AFC divisional preview: Lamar Jackson, Ravens open playoff campaign against surging C.J. Stroud, Texans

Lamar Jackson gets his first test of these playoffs on Saturday

The Baltimore Ravens left little doubt that they were the NFL's top team in the regular season, but the playoffs are always a different animal, especially when you're facing the most promising rookie quarterback in recent memory.

The top-seeded Ravens will open their playoff campaign against the Houston Texans on Saturday in Baltimore after enjoying a bye week. It will be a matchup between the likely NFL MVP in Lamar Jackson and the likely NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in C.J. Stroud.

Stroud, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, is coming off a pair of breakout games that have the future looking mighty bright in Houston. The Texans defeated the Indianapolis Colts in a de facto division championship in Week 18, then blew out the Cleveland Browns in the wild-card round.

Texans (10-7) at Ravens (13-4)

Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN

Betting line: Ravens -9.5, total of 43.5

Super Bowl odds: Ravens +275, Texans +3000

Odds via BetMGM

Why we're watching

Hmm, let's see.

Lamar Jackson, one the most electrifying players in NFL history, finally has an offensive unit that matches his prodigious skills after years of injuries and a frankly limited offense before the hire of coordinator Todd Monken. The Ravens have combined that with a defense that led the NFL in points allowed (16.5 per game), sacks (60) and takeaways (31), the first defense to do so in league history.

That team spent the regular season ripping other good teams apart. In games against playoff teams, the Ravens went 7-2 with a combined score of 268-154. Their only losses came in close divisional games, one of which was without Jackson.

The Texans lost to the Ravens in C.J. Stroud's debut in Week 1. The team has come a long way since then. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
The Texans lost to the Ravens in C.J. Stroud's debut in Week 1. The team has come a long way since then. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

That sure sounds like a juggernaut, but the Texans probably don't care. They are playing with house money at this point, with a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback leading them to the divisional round way ahead of schedule. Stroud has all the makings of a future superstar, and just last week against the Browns, he dominated another elite defense with 274 yards and three touchdowns on 16-of-21 passing.

The Ravens are favored by more than a touchdown, but these are the kinds of matchups you want to see in the playoffs — two quarterbacks who have exceeded expectations since hearing their names called on draft night, both with so much still to prove.

Wild card of this divisional game

The battle of the game might come down to two of this year's biggest breakout players: Texans wide receiver Nico Collins and Ravens cornerback Brandon Stephens. Both were mid-round picks in the 2021 NFL Draft who have flourished in new roles this season.

Collins has already made very clear what he is, with 291 receiving yards in his past two games, both must-wins. And with the Ravens' other top corner, Marlon Humphrey, still missing practice due to a calf injury, it will fall to Stephens to dull the sharpest point of a dangerous Texans offense.

Person we'll likely praise after the victory

The winning quarterback. Sometimes it's just that easy.

A Ravens win means Jackson's most promising bid for a Super Bowl is off to a quality start, with several more plays added to his highlight reel. You can quibble over whether or not it was his fault, but Jackson simply hasn't seen the success in the postseason that he has in the regular season, and a comfortable victory Saturday would show that the Ravens are right on schedule.

On the other hand, imagine if Stroud rolls into the house of the NFL's top team, which beat the Texans 25-9 in Week 1, and walks out with a win. No matter what happens after, he would be considered a top-five quarterback going into next season.

Person we'll likely second-guess after the defeat

The Texans really weren't supposed to be here, so most criticism would be overtaken by praise for their getting this far. That said, the Texans' offensive line allowed 47 sacks this season, including five against the Ravens in Week 1. The Texans didn't allow a sack against a talented Browns front last week, but the Ravens are a different challenge and could expose an offseason need in Houston.

As for the Ravens, again, it's Jackson. If you want to be an elite quarterback, you have to show up in the postseason, and a loss here would give Jackson a 1-4 career record in the playoffs despite twice being the No. 1 seed.