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Five things to watch for - Texans at Browns

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Dayne will start for the fifth time this season.

Here are five key players, matchups and things to watch for as the Texans travel to Cleveland Browns Stadium for a tough road test against the surprising Browns.

  1. In the hunt: The Texans are .500 deeper into a season than they ever have been in franchise history. Head coach Gary Kubiak said several weeks ago that his goal was to have his team play meaningful games in the final two months of the season, and that possibility is now a reality with the Texans facing the 6-4 Browns in a game with major AFC wild-card implications.

"That's why you bust your tail, to play in these big games," Kubiak said. "That's how players grow up. That's how coaches grow up. You get better when you can go out there and be at your best in those situations. We are going to have our chance in some tough environments and none tougher than this weekend, so we've got to just keep getting better."

The young Texans sound like a veteran playoff team when they talk about their record. Nobody is looking with wide eyes at the standings and playoff possibilities. Rather, the players know that any success starts with playing well as a unit and taking care of business in Cleveland.

"You have your bad times, and we've had our bad times around here, and now it's time for the good things to happen," wide receiver Andre Johnson said. "So we're just going to go out and hopefully keep playing good football like we have been the past two games, and with these last six games, we'll see what happens."

  1. The Andre effect: Houston is 3-0 with Johnson in the lineup this season. The Pro Bowler made an emphatic return from injury last week against the Saints, hauling in a 73-yard touchdown pass on his first reception since Week 2 and finishing with six catches for 120 yards.

He leads the NFL with a 19.1-yard average per catch, and his 127.3 yards per game receiving average is the best in the NFL this season - more than 20 yards per game higher than that of New England's Randy Moss, who is averaging 105.2 yards per game.

Johnson is now on pace to catch 60 passes for 1,146 yards and 12 touchdowns in nine games. Had he not injured his knee, Johnson would have been on pace for 105 catches, 2,037 yards and 21 touchdowns.

"He just brings a presence to our huddle and to our offense as a unit," quarterback Matt Schaub said. "It opens up our run game because they're taking, probably, another guy out of the box and having to help out at corner. It just changes the complexion of what we can do as well as it dictates the defense that they have to account for a playmaker of his caliber."

Schaub boasts a quarterback rating more than 100 in three games with Johnson, and he looks to continue that trend against the Browns, who have allowed 269.5 passing yards per game (31st in the NFL) and 23 passing touchdowns this season (32nd).

Browns starting rookie cornerback Eric Wright, who leads the team with 68 tackles, is out with a sprained right knee. He likely will be replaced by Devan Holly, who started 12 games and had five interceptions last season.

  1. Dayne to start again: Running back Ahman Green, who continues to battle a knee injury, will not play on Sunday. Ron Dayne, on the momentum of 211 rushing yards in the Texans' last two wins, will make his fifth start of the season against the NFL's 28th-rated run defense.

Reminiscent of his Heisman Trophy-winning days at Wisconsin, Dayne has been dragging tacklers downfield in recent outings and shown the ability to pound defenses late in games. He finished both the Oakland and New Orleans victories with 21 carries.

"The Dayne train is A-OK with me," guard Chester Pitts said. "So it's just whatever it takes to get him to the safety, get him to the secondary, that's what we have to find a way to do."

Kubiak has not decided who will suit up behind Dayne. Adimchinobi Echemandu and rookie Darius Walker, the fourth-leading rusher in Notre Dame history who was signed from the practice squad this week, are both under consideration. Kubiak said he may suit one or both of the backs.

"I wanted to kind of let them compete, Darius and Adimchinobi, throughout the week and watch them," Kubiak said. "I think they both looked good. We'll make a decision as coaches as we head to game time."

  1. A dose of Daniels: As has been the case all season, tight end Owen Daniels will be an integral part of any success the Texans have through the air versus the Browns.

Thirty of Daniels' 44 receptions this season have resulted in first downs. Last week, the second-year pro was named team offensive MVP for a gritty performance in which he broke his nose on the first drive of the game but came back to finish with five catches for 74 yards.

This week against the Browns, Daniels could set new single-season club records for receptions and receiving yards.

Daniels ranks fifth among NFL tight ends with 542 receiving yards, and his 44 receptions rank sixth. Those totals rank second on the team behind Kevin Walter.

Former Texan Billy Miller had 51 receptions for 613 yards in 2003, both club records. Daniels would eclipse those marks with seven more receptions and 74 yards.

  1. X-factors: Both teams feature outstanding special teams performers who could be the difference in the game. For the Browns, it's punt and kick returner Joshua Cribbs, among the most feared at his craft in the league. He leads the NFL with 1,475 kick-return yards, averaging 32.8 yards per return with two touchdowns.

Cribbs' 39-yard kickoff return set up the Browns' game-tying field goal last week at Baltimore, his 41-yarder in overtime kick-started the game-winning drive and his 306 return yards was the third-highest single-game total in NFL history.

While Ravens head coach Brian Billick was criticized for kicking to Cribbs late in the losing effort, Kubiak said the Texans cannot afford to concede field position by kicking away from Cribbs.

"The bottom line is we're going to have to cover," Kubiak said. "He's a great player. He can change a game, but if we're going to win down there, we're going to have to play great. That means we're going to have to play well on special teams."

Houston counters with kicker Kris Brown, who is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season. He's tied for fourth among NFL kickers with 84 points and on pace for 134, which would shatter his team record of 102 points set in 2005.

His 21 made field goals this season are tied for the second most in the league, and his .913 field goal percentage is fifth among kickers with at least 10 attempts. Brown's 57-yard game-winning field goal against Miami remains the longest field goal in the NFL this season.

In what is expected to be a high-scoring affair between two teams with potent offenses, the Texans will be in good shape if it comes down to the wire and they look to Brown. After nailing a 53-yarder against the Saints last week, Brown leads the NFL with four field goals of more than 50 yards this season and has not missed from that range on the season.

Injury report: For the game's official injury report, click here.

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