OWINGS MILLS – A stalemate could be in the offing when two of the top running games and elite rushing defenses collide Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
If running backs Ray Rice and Arian Foster and linebackers Ray Lewis and Brian Cushing counteract each other during the Baltimore Ravens’ AFC divisional playoff game against the Houston Texans, this clash could come down to the quarterbacks.
And that’s where Baltimore definitely holds an advantage with veteran quarterback Joe Flacco over Texans rookie quarterback T.J. Yates, according to former Ravens and Texans wide receiver Derrick Mason. Mason has a unique perspective on the AFC North and AFC South champions having played for Baltimore for six years until being cut in July and for the Texans before being released in December.
“Both teams are very good defensively, both teams run the ball very effectively and both will need to throw the ball effectively,” Mason told 24×7 in a telephone interview. “Baltimore has an edge on that one because Joe has more experience than T.J. With Andre Johnson being back, that’s a plus for the Texans. I think it will be a good contest. A lot of people might be overlooking the Texans because this is their first time in the playoffs and they don’t have a lot of big games other than Arian. I think people will be surprised by how well they play and match up.”
A fifth-round draft pick from North Carolina who began the season as a the third-string quarterback before season-ending injuries to starter Matt Schaub and backup Matt Leinart, Yates is coming off one of his best performances.
He completed 11 of 20 passes for 159 yards and a touchdown pass to Johnson, who was sidelined with a hamstring injury during the Ravens’ 29-14 victory on Oct. 16.
In six regular-season starts, Yates completed 82 of 134 passes for 949 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions.
“T.J. is very poised and calm and tough,” Mason said. “He played a lot better this last game. I think it was his best game of the season. He looks like he’s rejuvenated for the playoffs and ready to go.”
Flacco has won four of seven career playoff games, passing for 3,629 yards this season for 20 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and an 80.9 quarterback rating.
He’s the first starting quarterback in NFL history to make the playoffs in each of his first four seasons and became the third quarterback ever to start a playoff game in each of his first three seasons, joining Dan Marino and Bernie Kosar.
He’s 44-20 all-time, never missing a start.
“I think he’s done a good job at really not regressing this year,” said Mason, who was one of Flacco’s favorite targets along with tight end Todd Heap before both were jettisoned from the roster in July. “He’s had some success in the prior three years, but he didn’t allow himself to get satisfied. He wants to get better. He got better this year.”
And Flacco’s trademark stoic personality hasn’t changed, only displaying emotion or revealing his sense of humor on rare occasions.
“You can see his maturity,” Mason said. “Joe don’t get too high or too low. He doesn’t get too excited. He might fist-pump here and there, but he won’t let himself get out of control. Joe is Joe.
“He reminds me so much of Eli Manning. He doesn’t get excited unless he throws a touchdown pass, for the most part. He just goes out there and does his best.”
Mason has witnessed a lot of growth from Ravens rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith since he worked with him at an informal players-only practice at Towson University during the NFL lockout.
Smith has gained confidence in his hands, catching 50 passes for 841 yards and seven touchdowns to break the Ravens’ rookie scoring record.
“I’ve seen a guy that got better as the season went on,” Mason said. “As he started to get more comfortable, he started to get a lot better. You could see he started to become the X-factor in the passing game. Everybody understands that Anquan Boldin will get his and work the middle of the field, but Torrey became important.
“He opens up the game. All he needed was confidence. He had a couple of games where he might have dropped some balls. For the most part, he played well. He played up to expectations. When they drafted him, they expected him to come in and maybe not be the starter, but contribute right away. Ultimately, he was the starter and a good one.”
Mason is extremely impressed with the Texans’ third-ranked defense and how they turned it around under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips despite outside linebacker Mario Williams being lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle.
The Texans climbed from 30th in the league a year ago to second in the NFL in total defense this season, building around linebacker Brian Cushing, cornerback Johnathan Joseph, defensive ends J.J. Watt and Connor Barwin and safety Danieal Manning.
“Look at them on defense,” Mason said. “This team has stayed the course. They stayed good even when the team got tired mentally and physically. The defense has consistently been the best in the NFL, no glaring flaws.
“This team really can’t be overlooked. I know Baltimore isn’t overlooking them. A lot of people outside of Houston might be, maybe even some of the Baltimore fans because Baltimore has been a dominant team for so long. This Texans team, though, they play as a unit.”
Mason, 37, knows what it’s like to be an older player and be questioned about whether his longevity is an asset or a detriment.
The two-time Pro Bowl selection was surprised to be cut by Baltimore then discarded by the New York Jets and traded to the Texans before being released again, eventually deciding to retire.
Now, Lewis, 36, and free safety Ed Reed, 33, are drawing criticism for their recent play.
Lewis hasn’t been as active in pass coverage since missing four games with a right turf toe injury earlier this season and his tackles haven’t been quite as emphatic as the past.
Reed has had trouble tackling primarily due to a shoulder injury and a nerve impingement in his neck.
Mason expects both Lewis and Reed to get the job done in the postseason one more time.
“There’s always going to be critics,” Mason said. “As you get older, it takes your body a lot longer to come back around. With those two guys once the playoffs start, it’s a different world. You can see during the season they weren’t close to 100 percent. You can see it. I saw it. Watching Ed, I saw it mainly in his tackling and ability moving around the field. I’ve talked to Ed and he’s expressed to me some of the things that are bothering him.
“You can see why it wasn’t Ed Reed intercepting the ball. He’s been injured. He’s a warrior. He’s going to fight through it. I would rather have Ed at 75 percent or 80 percent than someone else at 100 percent.”
Reed still intercepted three passes to finish second on the team behind cornerback Lardarius Webb.
And Lewis led the Ravens with 95 tackles.
“I would rather have Ray out there than not out there,” Mason said “Once the playoffs start, you play through all those nicks and bruises. Ed and Ray had an opportunity to rest and those two guys will be ready. They will be amped up for a playoff game.”
Mason declined to make a prediction on the final outcome.
“I’ve got a lot of friends on both sides and in both cities,” Mason said. “I predict it will be a good football game.”