By Nick Shook
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1. Welcome to football purgatory. This is what happens when we get two middling teams in prime time. Houston, at 4-7 and falling quickly (last week’s win over Arizona aside) after the loss of wunderkind quarterback Deshaun Watson, hit Baltimore fairly desperate to avoid the seventh loss, which would be damning in this year’s NFC, but wouldn’t entirely sink the Texans‘ playoff hopes. They didn’t get what they came for.
Baltimore, meanwhile, was just as desperate (and despite the win, continues to be desperate) as Houston. Sitting at 6-5, the Ravens don’t have much of a chance to win their division, not with Pittsburgh at 9-2 and showing no signs of slowing. But with this muddled mess that is the American Football Conference in the year 2017, Baltimore just needs to pile up some wins, because that wild-card spot is wide open. They did that on Monday night, even if it wasn’t pretty and required enough Tom Savage mistakes to make coach Bill O’Brien tremble with actual frustration on the sideline. (He looked like cartoon steam might shoot out of his ears.) Right now, winning was all the Ravens needed to do.
2. Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden raved about the potential of Baltimore as the teams converged at midfield. He called them “formidable” and “dangerous,” and warned that Flacco could get hot, which, based on their run to Super Bowl XLVIII, is true. But right now, Flacco doesn’t look anything like that quarterback.
Perhaps Baltimore saw something on tape that led them to believe Houston was going to be quite weak in the back end. The Ravens do have two burners in Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman, so that would play to their strengths. But my goodness, did Flacco appear to have a pent-up desire to let it fly Monday night. On multiple throws, the quarterback was ripping deep shots that were five or more yards beyond his intended receiver. Flacco looked like someone spent the pregame whispering in his ear about how “they” don’t think his arm is strong enough.
All in all, though, Flacco did his job. He finished 20 of 32 for 141 yards. He connected with nine different targets. He didn’t do anything extraordinary, though — punter Sam Koch had arguably the best throw of the night on a successful fake punt — which is pretty much what Baltimore’s offense has been all season. We’re again unimpressed by it (and its 3-for-14 mark on third down), but they also have another win about which to smile, which, in this league, is forever difficult to discredit.
3. These Ravens win with defense and will need to ride that defense more and more over the final five weeks if they want to make the postseason. Luckily, they have a pretty good group.
“This team was built on defense,” said Terrell Suggs, who had two sacks and a forced fumble in the win. … “We’re a dangerous November and December team, especially when we’re healthy.”
He’s right. They’re second in the league against the pass and seventh in total defense. They’ve allowed 26 or more points just three times this season. Suggs is still a menace off the edge, and younger impact players like Matt Judon, C.J. Mosley and Jimmy Smithare having solid years. Tony Jeffersonrecorded his first interception as a Raven. But they need to clean up the penalties. Six of Baltimore’s seven penalties were on the defense, and Houston gained five first downs via penalty. Of the 90 yards covered on Houston’s opening touchdown drive, 39 were gained via penalty — that has to be better against better teams.
4. Without Watson, DeAndre Hopkins is truthfully the lone shining star on Houston’s injury-ravaged offense, and judging by his 10 targets, Tom Savage knows it. Unfortunately, Hopkins can’t throw the ball to himself, but he can do his best to draw pass interference penalties against defenders when Savage lobs it up to him. He did that in crucial situations at least a couple times on Monday, and finished with seven catches for 125 yards. He did his part, but the next closest in receiving was Braxton Miller (five catches, 43 yards), who had just seven receptions entering the game. Houston is hurting in terms of weapons, and Savage’s play — 22-of-37 passing, 252 yards, two interceptions — isn’t helping.
5. It’s painful to imagine how different this game might have been had Watson not tore his ACL, had Will Fuller been available to play and had Houston not traded away veteran left tackle Duane Brown. The Texans were cut at the knees by injuries before Monday and tried their best to soldier through a close game and gut out a victory. That meant rolling with Savage, who is very average at his best and trusts his arm a little too much at his worst, as evidenced by his interception that he forced into a window that was shut before he released the ball. For as much as one might like to support his underdog story, he’s just not the guy. We know it. O’Brien knows it (he sure looked like he longed for Watson immediately after Savage’s final interception). Hopefully, Texans owner Bob McNair knows it, too, and gives this group a pass as it struggles through nights like this.
6. Despite his stat line, I tried to pump up Alex Collins a little bit last week on the Around The NFLPodcast. This week, the tape again proves supreme for Collins. The running back continues to run hard, bowling over defenders and constantly falling forward for extra yards — and almost recklessly — hitting the edge and sprinting toward the boundary while teetering on the edge of losing control of his own legs. His 60 yards and one touchdown on 16 carries don’t jump off the stat sheet, but for an offense that isn’t exactly potent, he’s just the type of wrecking-ball back Baltimore needs to maintain possession and grind out the clock in close games while relying on its defense to protect small leads. I’ll stand on this soap box as long as Baltimore keeps handing him the ball.