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Ravaged Ravens face Texans challenge in pivotal Week 7 NFL clash

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, left, throws to a receiver as he is pressured by Dallas Cowboys defensive end Jason Hatcher in the first half of an NFL football game in Baltimore, Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012.

Nick Wass/AP

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.

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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."

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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.

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"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.

"This team relies heavily on this offence, and that's been different than in years past," veteran receiver Steve Smith said. "And yet we haven't done anything consistently that would help our defence stay off the field. All we've done is kind of been middling around a little bit and been real lethargic and left (the defence) out there on the field longer than they should be."

Steelers (2-3) at Bengals (3-3)

The Steelers can't be accused of that; their offence has been very protective of the ball (only four turnovers) and quite productive through the air, ranking seventh in yards passing. But Pittsburgh (2-3) has the appearance of a team in transition, particularly on the offensive line and everywhere on defence, where injuries have been damaging — star safety Troy Polamalu won't play Sunday night.

"It comes down to playmaking," coach Mike Tomlin said, "and we haven't made enough significant plays."

When they head to Cincinnati (3-3), the Steelers will find an AFC North rival that is reeling. The Bengals flopped against Miami at home, then in Cleveland, handing the Browns their first win. Their big-play defence has yet to materialize.

"It's not time to jump ship," offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "We're 3-3 just like everybody else in our conference. At the end of the day, it's not about wins and losses, it's about who makes the playoffs.

"Our goals are all still right there in front of us. Somebody that's 3-3 has to go win some games and get in the playoffs. Why not be us?"

Tennessee (2-4) at Buffalo (3-3)

Yet two more teams that had high expectations for this season, the Titans hoping to build off their surprising 9-7 record of 2011, the Bills believing their retooled roster was ready to carry them back to the playoffs for the first time since Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith, Marv Levy — well, not quite that long ago, but you get the picture.

Tennessee hasn't played since rallying to upset Pittsburgh in a Thursday night game, and will go with Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback with Jake Locker still sidelined by his dislocated left shoulder. Hasselbeck has been sacked eight times, and Buffalo finally discovered a pass rush in its overtime win at Arizona, knocking down Cardinals QBs five times.

The Bills lost consecutive games by a combined 97-31 before beating the Cards. Coach Chan Gailey doesn't believe there's an ounce of satisfaction after that win.

"I have not sensed anything different and, to be honest with you, I do not want to," he said. "I still want them to be hungry. I still want them to be mad. We need to have the mindset that we have to go out and have something to prove every week. Just because you won one ballgame and got back to .500, that is nothing. We are nowhere right now."

Arizona (4-2) at Minnesota (4-2)

The banged-up Cardinals go back to John Skelton at quarterback after Kevin Kolb hurt his ribs. Arizona has lost two straight as its offence stagnated: After scoring 91 points in its four victories, Arizona has 19 in its successive defeats.

Minnesota might not be the best place to get things straight. The Vikings, one of the most pleasant surprises in the league, seem to be getting their pass rush on track and Arizona has yielded 28 sacks, 22 in the last three games.

"They've struggled a little bit up front," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "They'll have a different quarterback this week so that's going to change things a little bit. We'll have to study John and get a better feel for him, but whether that improves the offensive line or not, we'll find out. We really have to do a good job up front on our end."

Minnesota has done a very good job at home, going 3-0.

New York Jets (3-3) at New England (3-3)

One of football's most bitter rivalries, and with the Jets coming off a lopsided victory and the Patriots blowing a lead in Seattle to lose, New York has taken the offensive — verbally.

Hard to imagine with coach Rex Ryan, isn't it?

"I want them to know, and they know, that I think we're going to beat them," Ryan said. "I don't buy into all that other stuff. Look, I recognize they're a great football team and (Bill) Belichick's a great coach. I've never once said he wasn't, OK, but we're not going to back down or concede anything. They're going to get our best shot. We know we're going to get theirs. It doesn't matter who says what, because we're going to be ourselves. We're coming up there to take our swing. We'll see if we land that punch to win the game."

