The Texans (3-11) host the Chargers (8-6) at NRG Stadium in a Week 16 clash. Houston's coming off a 30-16 victory at Jacksonville, while Los Angeles lost a 34-28 overtime thriller at home to the Chiefs. Here are five things to watch when the AFC squads kick off on Sunday at noon CT.
1) Who's in, who's out – The Texans have been decimated by COVID-19. As of noon, Christmas Eve, Houston sent nearly two dozen players from the 53-man roster to the COVID/Reserve list. From the offensive and defensive lines, right tackle Charlie Heck is the only man who started last week versus the Jaguars, who was not sent down due to COVID. Despite the challenge, Texans Head Coach David Culley said his squad will adjust.
"We don't change the game plan so much as we go ahead and say this is what we want to do," Culley said. We're game planning them as if the guys that are going to play are going to be there. Basically, we try to not let it be a distraction and disruption and we just go with the next guy up."
In addition to the linemen affected, the Texans also lost WR Brandin Cooks this week. Just 55 yards shy of 1,000 in 2021, Cooks has been a consistently reliable and explosive force for the offense. His loss stings.
"It's a hard job to fill Brandin's shoes," WR Chris Moore said. "He does a lot. He's a special player on the field. In the receiver room, it's always the next man up here in this situation. We're just trying to stay prepared and stay ready to go just in case our number's called."
Additionally, the Texans are scrambling because K Ka'imi Fairbairn also went on the COVID list. In the past two weeks, he's hit a franchise record 61-yard field goal, as well as kicks from 51 and 52 yards. In his spot, Houston likely will go with Dominik Eberle, who was signed to the practice squad on Thursday.
"He'll be assuming those duties until further notice," Special Teams Coordinator Frank Ross said. "Confident in whoever we bring in, we're going to do our best as a team to support him. No different than if a receiver gets elevated or a linebacker gets elevated from practice squad and played in the kicking game last week."
2) Do it again, Davis – For the first time in his young NFL career, rookie QB Davis Mills guided the Texans to a victory last Sunday. As he'd done the previous week against Seattle, Mills and the offense got off to a good start. They scored a touchdown on the opening drive, and Mills began the game by completing 10 of his first 11 passes.
In the second half, just like he'd done against the Seahawks, he wasn't quite as accurate. But unlike the Seattle game, Mills came up with a few key completions that led to points on the scoreboard. The first possession of the second half saw the Texans in a 3rd-and-Long situation near midfield, with a Jaguars blitz on the way. But Mills found WR Phillip Dorsett for a 33-yard completion, and the Texans got a field goal from Fairbairn a few plays later.
"That long ball that he hit Phillip on, that was a check that he saw that he got to on his own," Offensive Coordinator Tim Kelly said. "That's what you want. Hopefully he can go out there and take another step for us on Sunday."
Mills described those exact steps he needs to take in his growth as a signal-caller.
"I think just an offense as a whole we need to focus on converting once we get down to the endzone," Mills said. "Capitalizing on turnovers and once we get down there making sure we are getting touchdowns and instead field goals. Personally myself, just being the best decision maker out on the field and protecting the football."
3) Playmakers step up – Without Cooks, Mills must find new targets to help move the chains and score. Dorsett, Moore, WR Nico Collins, WR Chris Conley and others will likely see their reps and targets increase. Houston also designated WR Danny Amendola for return from the injured reserve, so the veteran might see action against the Chargers as well.
"Guys are able to step in and able to go and function at a high level," Kelly said. "Our guys and our coaching staff have done a great job preparing everyone on the roster for whatever their role may be and right now we are trying to figure out who we are going to have available and what spots we are going to be able to put them in to put us in the best spot to win a football game."
4) Extra protection – Left to right, the offensive line for Houston this Sunday will likely consist of Geron Christian at tackle, former Charger Cole Toner at guard, rookie Jimmy Morrissey at center, Max Scharping at guard and Heck at tackle. All but Toner have started games this season for the Texans, and for Morrissey, it's another chance to play after starting a trio of games in November. The rookie from Pitt described what he's gotten better at since last hitting the field.
"Lot of things are more technical that I've learned, probably," Morrissey said. "I got comfortable once the third game came around with the playbook, really. I have been with the team for longer than a couple weeks now. I feel confident out there and my relationship with all the guys on the offense has been great so far. Really, the key takeaways from those games were little techniques, things that I need to tweak a little bit that got me beat a couple times when I was playing."
The Texans won't have to contend with one of the NFL's best players in Joey Bosa. The Chargers defensive lineman is on the COVID list, and the 4-time Pro Bowler will be missed.
5) Handle Herbert – One of the game's best quarterbacks is Justin Herbert, and the Chargers' second-year field general has already tossed 32 touchdowns in 2021. He completes better than 66 percent of his passes, and has a full complement of playmaking receivers. The young quarterback has been sacked 27 times this year, and thrown 12 interceptions.
"They throw the ball the fourth most of any team and not just throw it, they throw it very well and they got weapons," Culley said. "That's a very, very good offensive team. A bunch of the big play they've gotten is because people have been out of position, people haven't been playing the defense the way it should have been played and they take advantage of that because they have the people to do that."
The Texans haven't come up with a takeaway since Week 13 against the Colts. They're even on the year in turnover differential, while the Chargers are plus-3 in 2021. Houston could do a lot to help its chances of winning if the defense is able to come up with an interception or fumble recovery against Los Angeles.
Come see the Houston Texans take on the Los Angeles Chargers this Sunday at noon.Click here for tickets.