The injury-hit Baltimore Ravens visit the Houston Texans in a battle between the AFC’s top teams that, on the surface, should be in very different moods heading into one of the NFL’s marquee Week Seven matchups.
Baltimore should be on a high having won their last four games, including last week’s 31-29 win over the Dallas Cowboys that even Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco conceded was fortunate.
Houston, on the other hand, is coming off their first loss of the National Football League (NFL) season after a career-high six touchdown passes from quarterback Aaron Rodgers led the Green Bay Packers to an emphatic 42-24 win.
Baltimore prevailed the last time the two teams met, a 20-13 playoff win in January that put them into the American Football Conference (AFC) championship and improved their all-time record versus the Texans to 6-0.
But the Ravens’ swagger is seriously tempered heading into the matchup of 5-1 teams given injuries to two key elements of their defence during the win over Dallas.
Ray Lewis, a 13-time Pro Bowl linebacker, tore his right triceps while Lardarius Webb, widely considered the Raven’s top cornerback, tore his ACL and both are expected to miss the rest of the season.
Adding to the Ravens’ concerns, outstanding safety Ed Reed revealed this week that he is playing through a labrum tear in his shoulder.
The Ravens defence has not been its usual self - ranked only 26th out of the NFL’s 32 teams - and, without Webb and Lewis and possibly Reed, is a very different beast especially when coming up against a Houston team that includes outstanding receiver Andre Johnson and brilliant running back Arian Foster.
“With Ray and Lardarius out, to me it’s about next man up - about just playing better, like last year when we played better when Ray was out,” said Ravens defensive co-ordinator Dean Pees.
“I’m happy as I can be to be 5-1 but I also feel fortunate to be 5-1 the way we are playing on defense - let’s be honest, we aren’t playing well enough and to say it any other way would sound like political debate.”
Texans head coach Gary Kubiak says that even though there is a long way to go in the regular season, the game has potential playoff significance.
“I know it’s early in the season but a game carries a lot of weight down the road, so we know the importance of the game. We understand how big this game is,” said Kubiak.
“They are an excellent football team and they are physical games when we play them and special teams are big in this one.”
There is no tighter division than the AFC East where all four teams are 3-3 and two of them meet with the New York Jets travelling to the New England Patriots.
The Patriots have not been in Super Bowl form this season and are coming off a defeat to the Seattle Seahawks during which they squandered a 13-point fourth-quarter lead, a sign that there is a lot of work for coach Bill Belichick to do if his side are to be a threat in the playoffs.
But against the rival Jets, who are coming off a 35-9 rout of the Indianapolis Colts, Belichick expects few surprises.
“It really comes down to execution. I’d be surprised if this game is won by a team that comes out running something that’s never been seen in the history of football before,” he said.
One thing the Jets may try, given some injury problems in their backfield, is to utilise number two quarterback Tim Tebow as a running back.
“That’s a possibility ... he knows all the positions, so can you plug him in at running back? Can you plug him in at tight-end? I think the answer is yes,” added Belichick.
Another key divisional matchup comes in the NFC East where the Washington Redskins and rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III visit the Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
The Arizona Cardinals (4-2) are at the Minnesota Vikings (4-2) while the only unbeaten team in the NFL, the Atlanta Falcons are on a bye week.
Dallas (2-3) at Carolina (1-4)
The Cowboys head to Carolina having lost three of their last four after an uplifting opening victory at the Giants. Dallas (2-3) had designs on taking charge of the NFC East, especially following the victory in the Meadowlands, but finds itself in last place in the division thanks to bad time management, critical dropped passes and a conference-high nine interceptions off Tony Romo.
“We need a victory, bad,” fullback Lawrence Vickers said. “This is very critical to get this win.”
Carolina (1-4) didn’t have such high expectations, but the Panthers expected to build off Cam Newton’s Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign and at least be in the mix in the NFC South. Instead — and even with New Orleans and Tampa Bay struggling — the Panthers are an also-ran, ranked 23rd in yards gained and 25th in points scored; in 2011 they finished seventh in total offence and fifth in points scored.