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Are the Houston Texans back where they belong?

DeMeco, Stroud and Co. are underdogs once again.

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Pittsburgh Steelers v Houston Texans Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images

The national headlines since Saturday’s blowout win by the Houston Texans over the Cleveland Browns has been all sorts of “no one saw that coming” and “who would have believed this” sort of spin.

And, it’s valid.

Bill O’Brien, David Culley and Lovie Smith did nothing over the last 5 years to make the world think this team was anything other than a pack of losers.

And, while all that has legit changed with DeMeco Ryans, C.J. Stroud and the new-look Texans, marching into M&T Bank Stadium this weekend, they’re underdogs once again.

The Baltimore Ravens (yes, the other Cleveland Browns), are the cream of the AFC crop this season. The 13-4 AFC North Division Champions put up 483 points, fourth most in the NFL and only surrendered 280 (first place) - that’s a whopping 203 point differential. PFF gave the Ravens an overall team grade of third best in the league, with a fifth ranked offense and third ranked defense.

For comparisons’ sake, the Texans went 10-7, scored 377 points and surrendered 353, a meager 24-point difference. H-Town did earn ninth overall grade, 13th (tied) place offense and 11th place defense.

Yet, as the Powerful Patrick H noted yesterday, the Texans go into this game 9.5 points behind the spread.

Underdog thy name is Texans.

But that’s ok. Coach Ryans doesn’t care about odds and rookie phenom Stroud has a Texas-sized chip on his shoulder.

Honestly, if any team left in the AFC can take out Baltimore, it’s the men from H-Town. Notice it says men, all the boys are in Dallas bedding down for the long winter.

What to know: Welcome back to the postseason, Lamar Jackson. The leading candidate for NFL MVP will start his first postseason game since the 2020 season. Jackson was injured and missed Baltimore’s lone playoff game last season, but his presence gives the Ravens their biggest reason for optimism in making a run at the Super Bowl.

For the Texans, it’s a chance to shock the world. But for rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud and rookie coach DeMeco Ryans, it will be a massive test against a Baltimore defense that led the NFL in sacks during the regular season (60). Houston will be facing the hottest team in the league down the stretch, as the Ravens won six of their past seven games. And since Week 11, Baltimore has the highest point margin in the NFL (plus-90). — Holder

It doesn’t seem like that long ago when the NFL was locked in a Tom Brady vs Peyton Manning era, where those two gunslingers were it when it came to great playoff matchups.

These days, the field is wide open.

And two of the brightest young stars are under center this Saturday in Baltimore.

If Texans offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik has answers for the Ravens’ D, expect these two quarterbacks to put on a passing yards symposium. Both quarterbacks could easily put up over 250 air yards, if not 300.

Why the Ravens will win: The 2023 Ravens’ defense finished sixth in EPA per play (minus-0.1) among all teams over the past 10 seasons. Sixth! Baltimore’s incredible defense — with all its simulated pressure that seems to constantly create sack opportunities — gives the Ravens a great chance against anyone.

I haven’t even mentioned the likely league MVP yet. Jackson finished the season hot, with incredible performances against the 49ers and then the Dolphins to close out his regular season (he sat in Week 18). With real receivers on this offense, including Zay Flowers and Odell Beckham Jr., every play is a constant dual threat of Jackson’s legs and arm. Baltimore can win with offense or defense (heck, or even special teams). And that’s why the Ravens are so tough. — Walder

ESPN and others are talking about the Ravens’ dominant D. Now, the narrative against the Browns last week was all about their defense as well. Where the difference lies is not only in Baltimore’s quarterback, Lamar Jackson, but their head coach, John Harbaugh and his hand full of Super Bowl jewelry.

However, any given Sunday... or in this case, Saturday.

Why the Texans will win: Well, how about Stroud? Sure, there are other reasons — from receiver Nico Collins to rookie edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. — to like Houston, but what Stroud has done in recent weeks gives the Texans hope against anyone. And that includes Baltimore. Since Week 16, Stroud ranks third in QBR, behind only Jackson and Love. Stroud is a rookie growing into the professional quarterback he’ll become before our eyes, and the progression is happening fast. He’s already at the point that Houston has become dangerous.

Oh, and the only defense that was better than Baltimore this season? Cleveland. And Stroud handled that test just fine in the wild-card round. — Walder