Here are five things to watch for when the Texans (4-6) take on the Tennessee Titans (5-5) in a divisional matchup at Reliant Stadium on Sunday. Kickoff is at noon CT.
The Texans are 4-12 all-time against the Titans but have won two of the last three games in the series.
1. 'Dre's day?:Andre Johnson picked a great week to start looking like his old self. Not only are the Texans in what Johnson called a "must-win game for both teams," he's facing a team that he has absolutely torched in recent meetings.
In his last three games against the Titans, Johnson has averaged 8.3 receptions and 144.7 yards. He has at least one touchdown catch in each of those games, including when he went off for a career-best 207 yards at Reliant Stadium in 2008. Texans coach Gary Kubiak indicated Friday that Johnson is finally close to being injury-free after spraining his right ankle in Week 2.
The Titans' pass defense ranks 26th in the league with 259 yards allowed per game. Feisty cornerback Cortland Finnegan has succeeded more at getting under Johnson's skin in recent meetings than he has at slowing Johnson's production.
With four catches, Johnson would become the first receiver in NFL history to have at least 60 receptions in each of his first eight seasons. With 10 catches for 100 yards, he'd tie Jerry Rice for the most such games in a career with 15.
2. Introducing Rusty Smith:With Vince Young on injured reserve and Kerry Collins hobbled by a calf injury, Titans rookie quarterback Rusty Smith will make his first-career start on Sunday.
Smith (6-5, 226) is a sixth-round draft pick out of Florida Atlantic in the Sun Belt Conference. Inactive in the first nine games, he was thrust into action last week against Washington after Young left with an injury in the third quarter. He went 3-of-9 for 62 yards and one interception, good for a 19.0 passer rating, with his first completion coming on a 52-yard pass to Nate Washington.
The strong-armed rookie was the most prolific passer in FAU history, amassing school records of 10,112 passing yards, 768 completions and 76 touchdowns. He led the Owls to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in 2007-08.
The Texans' passing defense ranks 32nd in the league and is on pace to be the worst in league history. They rushed the passer as well as they have all season last week against the Jets. If there ever were a game to get it turned around, this would be it.
3. RB showdown:Between Arian Foster and the Titans' Chris Johnson, Sunday's game features the top two rushers in the AFC. Foster leads the NFL with 1,004 yards. Johnson, last year's rushing champ with 2,006 yards, ranks third in the league with 968 yards, and he said this week that it's "very important" to him to pass Foster for the league lead.
No running back in the AFC has more carries than Johnson (216), who has at least 15 carries in every game this season. That trend should be underscored this week with Smith in at quarterback. Johnson ran for 348 yards on 45 carries in two games against the Texans last season.
A threat to score any time he touches the ball, Johnson has averaged 6.5 yards per carry since wide receiver Randy Moss joined the team. Though Moss has only one catch in two games, his presence as a deep threat is forcing teams to pull a safety out of the box and adjust the way they defend Johnson.
Foster leads the league in yards from scrimmage (1,382), rushing touchdowns (12) and total touchdowns (13). He had a team-high six catches last week on a variety of short passes, a tactic that could be useful again against a Titans team that has the third-most sacks in the league.
4. Fast start:Can the Texans find a way to get off to a fast start on offense?
They lead the NFL in second-half scoring, but they've only scored more than seven points in the first half of three games this season. They had 13 points in Week 1 against Indianapolis, 14 points in Week 4 at Oakland and 20 in Week 9 against San Diego.
Opponents have outscored the Texans in the first half by a 153-80 margin this season. In the second half, the Texans have outscored their opponents 161-134. They've consistently put themselves in a position where they have to stage second-half rallies, making their margin for error increasingly slim.
The Texans addressed the issue in practice and meetings this week. We'll see if it pays off on Sunday.
5. Making plays to win:Texans chairman and CEO Bob McNair lamented this week that the Texans have to find a way to play for 60 minutes and not 59. A play here or there at the end of their last three games has been the difference in 4-6 and 7-3.
The Texans have been tied or had the lead in the fourth quarter of each of their last three losses. In the last two, they became the first team in NFL history to lose in back-to-back weeks on a touchdown pass in the final 10 seconds.
The last three meetings between the Texans and Titans have been decided by a field goal or less. The Texans won 13-12 at Reliant Stadium in 2008 and 34-31 at Nashville last season in Week 2. The Titans beat the Texans 20-17 at Reliant Stadium last season in Week 11.
Believe it or not, the Texans haven't been devoid of clutch performances this season. Foster has eight rushing touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Matt Schaub has led two game-winning drives. Johnson made the game-winning touchdown catch against Kansas City and had a game-tying catch on fourth down at Washington. Defensive end Mario Williams took over at the end of the Redskins game and is coming off a dominant performance against the Jets. The Texans may need one of those stars to come through down the stretch on Sunday.