The Texans (4-11) head west for a road contest against the 49ers (8-7) in Week 17. Houston's won the last two games, while San Francisco lost on December 23 at Tennessee. Here are five things to watch when the two squads square off at Levi's Stadium at 3:05 p.m. CT.
1) Do it again, Davis – QB Davis Mills played his finest game of the season in last Sunday's win over the Chargers. He tossed for a pair of scores, led the Texans on two other touchdown drives and also guided Houston on a pair of possessions that resulted in field goals. He didn't turn the ball over, completed 78 percent of his passes and finished with a quarterback rating of 130.6.
Mills said the game has slowed down for him a bit and his ability to process the play call and then go out and execute it has been his biggest growth spot this season.
"My knowledge of the offense, being able to go out there and play fast rather than having to hear a play call and then try to picture it in my head, think of what step drop I have, things like that," Mills said. "I'm just able to go out there and play faster, and I guess that leads to better execution."
He's made steady progress throughout the year and has guided the Texans to victory in each of the last two starts. Offensive Coordinator Tim Kelly described what he's seen from the rookie. Lately, that's led to his success.
"The ability for him to be able to take the information from the meeting room and be able to apply it on the field has grown over the past couple weeks," Kelly said. "Hopefully again, he'll take another step this week."
Former Texans great DeMeco Ryans is now the defensive coordinator for San Francisco. He's impressed with Mills' command of the offense.
"He goes through his progressions really well for a young guy, and he can find the open spot in zone coverage," Ryans said. "He's done a good job over the past couple weeks. You can see how they've been effective over the past couple weeks and able to win some games, based on the run game and his play."
2) Speaking of the run game... – RB Rex Burkhead turned in a career-best performance last week, rushing for 149 yards on 22 carries and scoring two touchdowns. The Texans as a team averaged 5.3 yards per carry against the Chargers, and they did so with an offensive line that started, left to right, Geron Christian, Cole Toner, Jimmy Morrissey, Max Scharping and Charlie Heck.
Toner is now out for the season, and there will likely be other changes from last week's starting lineup as well. Nevertheless, the Texans insist they must build on their ground success of a week ago. Head coach David Culley would love for his offense to generate the same yardage as last week but pointed to something else as being the most critical component to success.
"The attempts are the most important thing," Culley said. "I think as long as the attempts are up and we're running the football, I think that will help us. As long as we continue to do that, I think good things will happen."
Ryans' 49ers defense has allowed the 11th fewest amount of yards this season in the NFL.
3) Welcome back! – The day before they played Los Angeles, the Texans elevated 11 members from the practice squad, and all were active the next afternoon against the Chargers. Houston was without WR Brandin Cooks, the majority of its offensive and defensive lines, as well as K Ka'imi Fairbairn as well.
All those players and more, will be back for the 49ers contest. San Francisco is seventh-best in the NFL in rushing yardage, and Culley's glad his squad will be re-stocked.
"Having our guys back again that weren't here last week, that gives us back more depth," Culley said. "That's the deepest position we have on our football team is our defensive line. We know this team is going to try to run the football. That's what they are. It's good to have those guys back to be able to have those guys fresh to be able to go out there to play for us."
4) Rookie QB – San Francisco QB Jimmy Garoppolo didn't practice this week, and rookie Trey Lance took the first-team reps. In all likelihood, the rookie from North Dakota State will start for the second time in his career. The third overall pick in the draft, Lance is incredibly talented and has thrown three touchdowns and run for another in five games worth of action.
DB Tavierre Thomas logged eight tackles, picked off a pass last week and returned it for a touchdown and was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week. He thinks highly of Lance.
"We know what he can do," Thomas said. "He probably hasn't played a lot because he is behind a veteran, but when you are that top guy in the draft, we know that you are good. Just got to go out there and just try to pick up a little bit of keys that we can play off of and just go from there."
Defensive Coordinator Lovie Smith and the Texans have seen Jacksonville's Trevor Lawrence and the Jets' Zach Wilson. Both were picked ahead of Lance in the 2021 NFL Draft.
"He's more of an athletic quarterback, strong arm," Smith said. "We are playing a lot of those high draft picks that have great futures ahead of them. Let's hope it doesn't really start this week."
5) Dangerous Dudes – Even though Lance is a rookie, he still has a pair of elite weapons in RB/WR Deebo Samuel and TE George Kittle. When he's run the ball, Samuel's averaged 6.8 yards per carry, and he's scored seven touchdowns. As a receiver, he has 70 catches for 1,247 yards and five more scores. He averages 17.8 yards per catch, and the Texans defense will get tested by him.
"He does it all," Smith said. "Of course, he can line up in a lot of different spots. Through the years, there have been athletes like that that can line up in the backfield, so you have to have a plan for them if they are being used primarily as a running back. He can line up of course, at all the wide receiver positions. Strong runner. After he gets the ball in his hands, tough guy to bring down. One of the best players in the league. It will be a big challenge for our group."
Kittle, meanwhile, has 65 catches for 871 yards and six touchdowns. Smith said he "can talk the rest of the day" about how excellent a player Kittle is, because he can line up anywhere and really challenge a defense's base package.
"How many tight ends do you know that are 6'4", 6'5" whatever he is and over 250, runs a 4.5," Smith said. "He can vertical, long jump. All those numbers that mean something, showing explosion. That is tough duty."
Don't miss the Houston Texans season finale as they take on the Tennessee Titans at NRG Stadium on January 9. Kickoff is at noon. Click here for tickets.