Although the Jets have tried to emphasize a "Ground and Pound" running game, it's the Patriots who have been more successful. New England is averaging 4.2 yards a carry and has 10 touchdowns rushing. New York is at 3.8 with four TDs, all by Shonn Greene, who ran for a career-high 161 yards and three touchdowns against Indianapolis.

Washington (3-3) at N.Y. Giants (4-2)

Washington went 2-4 in the NFC East a year ago. Both wins came against the Giants, who merely went on to win it all.

These Redskins, sparked by the versatility and excitement Robert Griffin III brought to the nation's capital, are a better team than the 2011 version. Griffin isn't the only difference — the defence is eighth against the run and the team is plus-9 in turnover margin — but he is the main reason the Giants must be very careful.

Griffin is liable to do anything, such as run 76 yards for a touchdown, outsprinting Minnesota's defensive backs to the end zone last Sunday.

"You get a quarterback like Robert, you see what he's comfortable with," coach Mike Shanahan said. "And you try to run your offence accordingly. But it's a learning experience. We're going to grow with this every week. ... It's kind of fun to tinker around with a number of things — some things you haven't done before."

This is the first division game for Washington; New York is 0-2 in the NFC East.

Detroit (2-3) at Chicago (4-1), Monday night

The Lions might have saved their season with a big rally to win at Philadelphia last week. They might need something similar against a better team at Soldier Field.

Detroit ranks second in yards on offence and Chicago is third in overall defence. If the Lions commit 16 penalties, an NFL high this season, the way they did against the Eagles, the Bears won't let them hang around.

Chicago was off last week, meaning its peaking defence is locked and loaded.

Several skirmishes broke out the last time these NFC North rivals met, a 37-13 home romp for the Bears.

Green Bay (3-3) at St. Louis (3-3)

This is a solid test to see if the Packers righted themselves with last Sunday night's victory at Houston. St. Louis is 3-0 at home, with victories over some good teams: Washington, Arizona and Seattle.

"It's just playing good football," Packers offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga said. "If we play the way we know we can play, which Sunday was a good picture of that, we can stack these successes. Yeah, we had a good game. But that game's over. Now it's time to go out this Sunday and do it again. It's going to be important to do that, and it's going to be a challenge."

St. Louis outplayed Miami on the road last weekend and still fell 17-14.

New Orleans (1-4) at Tampa Bay (2-3)

So let's see if not losing in two weeks — a comeback win over San Diego followed by a bye — has gotten the Saints back on track. There's still a ton of noise surrounding them with the bounties scandal, of course, and one of Tampa Bay's four victories last season came against the Saints. In fact, the Bucs then lost their next 10.

New Orleans seemed headed for that type of season; some of its early-season performances sickened Drew Brees.

"If I wanted to throw up, I would have," the record-setting quarterback said. "We put those to bed a long time ago. What we've seen is we've gotten better here. We've improved. We still have a long way to go, but it gets you excited about the possibilities and the potential of this offence and this team."

Cleveland (1-5) at Indianapolis (2-3)

New owner Jimmy Haslam hopes the Browns can build on last Sunday's victory over Cincinnati, when, he says, they played their best football of the season in the fourth quarter. But the Browns haven't won two straight in this series since 1988.

As can be expected from a young, rebuilding team, the Colts have been inconsistent. They followed their rousing rally to beat Green Bay with a dud in the Meadowlands against the Jets.

Most intriguing matchup here should be Colts veteran receiver Reggie Wayne, who has been sensational lately, against Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden.

Jacksonville (1-4) at Oakland (1-4)

The Raiders played their best game of the season in nearly handing Atlanta its first loss. Nearly: Oakland fell apart late and was beaten by Matt Bryant's 55-yard field goal.

Darren McFadden had a career-high 209 yards from scrimmage with three TDs in the last meeting with the Jaguars, who are far less formidable than the Falcons.

But Jacksonville comes off a bye and has won the last four against the Raiders. That shouldn't make the Jaguars feel comfortable, though — they've been outscored 99-16 in their last three trips to the West Coast.

Note: Off this week are Atlanta (6-0), the league's only unbeaten team; Denver (3-3); Kansas City (1-5); Miami (3-3); Philadelphia (3-3); and San Diego (3-3)

With reports from The Associated Press

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