Here are five things to watch for when the Texans (4-3) face the Buffalo Bills (3-4) at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday. Kickoff is at noon CT.
1. How's the weather?:The dead of winter hasn't hit Buffalo yet, but weather could play a big factor in Sunday's game. Ralph Wilson Stadium is notorious for its swirling winds, which could limit Matt Schaub and the Texans' third-ranked passing offense.
The forecast for Sunday calls for a low temperature of 36 and a high of 48 with 12 mph winds. The wind was forecasted at 20 mph earlier in the week. Texans coach Gary Kubiak said that he has played and coached at Buffalo many times when his teams have been able to pass for only the two quarters when the wind was at their back.
"It was really windy the other day at practice, and we struggled throwing it," tight end Owen Daniels said. "It's hard to throw when you're throwing it into the wind. It's a little unpredictable where the ball's going to go, so you don't want to take too many risks if you don't have to. Hopefully we can throw the whole game, but if it's only for a couple of quarters, then we'll just have to deal with it."
2. Establishing the run:If dealing with the wind means staying away from the pass, the game very well could hinge on the Texans' ability to run the ball. That's been no easy task for them this season, as they rank 30th in the NFL with 79.1 rushing yards per game.
The Bills are the worst team in the league at defending the run, allowing 172.4 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry.
"They don't have a lot of big names over there, but those guys fly around and they're very aggressive," left tackle Duane Brown said. "Whatever they've done up to this point really doesn't matter. I'm sure they're coming in ready to go and I'm sure they know we haven't run the ball as well as we've liked to, so they're going to want to take advantage of that as well."
Running back Steve Slaton, who had 1,282 rushing yards last season, is averaging only 3.1 yards per carry. But his production – he has five total touchdowns – has been much less of a concern than his ball security issues. Slaton has six fumbles this season, four that were recovered by the opposing team, after fumbling only three times as a rookie.
"Everybody's trying to help him," Kubiak said. "Coaches, players, everybody's trying to help him out here. We did some extra things with him (Wednesday), trying to change his technique a little bit with the ball. We're all here to help him, we're all here to support him, but he's got a job to do and that's to protect the ball."
3. The turnover battle:The Bills gave up 425 total yards and gained just 167 last week against the Panthers, but they won the game 20-9. Against the Jets in Week 6, they were outgained 414-296 but won 16-13 in overtime.
The primary reason: turnovers. Buffalo has forced 10 of them in the last two games while committing just two. Safety Jairus Byrd, a second-round draft pick and the reigning AFC Defensive Rookie of the Month, has back-to-back games with two interceptions.
The Texans have won the turnover battle four times this season. They're 4-0 in those games. They've now won 15 consecutive games and are 17-2 overall under Kubiak when winning the turnover margin.
4. Johnson's impact:Wide receiver Andre Johnson was declared "ready to go" by Kubiak on Friday and is listed as probable on the final injury report released by the team on Friday. He suffered a lung contusion against the 49ers that had him coughing up blood on the field and kept him out of practice Wednesday. He was able to practice on Thursday and Friday.
The three-time Pro Bowler, who leads the NFL with 634 receiving yards, said all week that he feels fine and fully expects to play.
"It's very important," Schaub said. "He's a guy our whole offense goes through and he's a playmaker for us... Obviously, he's a big part of what we do, and we need him out there as the leader of our team."
Johnson will wear rib protectors under his shoulder pads in the game. He said that he doesn't expect the extra padding to limit him in any way.
5, Facing Fitzpatrick:The Texans have faced Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick twice. As an undrafted rookie out of Harvard in 2005, he orchestrated one of the most stunning losses in Texans history. In his first-career game with the Rams, Fitzpatrick came off the bench and threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns, rallying St. Louis from a 21-point halftime deficit to a 33-27 overtime victory at Reliant Stadium.
Fitzpatrick also played against the Texans as a member of the Cincinnati Bengals last season, a game the Texans won 35-6. He threw for 155 yards, was intercepted twice and sacked twice and lost a fumble in the blowout.
Two weeks ago, Fitzpatrick took over for Trent Edwards when Edwards suffered a concussion against the Jets. The Bills overcame a 13-3 deficit on the road to win in overtime. Fitzpatrick started against the Panthers last week and went 11-of-22 with a touchdown and in another victory.
"I think he's a fine player," Kubiak said. "With the situation this year that we were in with Sage (Rosenfels), he was one of the guys that we studied very, very hard and had very high on our list. For a backup, he's gotten a lot of opportunities to play in this league, and obviously this is a great opportunity for him there in Buffalo."
Fitzpatrick has modest numbers (21-of-47 for 239 yards and two touchdowns), but he has committed only one turnover in two games.