Here are five things to watch for when the Texans (9-3) take on the Cincinnati Bengals (7-5) in Week 14 at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. Kickoff is at noon CT.
The Texans will clinch the AFC South division title with a victory and a loss by the Tennessee Titans to the New Orleans Saints.
1. Joseph's return: Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph spent the first five seasons of his NFL career with the Bengals before signing with the Texans as a free agent this offseason. His welcome-back present is a matchup with rookie wide receiver A.J. Green, the fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft who's well on his way to a 1,000-yard season.
Joseph has downplayed his return to Paul Brown Stadium, saying it will be just like any other game.
"I'm not really caught up into the hype of just me going back to Cincinnati or anything like that just because me, I just want to go out and just play football and just have fun at the end of the day," he said on Wednesday. "It's not about Johnathan Joseph… it's about the Houston Texans going to Cincinnati to play the Cincinnati Bengals."
Joseph is tied for the team lead with four interceptions, all of which have come on the road. He leads the Texans and is tied for fourth among AFC corners with 14 passes defensed. His leadership in the secondary – not to mention his Pro Bowl-caliber play – has helped the Texans improve from 32nd in passing defense to third.
"He's been our bell cow," Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said on Thursday. "He's the guy that we put on the best receiver every week and most of the time, the best receiver for the other team doesn't do well, so that says a lot for him."
Only two wide receivers (Reggie Wayne, Anquan Boldin) have topped 100 yards against the Texans this season, and only two others have even topped 80. Green presents a unique challenge for Joseph at 6-4, 207 pounds with 4.5 speed in the 40-yard dash. He leads the Bengals with 50 catches for 832 yards, 16.6 yards per catch and seven receiving touchdowns.
2. Big game for Barwin?: Outside linebacker Connor Barwin is also no stranger to the city of Cincinnati. He played at the University of Cincinnati, leading the Bearcats to a BCS bowl as a senior. He played basketball at the school and once, as the story goes, shut down future No. 1 pick Greg Oden for about 15 scoreless minutes in a game against Ohio State.
Barwin has spent parts of his first two offseasons training and attending classes at UC. This is the Texans' closest game of the season to his hometown of Detroit, an 80-minute flight north, so his parents and about 20 other family members and friends will be in the stands on Sunday.
Cincinnati is also the site of Barwin's first NFL sack. A second-round pick in 2009, he took down Carson Palmer in the sixth game of his rookie season.
"I think maybe my first sack was a little lucky," Barwin said on Wednesday. "But now, hopefully if I get one this week, it won't be luck."
After missing almost all of last season with an ankle injury, Barwin leads the Texans with 8.5 sacks and 24 quarterback hits. The former defensive end had a franchise-record 4.0 sacks in Week 12 at Jacksonville and is getting more and more comfortable at his new position by the week.
3. Rookie vs. Rookie:It's a battle of rookie quarterbacks on Sunday. One, Texans fifth-rounder T.J. Yates, is making his second-career start and first on the road. The other, Bengals second-rounder Andy Dalton, has started every game this season.
Yates went 12-of-25 for 188 yards and a touchdown last Sunday in a 17-10 victory over the Falcons. He has not thrown an interception through more than six quarters of play. With All-Pro wide receiver Andre Johnson out this week, tight ends Owen Daniels and Joel Dreessen figure to get plenty of looks from Yates. So does running back Arian Foster, who ranks second on the team in catches (41) and receiving yards (510).
Dalton has been efficient this season, with an 81.6 passer rating and 17 passing touchdowns to 12 interceptions. He averages 220.3 passing yards per game with a 59.2 completion percentage.
"I see a good player, a young kid that's come in, hasn't gotten intimidated much, hasn't been overloaded with a playbook or defensive schemes or anything," Texans linebacker Brian Cushing said. "He's looked good since day one. He's a confident player that makes good decisions. He's had some rough outings here and there against some pretty good defenses, but for the most part, I think he's done a good job."
To Cushing's point, the Texans have the No. 1 defense in the NFL. In four games against the 49ers, Ravens and Steelers (twice), all top-four defenses, Dalton has posted passer ratings of 40.8, 61.8, 60.7 and 77.6. He didn't complete more than 53.3 percent of his passes in any of those games and threw four touchdowns to seven interceptions.
4. Tough running: The Texans have run the ball an average of 41 times per game during their current six-game winning streak. There's little doubt that they'll lean on the dynamic duo of Foster and Ben Tate again on Sunday, but room to run could be hard to come by against Cincinnati.
The Bengals rank sixth in the NFL in rushing defense at 96.3 yards per game. They have allowed only 3.58 yards per carry, third-best in the league. But in their last four games, they have given up an average of 120.0 rushing yards and 3.97 yards per carry.
The Texans racked up 162 rushing yards last Sunday against a Falcons defense that was allowing just 83.5 per game. Foster had 111 yards on 31 carries, becoming the first player to rush for 100 yards against the the Falcons in 15 games. He has five 100-yard rushing games this season and leads the NFL in scrimmage yards per game with 142.6.
5. Bigger role for Jones: Texans wide receiver Jacoby Jones could move up not one but two spots on the depth chart this week. He's starting for Johnson, who's sitting out with a left hamstring injury, and will be the primary deep threat for Yates. He'll take on an even more prominent role if Kevin Walter is unable to play because of an illness that kept him out of practice on Friday.
This will be Jones' eighth start of the season, a new career-high for the fourth-year man out of Lane College.
"Don't nothin' change but my drawers," Jones said Friday when asked about his mentality as a starter. "Just like I always (say), man, I prepare the same way every week, practice hard. Everything stays the same. I just have to step up and play the role."
Jones is averaging a team-high 17.6 yards per catch with 22 receptions for 372 yards and two touchdowns. Most of his production (17 catches, 334 yards, both touchdowns) has come in his seven starts. He has only one catch for 10 yards since Yates took over for Matt Leinart, but that number should go up with Johnson watching from the sideline.
Jones has fond memories of his previous two games against the Bengals. He returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown against Cincinnati in 2008 at Reliant Stadium. In 2009, he caught a 23-yard touchdown pass at Paul Brown Stadium and capped it with a celebration that he had no trouble recalling on Friday.
"I hit 'em with the Temptations dance, you know what I'm sayin'?" Jones said. "Hopefully, I get in the end zone again."
Walter is questionable for the game, but it would be a surprise if he doesn't play. He's tough as nails and never lacking for motivation against his former team, where he was a backup receiver to Chad Johnsosn and T.J. Houshmandzadeh for the first three years of his career. Derrick Mason and Bryant Johnson are the backups to Walter and Jones.