Here are five key players, matchups and things to watch for as the Texans take on the New Orleans Saints on 'Salute to the Military Day' at Reliant Stadium on Sunday.
1. 'Super Mario' vs. 'Baby Matrix': This will be the first meeting between Mario Williams and Reggie Bush, the top-two picks of the oft-discussed 2006 NFL Draft.
Both have received their fair share of criticism from fans and the media, though more pressure certainly was placed on Williams last season when the Texans made him the surprise number-one pick.
While Bush leads his team in rushing (451 yards) and receptions (55), he has yet to record a 100-yard game on the ground this season and finished Week 10 with a paltry 17 yards on seven carries in a loss to the then-winless St Louis Rams.
Williams, after being slowed by a foot injury last season, has put up solid stats in his sophomore campaign but seeks more consistency. That being said, Texans head coach Gary Kubiak has continued to praise the defensive end's effort and attitude, repeatedly saying that Williams has been the Texans' most consistent defensive lineman.
Both players refuse to get drawn into the hype. Bush insists he has no extra motivation for this game other than leading his team to a win, while Williams says there's more to this game than just number 25.
"I'm not playing Reggie, I'm playing the Saints," he said. "I mean, he's part of the team and we have to control the whole game, not just him. Especially with Drew (Brees) back there, when he's hot, he's hot. It's not a one-man team."
2. 'Dre day:It has been long-debated, long-speculated and long-anticipated. Finally, Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson will return to the Texans' lineup for the first time since spraining his left knee in Week 2. His performance in practice has lifted teammates all week.
"It means a great deal to this football team – not just the offense – just his presence," Kubiak said. "You can just tell the energy of the football team. Everybody knows when he's out there."
Johnson has a lot going for him on Sunday. Quarterback Matt Schaub, who ranks second in the NFL in completion percentage (67.9 – behind only New England's Tom Brady), is completely healthy, and the tandem will face a Saints' passing defense that ranks 29th in the league.
Johnson also will be playing with multiple legitimate receiving threats around him for the first time in his NFL career.
Kevin Walter's 41 catches rank ninth in the NFL since Week 3, and he already has set career highs with 43 receptions for 545 yards this season. André Davis, meanwhile, has been a dynamic downfield threat, leading all NFL receivers with a 19.2 yards-per-catch average.
"I've always known those guys were capable of doing the things that they did," Johnson said. "I think that's going to help us out a whole lot. You just can't key on one guy. We have a lot of other guys that can go out and stretch the field and catch the ball."
Before the injury, Johnson was off to the best start of his five-year career with 14 catches for 262 yards and three touchdowns.
3. All aboard the Dayne train: With Ahman Green ruled out for Sunday's game, Ron Dayne will start for the fourth time this season. Adimchinobi Echemandu will play as well, and the Texans are considering singing practice squad running back Darius Walker to the active roster.
Dayne has had quite a two-week stretch, first rushing for 122 yards and a touchdown at Oakland and then having his collegiate jersey retired at the University of Wisconsin during the bye week. As they say in New Orleans, he wants to let the good times roll against the Saints.
"I'm just feeling good," Dayne said. "The line is blocking well, and I tell them if they can get me to the DBs or even the linebackers, I can handle the rest. So when that happens, it's just so much fun."
The 5-10, 245-pound back needs only 40 more yards to become the fourth player in franchise history to rush for more than 1,000 yards with the Texans.
"I just feel Kubs (Kubiak) hooked me up and gave me an opportunity to play, which I feel like I'd never had since I've been in the league," he said. "He gave me that chance, and now I definitely want to get out and show him what I can do."
4. Clark's trifecta:After Sunday's game, linebacker Danny Clark will have played against all three of his former NFL teams this season: Jacksonville, where he played for from 2000-'03; Oakland ('04-'05); and New Orleans ('06).
"It's a great deal, man," he said. "You always kind of want to prove yourself to the teams that kind of did away with you in some way, shape or fashion. I don't have any will toward the teammates, but then again you just want to show out for your peers and against your peers and show them what they're missing."
Unhappy with the way the Raiders let him go prior to the start of last season, Clark showed out his former peers in Oakland to the tune of five tackles, one pass deflection and an interception, earning team defensive MVP honors for the performance.
And while he has fond memories of New Orleans and what he called its "resilient people," Clark has no qualms about which city and team his loyalties will lie with on Sunday.
"Before and after the game, even sometimes during the game, I understand they're my friends," Clark said of his former teammates. "But during that 60 minutes, it's a war zone out there. So I'm going out there to make our team win, to put our team in the best position to win the football game, and that's my number one objective."
5. Military connection: Speaking of war zones, three Texans players will have close relatives who have served in the military on their minds during 'Salute to Military Day' at Reliant Stadium on Sunday.
Williams' brother-in-law, Sgt. Nicholas Hodson, lost his life while serving in the Marine Corps in Iraq in March 2003. Williams now supports his sister, Michelon, and her two sons, Marius and Nicholas, and offered to quit football in college in order to earn money to support the family.
Clark has twin brothers, Joshua and Jason Brooks, who both have served in Iraq. Joshua served in the Marines and Jason in the Air Force. Both were deployed in the Persian Gulf last year.
Long snapper Bryan Pittman's brother, Anthony, is a lieutenant in the Army Reserves and is currently serving a 400-day tour of duty in Iraq.
Clark, who will be featured on the cover of the Texans' game program, said there's no question he's playing this game for his brothers.
"Those guys, they're some of my biggest fans," he said. "They'll be watching, and I've told them already that that's the theme of our game, so they feel like they're a part of it. And I'm definitely going to shoot them the game magazine and stuff like that, so it'll be a good deal for them."