At this point, there's no doubt about who the class of the AFC is.
It's the Ravens and Texans sitting atop the conference, tied at 5-1, with at least a two-game lead on everybody else.
On Monday, there will be one clear leader.
It's only Week 7, but Sunday's game in Houston could end up having big playoff implications down the road. It will at least determine who gains pole position.
"It's a good test, and it will be a great game," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "There's a lot of pride that goes into it."
The Texans are a burgeoning AFC power. They started the season with five straight wins and were atop the conference until an ugly 42-24 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football.
Houston has a very balanced and dangerous team. Running back Arian Foster (561 rushing yards) leads the league's sixth-best rushing attack and defensive end J.J. Watt (9.5 sacks) may be the leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.
"We have a job to do, probably against the AFC juggernaut," said Ravens reigning Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs. "This is a great team, and we all know that. That's why this Texans-Ravens [matchup] is becoming kind of a rivalry."
The Texans have never beaten the Ravens in five meetings, including twice last year. Baltimore took down Houston twice at home, including in the divisional playoffs.
"I know deep down in their mind, they're trying to get revenge," safety Ed Dickson said.
"It's up to us to keep the lead in the division. We're moving toward our goal, and that's to get home field-advantage through the playoffs and go to the Super Bowl."
The Texans stand in the way.
3 Matchups To Watch
WR Anquan Boldin vs. CB Johnathan Joseph
Boldin had a couple huge days against Joseph in their meetings last year. The Ravens veteran posted eight catches for 132 yards in their regular-season meeting. He had four snags for 73 yards and a touchdown in the divisional playoffs. Joseph is dealing with a sore groin.
C Chris Myers vs. DT Ma'ake Kemoeatu
If the Ravens are going to slow down the Texans running game, they have to do it up front. It's been an issue in Baltimore's problems on defense. Houston uses a stretch zone running style and Kemoeatu will look to seal off any cutback lanes. He'll have to do it working against Myers, a 2011 Pro Bowler.
QB Joe Flacco vs. DE J.J. Watt
Usually a quarterback is thinking more about members of the secondary than a defensive end. That's for the linemen to figure out. But with Watt, quarterbacks have to be very careful with routine dump-offs. Watt has an uncanny ability to pick off passes that should be over his head. The converted tight end has great hands for a pass rusher.
3 Questions To Answer
Can the Ravens offense produce on the road?
Baltimore's offense has run smoothly, except for when it's away from the comforts of M&T Bank Stadium. The Ravens struggled in the second half in Philadelphia, then failed to score a touchdown in Kansas City. Overcoming crowd noise is one part of the equation, but it's more about getting into a rhythm early. Baltimore scored 34 points in its last trip to Houston in 2010.
How do the replacements fare?
Dannell Ellerbe will become the starting WILL linebacker and Jameel McClain moves into Ray Lewis' MIKE linebacker spot. Cornerback Jimmy Smith will start in place of Lardarius Webb. How the entire group responds to being in the spotlight with the Ravens' defensive stars out will be closely watched.
Will the defense rebound?
The Ravens have grown increasingly bothered by their defensive performance, from coaches to players. That's what allowing back-to-back, 200-yard rushing performances, and tackling issues, will do. Baltimore's pride is hurt, and the defensive unit could make a big statement by cracking down on the talented Texans offense.
Total Offense – 385.0 (8)
Rush Offense – 112.3 (14)
Pass Offense – 272.7 (11)
Points Per Game – 26.8 (9)
Total Defense – 396.7 (26)
Rush Defense – 136.5 (26)
Pass Defense – 260.2 (22)
Points Per Game – 19.7 (11)
Total Offense – 363.3 (14)
Rush Offense – 134.2 (6)
Pass Offense – 229.2 (18t)
Points Per Game – 28.8 (5)
Total Defense – 300.8 (6)
Rush Defense – 87.7 (7)
Pass Defense – 213.2 (7)
Points Per Game – 19.2 (8)