Here are five things to watch for when the Texans (7-7) face the Miami Dolphins (7-7) at Land Shark Stadium in Miami in a virtual playoff elimination game for both teams.
The Texans are 4-0 all-time against the Dolphins, including a 29-28 victory at Reliant Stadium in 2008.
Johnson's homecoming:The last time Andre Johnson played in Miami was the first game of his career in 2003. Now, Johnson returns to his hometown for the biggest game of his career – and he's playing as well as ever.
One of four Miami Hurricanes on the Texans' roster, Johnson has 20 catches for 389 yards and two touchdowns in his last two games. The Miami Senior High School grad said this week that he's expecting more than 125 family, friends and former coaches at the game.
Johnson leads the league with 1,433 receiving yards. He's on track to become the only player besides Jerry Rice since 1970 to lead the league in receiving yards in back-to-back seasons.
In three career games against the Dolphins, Johnson has averaged 8.3 catches for 118.3 yards. He had 10 catches for 178 yards last season, capped by a fourth-down catch that he pried away from safety Yeremiah Bell on the game-winning drive.
"We prepared for him last year and didn't stop him," Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano said. "This guy's a tremendous player; he really is. I have all the respect in the world for what he does out there on the field, especially when everybody is trying to invent ways to take him away. It's really a difficult task. The guy's an outstanding player."
The Dolphins start a pair of rookie cornerbacks in Vontae Davis and Sean Smith. They have the 23rd-ranked passing defense in the league (223.8 yards/game) and have allowed 49 passing plays of 20 yards, while Johnson is tied for the league lead with 20 catches of 20 yards.
"We're aware of our problems and one of our problems has been the big play, and one of his strengths is making the big play, so that's something we're going to have to address," Sparano said.
Cushing, Brown watch:Linebacker Brian Cushing and left tackle Duane Brown are questionable for Sunday's game because of injuries.
Cushing did not practice at all this week because of foot, ribs and knee injuries. The knee injury kept Cushing out of the preseason, the foot injury surfaced early in the season and the ribs injury occurred at St. Louis.
"It's a combination of everything," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "He's just beat up."
Cushing has practiced sparingly for most of the season, but he has yet to miss a game and leads the AFC with 119 tackles.
"Last game was a little tough, but I've got two games left and I'll tough it out," Cushing said. "I'll be fine. This is what it's all about right here. These last two games are huge, and I have to play my best ball."
Brown did not practice Wednesday and was limited Thursday because of a left knee injury that has bothered him for weeks. He had to sit out the second half of last week's game at St. Louis, but playing on natural grass instead of turf this week could help his cause. Kubiak said on Thursday that "there's a good chance" Brown will be able to play.
If not, Rashad Butler will start. Butler, who's from nearby West Palm Beach and went to Miami, played well in the second half against the Rams. His backup would be Ephraim Salaam, who was with the Texans from 2006-08 and was signed as insurance this week.
Dolphins pass rush:The Dolphins' aggressive 3-4 pass rush has produced 40 sacks this season, which is tied for the second-most in the league. Four players have at least 5.0 sacks: linebackers Joey Porter (8.0), Jason Taylor (7.0) and rookie Cameron Wake (5.5) and defensive end Randy Starks (6.0).
Taylor and Porter have combined for 218.5 career sacks. Porter had one sack and five quarterback hits against the Texans at Reliant Stadium last season.
"They present big problems," Kubiak said. "You've got two of the best pass rushers in the game over the course of the last 10 years (Taylor and Porter) sitting there coming off the edge, so you've got to be able to protect with your (running) backs. You've got to be able to protect with your tackles."
Though Brown is questionable for the game, the Texans' pass protection has been outstanding in recent weeks. Since Matt Schaub was sacked on the first play at Jacksonville, the Texans have allowed just one sack in 106 pass attempts.
"We've been throwing the ball a lot, and us protecting Matt is key to our success in a lot of ways," Kubiak said. "So it's a big challenge for all of us. They're very excellent at what they do."
Second chance:It looks like Texans running back Arian Foster (6-1, 215), an undrafted rookie from Tennessee, will have another chance to get plenty of carries this week.
Kubiak had planned to get Foster heavily involved against the Rams last Sunday. Instead, Foster found himself on the bench after fumbling in the red zone on the first series. Foster was on a short leash to begin with after a poor practice on the Thursday before the game.
Kubiak said that he would give Foster another opportunity to play more if he had a good week of practice, and Foster did just that with strong showings on Wednesday and Thursday.
"He's had two very good days," Kubiak said Thursday. "Like I've said, he can help us win here. He's going to get a chance to do that. He's had two good days of practice."
Running backs Chris Brown, who excels in pass protection, and Ryan Moats, who has 350 rushing yards, also are expected to play. Fourth-string running back Chris Henry has been inactive for the two games since he was called up from the practice squad on Dec. 9.
Stopping Ricky:Dolphins running back Ricky Williams is enjoying a renaissance season with 1,055 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. It's his first time to top 1,000 yards since 2003, an NFL record for the longest drought between 1,000-yard seasons. The former University of Texas star took a one-year hiatus from football in 2004 and spent the 2006 season in the CFL.
"It seems like it was another lifetime ago," Williams said of the 2003 season. "I've been through so much and I've done so much outside of football as well as in football… (but) I didn't lose my work ethic, and this new regime that we got in here last year, they push us hard and we have a good scheme and we have good offensive linemen, good quarterbacks, so it's easier this time than I remember last time. It's been fun this year."
Williams, 32, has four fumbles in the last two games. He fumbled three times in a narrow victory over the Jaguars two weeks ago.
Williams and the Dolphins rank fourth in the NFL with 148.0 rushing yards per game. Since Week 4, when safety Bernard Pollard entered the starting lineup, the Texans have the league's fourth-best rushing defense (87.5 yards/game). They've allowed just one running back – league-leading rusher Chris Johnson – to top 100 yards in that span.