BALTIMORE (AP) — When Lamar Jackson and C.J. Stroud faced off in Week 1 back in September, it was not a good representation of how those two would play this season.
Jackson threw an early interception. Each quarterback lost a fumble. Stroud was sacked five times and Jackson four.
“I haven’t lost a lot of games in my career, so that definitely wasn’t fun,” said Stroud, who made his NFL debut that day. “I was really upset about a lot of different things.”
Since then, Stroud has become the undisputed star of the current class of rookie quarterbacks. He's led the Houston Texans to a division title and a playoff win. Their next challenge is a matchup at Baltimore on Saturday. Jackson shook off his own pedestrian start to the season, leading the Ravens to the best record in the league and emerging as a favorite to win his second MVP.
The winner this weekend advances to the AFC championship game, which would be a milestone of sorts for whoever advances. Baltimore (13-4) and Houston (11-7) are the two youngest franchises in the league, although their cities had other teams previously. The Ravens have won two Super Bowls, but Baltimore hasn't hosted an AFC title game since January of 1971, when the Colts beat the Oakland Raiders.
The Texans have never made it that far. They are 0-4 in the divisional round, including a loss to Baltimore in January of 2012. The Houston Oilers played in the AFC championship game, but their last appearance was 44 years ago.
When the Ravens beat the Texans 25-9 in Week 1, the biggest story was a season-ending Achilles tendon injury to Baltimore running back J.K. Dobbins. Jackson threw for 169 yards and ran for 38. Stroud passed for 242 yards.
It was the first game for Stroud and new Houston coach DeMeco Ryans — as well as Todd Monken, Baltimore's new offensive coordinator. All three had bigger and better things in their future.
“We have changed a lot as well,” Jackson said. "Just getting better and better, with our scheme and just being one unit. We added a bunch of new pieces as well on offense. We are definitely getting in synch now.”
The Ravens will be without cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who has been ruled out because of a calf injury. Tight end Mark Andrews is questionable. He hasn't played since injuring an ankle in November.
Houston defensive end Jerry Hughes (ankle) is out.
This is the second time Baltimore has earned the No. 1 seed in the AFC, but when the Ravens did it four years ago, they lost their playoff opener at home to Tennessee.
Jackson threw for 365 yards and ran for 143 in that game, but he also turned the ball over three times.
TAKING IT AWAY
The Texans were tied for fifth in the NFL in the regular season with a plus-10 turnover differential and continued that success in the wild-card game against Cleveland when they returned two interceptions for touchdowns and didn’t have any giveaways.
Ryans constantly preaches the importance of winning the turnover battle and knows Houston will have to do it again this week to be successful. Baltimore was tied for first in turnover margin this season at plus-12.
“That’s one of the biggest indicators and predictors in wins and losses in the entire NFL,” Ryans said. “No matter when you play, regular season or postseason, the most important thing is taking care of the football and trying to take the ball away."
Running back Dalvin Cook is expected to make his Ravens debut Saturday after being signed to the team's 53-man roster. Cook rushed for 1,173 yards with Minnesota last season but did not do much in 15 games with the New York Jets this season.
Baltimore signed him to the practice squad before its regular-season finale earlier this month.
“We’ve seen him in practice,” coach John Harbaugh said. "He looks good, and he’s going to be out there like everybody else trying to do whatever he can do to help us win the game.”
After Dobbins went down, rookie Keaton Mitchell emerged as a speedy big-play threat out of the backfield, but then he was lost to a serious injury of his own.
Houston receiver John Metchie III had a career-high 44 yards receiving in the win over Cleveland last week. While that type of performance might not be a big deal for some players, it was a huge milestone for Metchie after what he’s been through in the last couple of years.
Metchie was drafted in the second round in 2022 but missed his entire rookie season after being diagnosed with leukemia before training camp. He returned after completing treatment and has slowly progressed throughout this season.
He could be more of a factor in Saturday’s game after receiver Noah Brown was placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury this week.
“He put a lot of time in to make sure he got to where he is now, and that’s not easy,” offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik said. “It’s constant how he’s trying to work, how he’s trying to grow, and it was really awesome to see that bear some fruit there in the game on Saturday. ... What he has done for this team, I think a lot of people have noticed, it’s really been an inspiration to all of us.”
AP Sports Writer Kristie Rieken contributed to this report.
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