*Here are Five Things to Watch when the Texans (5-5) host the Bengals (6-3-1) on Sunday at NRG Stadium.
1. Mallett's progress: The first start of Ryan Mallett's NFL career was a success. The Texans won. Mallett moved the offense along at a brisk clip. The run game chewed up 200-plus yards, and Mallett threw for more than 200 yards as well.
But the Bengals come to town and present a new challenge for Mallett and Houston.
"I think their secondary as a unit is probably as talented of a secondary that we've played," head coach Bill O'Brien said.
The Bengals' defense ranks fourth in the NFL in lowest aggregate passer rating by opponents. Quarterbacks they've faced have tossed 11 touchdowns, and the Bengals have picked off 10 passes.
"They've got a good front seven and they're experienced in the back-half of their defense," Mallett said. "Their DBs are playing well. They can stop the run. So we really are going have to be ready to go. We're going to do our film study and be prepared for what they're going to give us."
The way the Texans attack the Cinncinnati defense won't likely look similar to what they did last week in Cleveland.
"We have a totally different game plan," O'Brien said. "Some of the things will be the same. We have some things that are what we call bread and butter type plays that we'll always have in every game. But from week to week, especially like from Cleveland to Cincinnati, you're talking about two totally different teams, so the game plan will be a lot different."
2. Blue, part deux: Alfred Blue's first 100-yard game was a doozy: he rumbled 36 times for 156 yards last week in the win over the Browns. He set a franchise record for carries, and tied the rookie record for yards in a game. Arian Foster was unable to play last week because of a groin injury, and there's a good chance of that being the case on Sunday. So Blue will likely start again. And that's fine with the rookie from LSU.
"I understand my role is backing up Arian Foster," Blue said. "Whether I get five carries this week or no carries, my role is to back him up and whenever he needs a breather, I go in and do my job to the best of my abilities. I just understand my role on the team."
Opponents have been able to run on the Bengals, as Cincinnati is allowing 136.2 yards per game. Only four teams in the NFL allow more per contest. The Texans are third-best in the NFL with 144.6 rushing yards a game. Blue's ability is evident to his teammates. Even the ones on defense.
"A guy like Alfred can come in and we're going to have to expect a lot of big things regardless of his age or playing experience," linebacker Brian Cushing said. "He was drafted here to be a good football player and he did a great job the other day."
3. Defensive playmaking: The Texans defense made a slew of plays in the win over the Browns.
They two fumbles, picked off a Brian Hoyer pass, sacked Hoyer twice and had eight tackles for a loss. Interestingly enough, the greatest play in franchise history was a defensive one. Against the Bengals, no less. J.J. Watt's interception and return for a touchdown in the Divisional Round of the 2011 playoffs turned the tide in Houston's favor in that game. It was the first thing the defensive end was asked about this week during his press conference.
"Unbelievable, that was one of the best moments of my whole life and it was pretty cool to feel the energy of the city and the stadium, and also just to be a part of this franchise's history," Watt said. "I think that was really cool."
It was indeed cool for Watt, the Texans and their fans, but the two teams lining up Sunday are different than three seasons ago.
The Texans are best in the NFL with 23 takeaways. 11 of those interceptions or fumble recoveries have happened in their own red zone with opposing teams in position to score.
4. Cover up: The Bengals, and specifically Adam Jones, have been excellent on kickoff and punt
returns in 2014. He leads the NFL with 32.6 yards per kickoff return, and he's second in the NFL with 14.4 yards per punt return.
"This guy can really return kicks, ever since he's been in the league," O'Brien said. "I can remember when I was in college coaching against him at West Virginia, he's a dynamic player. He's got explosive speed. He's just got great instincts for a returner and it's a great challenge for our kickoff coverage team and our punt team."
Jones had a 97-yard kickoff return in early October against the Panthers, and last week he had a 43-yarder. He's taken a trio of punts for more than 30 yards this season as well.
5. Air Tight: The tight ends had largely gone without much action, and they were targeted just three times last weekend byl Mallett. But all three of those catches were important gains, as one was a 2-yard touchdown pass to Watt, another was a 14-yarder to Garrett Graham, and a third was a 20-yard pass that Graham powered in for a score.
Ultimately though, Mallett said who catches the ball is less important than the act itself.
"We just have to get the ball to the open receiver," Mallett said. "Whatever the coverage dictates where I can throw the ball, then that's what we have to do. Depend on whoever it is. We've got a lot of guys that can catch the ball and make plays. We just have to get it to the right one on the particular play."