
  3. Gus Edwards, Baltimore Ravens (3.9)
  4. David Montgomery, Detroit Lions (4.4)
  5. Kyren Williams, Los Angeles Rams (5.3) 

While the Ravens are built to run, the Texans are equipped to keep them in check.

Back in Week 1, Baltimore was limited to 110 rushing yards on 32 attempts, with Jackson finishing with 38 yards on six carries and Edwards 32 yards on eight tries. J.K. Dobbins gained only 22 yards on eight rushes before suffering a torn Achilles tendon in the third quarter.

On the season, the Ravens averaged a league-leading 3.5 yards before contact but were limited to just 2.2 yards before being hit by the Texans. That performance against Baltimore set the tone this season for Houston, which yielded successful running plays 31.5% of the time – the third-lowest rate in the NFL.

In their wild-card win over Joe Flacco and the Browns, the Texans held Kareem Hunt to just 26 yards on eight carries and Jerome Ford to a mere 17 yards on nine rushes. They tackled Hunt and Ford each twice behind the line of scrimmage and only allowed four running plays to go for more than 5 yards.

A tougher challenge awaits in the divisional round in Baltimore, where Jackson and company have been nearly unstoppable lately.

In the last six games the Ravens have played at home with Jackson – so excluding their season finale – Baltimore has scored 38, 37, 31, 34, 37 and 56 points. The Texans, meanwhile, have reached the 30-point mark just once in their last six games away from Houston, and were held out of the end zone at Baltimore in the opener.

The Texans have shown they can limit Jackson’s production, but if the Pro Bowl QB and the Ravens can establish the ground game in the AFC divisional round, Baltimore will be set to host one more postseason game on Championship Sunday.

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