BALTIMORE (AP) — The Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans each have used a dual-threat quarterback and an opportunistic defense to become first-place teams in the AFC.
Now it’s time to find out who does it better.
The Ravens (7-2) have won five straight, their longest winning streak since 2006, and own a comfortable lead in the AFC North. Houston (6-3), which stands atop the AFC South, won four of five before a bye last week.
Sunday’s showdown could ultimately be a factor in postseason seeding.
“Both teams have done a great job this year, so I’m excited about it,” Baltimore safety Earl Thomas said. “There are playoff implications to this one, so we’re going to be all hands on deck.”
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson and Houston’s Deshaun Watson are two of the best in the NFL at running and throwing the football. Any defense that commits to stopping one of those options is almost sure to be victimized by the other.
Jackson has passed for 2,036 yards and 15 touchdowns. The 2016 Heisman Trophy winner leads Baltimore with 702 yards rushing and has run for six scores.
Watson has 2,432 yards passing with 18 touchdowns and has rambled for 279 yards and five TDs.
“I see similarities,” Thomas said. “They both use the option-type college football game, especially in (shot) gun. This team is going to be a great challenge for us.”
While both quarterbacks have been instrumental in their team’s success, Houston and Baltimore have also benefited from forcing their opponents into pivotal mistakes. The Texans lead the NFL with 13 forced fumbles and own a plus-3 turnover differential. Baltimore owns a plus-4 differential and has scored five touchdowns on interception or fumble returns.
“Any time you have a defense that’s doing that, you have a defense that’s playing with a lot of confidence and you have to do a great job of taking care of the football,” Houston coach Bill O’Brien said.
Stopping Jackson is of equal importance. Thus far, however, no one seems to have found a way to do it. To put his 702 yards rushing in perspective, it’s more than the collective total of four NFL teams and two yards fewer than Houston rushing leader Carlos Hyde.
Asked if his game has a little bit of Watson in it, Jackson replied: “No, I play Lamar Jackson ball. I don't play anybody-else ball.”
Houston receiver DeAndre Hopkins needs four receptions to become the second-youngest player to reach 600 career receptions behind Larry Fitzgerald.
“That's dope. That's cool,” Hopkins said. “Definitely going to keep that football, only if we win. Winning is really the most important thing to me, but to be up there with people like Larry Fitzgerald, that's not bad.”
Hopkins has eight or more receptions in each of the last four games and has at least five catches in 12 straight games dating back to last year. It's the second-longest streak in the NFL and ties his franchise record.
Hopkins has 28 career 100-yard receiving games and had seven receptions for 125 yards in Houston's last meeting with Baltimore in 2017.
Cornerback Marcus Peters has proven to be a welcome addition to the Ravens’ backfield since coming from the Rams in an Oct. 15 trade.
Peters took an interception 67 yards for a score in his debut against Seattle on Oct. 20 and went 89 yards with a pick last week in Cincinnati.
“The two interceptions for touchdowns are probably at the top of my list, but the rest of it, more than that, is he’s really accommodated himself to playing the style of defense that we want to play in the back end,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.
Watson has found a favorite touchdown target this season in 6-foot-7, 270-pound tight end Darren Fells.
Signed as a free agent in March, Fells leads the team with a career-high six touchdown receptions and needs one more to set a franchise single-season record for most TD receptions by a tight end.
Fells has three touchdown grabs in his last two games.
Jackson’s stellar play, an upset of previously unbeaten New England and a five-game winning streak has brought plenty of attention to the Ravens of late.
“Yes, it's fun,” tight end Mark Andrews said. “Anytime you have this type of buzz, it's a good thing. It's never fun when you're on a losing team, and no one wants to talk to you or hear anything about you.”
Grinning wryly, Harbaugh said, “We appreciate all the people that didn’t appreciate us before, acting like they appreciate us now.”
AP Sports Writer Kristie Rieken in Houston contributed to this report.