Here are five things to watch for when the Texans (4-3) take on the San Diego Chargers (3-5) on Deep Steel Sunday at Reliant Stadium. Kickoff is at noon CT.
1. Tight end effect:Chargers tight end Antonio Gates is doubtful. Texans tight end Owen Daniels is questionable. Neither Pro Bowler practiced all week.
Gates, who has 663 receiving yards and leads the league with nine touchdowns, is on pace for the best season by a tight end in history. He's battling toe and ankle injuries in his left foot and plantar fasciitis in his right foot.
The doubtful designation means there's at least a 75 percent Gates won't play, but Texans coach Gary Kubiak isn't hedging his bets. Gates didn't practice last week, either, and he wound up with five catches for 123 yards in a victory over the Titans. He hasn't missed a game due to injury in his eight-year career.
"We've got to prepare for their offense," Kubiak said. "He's missed practice before and went out there and lit it up, so we are counting on him being there and (have to) get ready to stop their offense."
Daniels has only 16 catches for 200 yards this season coming off a knee injury, but he was beginning to round into form before aggravating his hamstring in Week 8. He'll be a game-time decision Sunday. Joel Dreessen and James Casey would move up a spot on the depth chart if he's out.
2. Slowing down Rivers:The Texans' 32nd-ranked passing defense will try to contend with Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and the league's top-ranked passing offense.
Rivers has thrown for 2,649 yards in eight games, putting on pace to break Dan Marino's single-season record of 5,084. He has done it despite a revolving cast of wide receivers, but losing his top target in Gates would be a major blow. Wide receivers Malcolm Floyd and Legedu Naanee are also doubtful this week.
The Texans were solid against Colts quarterback Peyton Manning last week, holding him to 268 passing yards and a season-low 57.8 completion percentage. Pressure from Mario Williams and company could be critical to their success against Rivers, who has been sacked 21 times this season.
3. Turnovers key:The Chargers have the number one offense and number one defense in the league, but the chink in their armor this season has been turnovers. They have 19 of them, fourth-most in the league.
"We've had some that have been just crazy," Rivers said. "A pass that was tended to be forward but was ruled a lateral that gets ran back for 70 yards. We've had a young wide receiver in (Richard) Goodman that catches a 30-yard gain and he's not touched down yet but he thought he was, and he gets up and leaves the ball there.
"We've had some that were just crazy turnovers, and another where I fumbled at the 20-yard line in Oakland. We've had two fumbles inside the five as we were driving… We've always been a team that had good ball security and had few turnovers. Obviously, they've creeped in this year."
The Texans have forced only six turnovers this season. That's tied with the winless Buffalo Bills for the lowest total in the NFL. Naturally, creating turnovers were a major emphasis in practice this week.
"We need to find a way to make some more impact plays as a football team," Kubiak said.
4. Former Texans return:Kris Brown has played in more games than anybody at Reliant Stadium. He'll add to that total on Sunday as a member of the opposing team.
Brown was the only kicker in Texans history until Neil Rackers won the job from him this preseason. The Texans' all-time leader in games played (128) and points scored (767), he had the worst field goal percentage of his career in 2009 (65.6).
Since signing with the Chargers three weeks ago to fill in for injured kicker Nate Kaeding, Brown has made 4-of-5 field goals and all five of his extra points.
"Kris has kind of bailed us out," Chargers coach Norv Turner said Wednesday. "…I think (returning to Houston) ends up being a real big deal on Sunday and certainly if he's looking at a kick that will have major impact the game. I'm sure it's going to be a real big deal to him."
Defensive end Travis Johnson also will make his return to Reliant Stadium. The Texans' first-round draft pick in 2005, he was traded to the Chargers for a sixth-round pick in 2009 and has two sacks this season.
"I like what Travis has done for us," Turner said. "I think that he has become a true professional. He's worked very hard at it. He's in a rotation with our guys… I think he brings explosiveness and playmaking ability."
5. More Foster?:How many carries will running back Arian Foster get this week? That's on the mind of many a Texans fan after Foster had only 15 carries at Indy, when the Texans fell behind early and turned to their passing game.
The Texans lead the league with 5.3 yards per carry. Foster ranks second with 737 rushing yards, 5.7 yards per carry and seven rushing touchdowns. He's also second with 938 yards from scrimmage.
Foster will do his best to try to find whatever holes there are in the Chargers' stifling 3-4 defense, which ranks first against the pass (176.9 yards per game) and second against the run (83.1).
"3-4 teams can be confusing with their alignment with different blitz packages, so we've got to be on point with what we do," Foster said.
There's a bit of nostalgia at play for Foster this week. He moved to San Diego from Albuquerque, N.M., as a junior in high school, and his football career blossomed as a senior at Mission Bay High School.
"It's kind of special, man," he said. "I've got a lot of people coming out to the game, a lot of family. San Diego is like my second home, so it's going to be fun."