When we sketched out the Texans’ season, predicting their best scenarios, we never subtracted stars.
The equation allowed for injuries, of course, but no one forecasts a team losing its top defensive player and its starting quarterback.
With losses like that, with Mario Williams watching and Matt Schaub cheering, the Texans still won the wide-open AFC South. They still earned a home playoff game. They still beat Cincinnati to advance to Sunday’s divisional-round matchup in Baltimore.
The Ravens haven’t been beaten at M&T Bank Stadium, and they worked this season to ensure they’d play at least one postseason game there. John Harbaugh’s Ravens have been a constant playoff presence with a 4-3 record in three seasons. But this will be their first home playoff game since Jan. 13, 2007, when they lost a 15-6 divisional-round playoff game to Indianapolis.
So it’s a huge opportunity for both teams, 60 minutes from the AFC Championship Game.
But the expectations couldn't be more different.
If the Texans win Sunday, they will be Cinderella, a team run by a third-string rookie quarterback making an improbable charge. Cue “Against All Odds” and ramp up the team-of-destiny talk.
If the Texans lose it, it’ll sting for sure, but the season assessment should be unanimous: It was a success, and it laid groundwork that the franchise should be able to build on for the next several years.
If the Ravens win it, well, they were supposed to. If they lose it, it’ll be a catastrophe.
Among all the clichéd sayings that fly around NFL locker rooms, I’ve always kind of liked “Pressure bursts pipes.”
I don’t think the Ravens are heading into the game feeling worried. But if the Texans hang around or jump to a lead, the pressure at play could come to the surface and be a factor. The loose Texans aren’t thinking they’ve got nothing at stake, but on some level they know that the tension level should be higher on the other sideline.
“We have nothing to lose, according to people,” Texans receiver Kevin Walter said. “We’re going to go out there. We’re going to play sound football. We’re going to play good football and play with energy. That’s what we need to do.”
Over the past few years and heading into this season, I’ve been critical of Houston coach Gary Kubiak and his team for being too low-key, too aw-shucks. I thought adding Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator would add another heavy dose of that.
But the team personality has hardly been an issue. It’s been a resilient bunch, able to rally in all sorts of different, difficult circumstances. That low-key personality comes with a certain looseness, which can be an enjoyable quality and a beneficial one.
“I’ve talked to several guys who have come from other organizations that say that Coach Kubiak is probably the coolest coach in the league,” safety Glover Quin said. “And they say, 'Do whatever you have to do to stay here, whatever you got to do, take pay cuts, whatever, stay here.' He’s a good guy. Like I said, he’ll walk past you and speak. Some coaches probably don’t even walk past the guys and speak to them. Every time he sees you he’ll speak, and he’s always an even-keeled guy, and he expects a lot out of us. And the way he treats us, we have to go out and play hard for him.”
If the Texans' season ends Sunday, it won’t be because they have too many mellow guys playing for a mellow coach. It will be because they’ve met their match.
And although T.J. Yates is a concern against a defense as good as Baltimore’s, Joe Flacco isn't a guaranteed good performer in a big setting. In seven playoff games, he’s hit on only 53.3 percent of his passes, he’s thrown four touchdowns and seven picks, and he's had a 61.6 passer rating.
The Texans used their formula to perfection in the wild-card round, and it can work in Baltimore. Play great defense with consistent pressure on the quarterback, prompting mistakes while running the ball effectively and minimizing how much falls on Yates.
“I love being the underdog,” Walter said. “That’s what it’s about. People aren’t going to give us a chance this week. People didn’t give us a chance last week. I’ve been an underdog my whole life, and people say I can’t do this, can’t do that. That just motivates me.
“I know it motivates those guys in that locker room, and we’re looking forward to going to Baltimore and playing well.”
If they don’t, it won’t be long before the end is brushed aside in favor of a broader look at a successful season. If they do and it gets them to a title game against New England or Denver, we’ll reassess expectations.