Here are five things to watch for when the Texans (5-6) take on their division rival Jacksonville Jaguars (6-5) at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium on Sunday. Kickoff is at noon CT.
Pass it on: Jaguars cornerback Rashean Mathis will miss Sunday's game with a groin injury, hurting an already struggling secondary. The Jaguars rank 26th in the league against the pass with 242.9 yards allowed per game.
That plays into the biggest strength of the Texans, who have the league's third-best passing offense. Quarterback Matt Schaub threw for 300 yards and three touchdowns against the Jags in Week 3, a game in which they had Mathis in the lineup.
The absence of Mathis, a Pro Bowler in 2006, leaves rookie Derek Cox and third-year pro Tryon Brackenridge as the Jaguars' corners against Andre Johnson and company.
Without Mathis in the last two weeks, the Jaguars have allowed 290 yards passing to Buffalo and 232 to San Francisco. Both teams rank 24th or worse in passing yards per game.
Struggling pass rushes: The Jaguars have the fewest sacks in league this season with 10 through 11 games. The Texans haven't fared much better, as their 15 sacks rank 30th among NFL teams.
But the Jaguars, whose offensive line features rookie tackles Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton, have given up 30 sacks. That's the seventh-highest total in the league.
December historically has been a good month for Texans defensive end Mario Williams, who has 14.0 sacks in December over the last two seasons combined. The Texans didn't sack David Garrard in Week 3, but Williams recorded 3.0 sacks against Garrard in the Texans' first December game in 2008.
"He's a big, strong, talented football player, and he's not the only one on that front," Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio said. "So we're definitely getting ourselves ready to take on the challenge that we have coming in on Sunday."
Running back rotation: The Texans won't know until Sunday whether they'll have the services of running back Steve Slaton. He's questionable with a shoulder injury that Texans coach Gary Kubiak called "a big concern" after Friday's practice.
Running back Chris Brown will start on Sunday. Brown has 11 carries in back-to-back games since the bye week as the Texans have made a concerted effort to get him more involved. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry and scored a rushing touchdown last Sunday versus Indianapolis.
"He's been very good the last few weeks," Kubiak said. "He's been excellent in pass protection. He's a veteran. I've been real impressed with the way he's come back from the bye week and the way he's played for us, so he'll be big in the game."
Ryan Moats will get involved if Slaton doesn't play. Moats ran for 126 yards and a franchise-record three touchdowns in Week 8 at Buffalo, but he hasn't had a rushing attempt the following game at Indianapolis. Moats is averaging 4.1 yards per carry this season.
MJD: The biggest priority for the Texans' defense on Sunday will be the Jaguars' smallest player. Running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who stands at 5-7 but packs a punch at 208 pounds, ran for 119 yards and three touchdowns in Houston in Week 3.
"He's a wrecking ball," Texans safety Bernard Pollard said. "He's one of the top running backs in the league, and we're going to go in there and we're looking to shut down the running game."
Jones-Drew leads the league with 13 rushing touchdowns. In his first season as the Jags' featured back without longtime running mate Fred Taylor, the fourth-year pro out of UCLA already has a career-high 1,001 rushing yards.
One of the league's toughest players to tackle, Jones-Drew has averaged 5.3 yards per carry in six career games against the Texans.
"He's a strong guy," rookie linebacker Brian Cushing said. "He's low to the ground. He runs real hard. There's no question about his talent. He runs with passion."
Cushing watch: Cushing, whose USC Trojans beat Jones-Drew's UCLA Bruins in 2005, has recorded double-digit tackles in four consecutive games as he continues to vie for rookie of the year honors.
The first-round draft pick was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month after recording 43 tackles, one sack, two interceptions and three passes defensed in November.
Cushing has led the Texans in tackles in nine of 11 games and ranks fifth in the NFL with 99 tackles. His three interceptions, which include last week's pick of Peyton Manning, are more than any other linebacker in the AFC.
"He's done a great job," Garrard said. "Watching film, we've just seen him grow more and more each game. When we played them, they weren't lining him up out over receivers in the slot, that kind of stuff. They were a little scared at first. But now, he's doing everything. He's getting more and more confident. He's got a nice little swagger about him.
"We definitely have to have an eye on him. I saw him get that interception last week, so he's doing a better job in his zone coverages, which is telling me that I need to make sure that I know where 56 is."