The Texans (0-2-1) host the Chargers (1-2) this Sunday at NRG Stadium. The two clubs squared off the day after last Christmas, and Houston won, 41-29. The Texans have won three of the last four meetings between the two franchises. Here are five things to watch when they kick off at noon CT.
1) 6's…. Not 3's in the 4th
The Texans entered the final quarter of last week's loss at Chicago tied up at 20-20, and they held fourth quarter leads in the two games before that. Still winless in 2022, Head Coach Lovie Smith and the Texans have repeatedly emphasized the need to finish better.
Wide Receiver Brandin Cooks maintains the offense must find the end zone instead of settling for field goals or punting.
"Not being able to finish mainly with touchdowns in the red zone versus field goals," Cooks said. "That's just the name of the game these past three weeks. In order to do that, we've got to just execute better at the end of the day."
The Texans haven't scored a fourth quarter touchdown this season, and the lone touchdown they scored in the second half of a game came in Week 1 when Davis Mills found tight end O.J. Howard for a third quarter scoring pass against the Colts.
"We've just got to come out and continue our efforts through the fourth quarter late in the game when it really matters and just execute at a high level and pull one out at the end," Mills said.
Smith boiled it down even further.
"As we watch the video and as we talk to the guys, (we say) 'this play right here could mean the difference in the game. One more, make this.' Guys understand that."
2) Be money, Mills
Mills this season has completed 57.9 percent of his passes for 662 yards, with three touchdowns and a pair of picks. He's been sacked a total in seven times in those three games, and all three of his scoring strikes have gone to a tight end.
After back-to-back road losses, he welcomes a return to NRG Stadium and remains positive about the future.
"We're trending in the right direction," Mills said. "It's going to be nice playing in front of our fans at home on Sunday, feed off the energy and go out and make some big plays for them, so that'll be fun."
Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton is also optimistic about Mills and the future. He believes the quarterback, who'll start his 15th NFL game on Sunday, will keep improving with experience.
"The more he plays, the more all of our young guys play, they'll have a reference point for how to handle different situations even better the next time that they have to function in that space," Hamilton said. "He's working at it just like all our guys and we've got to find a way to go out and beat the Chargers."
3) Dameon dynamite
Dameon Pierce has seen his carries and yards each week this season. The rookie running back went from 11 to 15 to 20 attempts, with the yardage jumping from 33 to 69 to 80.
"I'm just taking what the defense has given me," Pierce said. "Each week I'm getting better and better and just learning the flow of the game. I don't know how to explain it, but it's like a game within a game. I'm getting better at that. My eyes are getting better, my shoulders are getting better and my steps are getting better. Ultimately, that's going to lead to better cuts."
For Smith, he wants more out of the run game.
"I've seen signs of improvement each week," Smith said. "It's not where it needs to be. A lot of time with the running game too, you've got to have some explosive in there. Some explosive runs and then it looks a whole lot better. Eventually, we'll get that."
The Chargers defense is tied for the 11th-best mark in the NFL, allowing 102.7 rush yards per game by opponents.
4) Stuff it
On the flip side, the Texans run defense must get better. The Bears rumbled for 281 yards on 40 carries last week against Houston, averaging 7.0 yards per carry. Smith said the Texans have to tackle better.
"You have to wrap up," Smith said. "That's what we didn't do. Are there ways to improve it? Yeah, get in a little bit better positions and wrap up once you get to the point of attack."
The Chargers are second-best in the NFL with 297 passing yards per game, but average a league-worse 59 rushing yards per contest.
Starter Austin Ekeler has carried just 32 times for an average of 2.5 yards per this season, but he's also caught a combined 21 passes.
5) Banged up 'Bolts
The Chargers have been decimated by injuries. Pro Bowl defensive end Joey Bosa won't play on Sunday. Neither will Pro Bowl left tackle (and Clements High School product) Rashawn Slater. Quarterback Justin Herbert is playing with a serious ribs injury, and several other Chargers are questionable or have been ruled out for Week 4.
Regardless, the Texans aren't discounting Los Angeles. Neither are the Chargers.
"We're going to have to keep playing," Los Angeles Head Coach Brandon Staley said. "What you're trying to do is build a team that can absorb it. You have to be able to do that in the NFL because no team goes all the way through with their team intact. Every team is losing premium players. I know that the type of players that have been out of the lineup for us, so far, this season, that they're very high-profile profile players, but you've seen us play very well without them."