Here are five things to watch when the Texans (10-3) take on the Carolina Panthers (4-9) at Reliant Stadium on Sunday.
1. Next coach up: Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will watch Sunday's game on TV after having surgery on his kidney and gallbladder on Thursday. Phillips, who has led a historic turnaround of the Texans' defense this season, is on a medical leave of absence until at least next week.
Linebackers coach Reggie Herring will call the Texans' top-ranked defense until Phillips returns. Herring is well-versed in Phillips' scheme, having coached linebackers under him for the Dallas Cowboys from 2008-10. He was a defensive coordinator in college for 11 years, with stints at Arkansas (2005-07), North Carolina State (2004), Clemson (1997-2001) and TCU (1992-93).
As Phillips said this week, he hasn't been doing his job well if the defense isn't ready to play without him. Herring, who's as fiery as they come, will run the same scheme and make the same calls.
Led by inside linebacker Brian Cushing (86 tackles), outside linebacker Connor Barwin (9.5 sacks) and cornerback Johnathan Joseph (15 passes defensed, four interceptions), the Texans have held seven consecutive opponents to less than 20 points. The "Bulls on Parade" have held opponents to only 13.0 points and 248.8 yards per game at Reliant Stadium.
Herring and the defense have quite a task on their hands in quarterback Cam Newton and the Panthers, who rank fifth in the NFL with 399.0 yards per game. Newton has 3,572 passing yards, 554 rushing yards and ranks second in the NFL with 13 rushing touchdowns. He has a loaded arsenal at his disposal: Running backs DeAngelo Williams (656 rushing yards, 5.2 yards per carry) and Jonathan Stewart (551, 4.8), wide receiver Steve Smith (NFC-high 1,217 receiving yards) and tight ends Greg Olsen (525 yards, five touchdowns) and Jeremy Shockey (388 yards, two touchdowns).
2. No. 1 priority: The Texans' number one-ranked defense will be focused on a certain Panthers player with the number one on his jersey who also was the number one overall pick in the 2011 draft.
Newton (6-5, 248), the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner at Auburn, is the odds-on favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. He has had a historic year, already setting a new NFL single-season record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 13. He needs 167 passing yards to break Peyton Manning's rookie record for passing yards in a season (3,739).
The Texans' fourth-ranked rushing defense and third-ranked passing defense will be put to the test against the talented rookie, but they should have opportunities to make plays. Newton has been much more efficient in the first half (91.7 rating, 10:5 TD: INT ratio) than second half (70.9, 5:11) and has been sacked 30 times this season.
3. T.J. Terrific: Texans quarterback T.J. Yates has looked like anything but a rookie fifth-round pick since being thrust into the starting lineup two games ago. Yates has a 2-0 record and has turned the ball over just twice in 10 quarters. He led two 80-yard drives in the fourth quarter of the Texans' last-second comeback victory at Cincinnati last Sunday.
Yates was named NFL Rookie of the Week on Friday after completing 26-of-44 passes for 300 yards, two touchdowns and an interception against the Bengals. He also had five carries for 36 rushing yards, including a critical 17-yard scramble for a first down on the final drive. He threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Kevin Walter with two seconds remaining.
The last time Yates played at Reliant Stadium, fans showered him with chants of "T-J, T-J" after his first NFL touchdown pass. Expect to hear a couple more of those against the Panthers on Sunday from what should be a raucous home crowd.
4. Spreading it out: Texans All-Pro wide receiver Andre Johnson is missing his eighth game of the season because of a hamstring injury, but the Texans used a collective effort to move the ball without him.
Even without Johnson, Yates threw for 300 yards against the Bengals. Tight end Owen Daniels had a season-high 100 yards on seven catches. Wide receiver Kevin Walter had six catches for 79 yards and the game-winning touchdown. Tight end Joel Dreessen caught a six-yard touchdown pass, his team-best sixth of the season.
The Texans' tight ends and running backs have 135 catches this season, compared to 99 by their wide receivers. Five Texans players have at least 25 catches and 400 yards. Seven different players have caught a touchdown pass for the Texans this season.
"We spread the ball all over the place," Kubiak said. "You don't go out there knowing where the ball's going. Our guys never know who's going to get called upon to make a play, and I think that's what's made us effective. Everybody knows that you better be ready, better be doing your job, and everybody's pitched in this year and that's why we're where we're at today."
5. Foster and Tate: A couple of years ago, Carolina's Williams and Stewart were widely regarded as the top running back tandem in the NFL. "Smash and Dash" combined for 2,351 rushing yards in 2008 and both ran for more than 1,100 yards in 2009.
That title now belongs to Arian Foster and Ben Tate, the only teammates in the NFL with more than 800 rushing yards. They'll look to take advantage of the Panthers' 23rd-ranked rushing defense, which allows 128.9 yards per game on 4.51 yards per carry.
Foster ranks eighth in the NFL in rushing yards (957), third in yards from scrimmage (1,500) and tied for seventh in touchdowns (10) despite missing two-and-a-half games with a hamstring injury. Tate leads the NFL with 5.6 yards per carry and leads the AFC with 32 runs of 10 yards.
Foster is on the verge of a historic milestone that would put him in elite company. With 43 more rushing yards and 57 more receiving yards, he will become the fifth player in NFL history with at least 1,000 rushing yards and 600 receiving yards in back-to-back season. The other four: Brian Westbrook (2006-07), Priest Holmes (2001-03), Marshall Faulk (1998-2001) and Thurman Thomas (1991-92).