NFL Preview - Seattle (5-7) at Houston (5-7)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A poorly-timed series of defeats has essentially ruined the Houston Texans' dreams of reaching the postseason. The losses are beginning to pile up in the personnel department as well.
With an ailing Matt Schaub expected to play, the fading Texans will attempt to end a costly four-game slide in Sunday's interconference clash with a Seattle Seahawks squad that will be heading into Reliant Stadium with its sights set on a third consecutive win.
Houston had put itself in a position to earn the first playoff berth in the franchise's eight-year history after compiling a 5-3 record at this season's midway point, but four straight losses -- three of which came to fellow AFC South members -- by a combined 19 points have more than likely dashed those hopes.
The Texans had a chance to strengthen their cause in last weekend's pivotal meeting with Jacksonville, but were dealt a stinging 23-18 loss by their division rivals and now sit two games behind the 7-5 Jaguars for the AFC's final Wild Card spot with four to play.
Jacksonville roared out to a 17-0 lead and temporarily took Schaub out of the game on Houston's first play from scrimmage, when the valuable quarterback landed hard on his left shoulder after being sacked by the Jags' Derrick Harvey. He would return later in the first half to throw for 207 yards and a touchdown on 19-of-27 passing while nearly leading the Texans back from their early deficit.
Plenty of the postgame discussion was centered around a pass Schaub did not attempt, however. With Houston trailing 23-12 midway through the fourth quarter and having marched down to the Jacksonville five-yard line, running back Chris Brown's ill-advised toss into the end zone on a trick play was intercepted by the Jaguars to kill a potential scoring drive that would have made the game a one-possession affair.
The backfired play call brought more heat upon embattled head coach Gary Kubiak, whose long-term job security has been the subject of speculation in the wake of the Texans' recent downfall.
Schaub suffered a dislocation to his non-throwing shoulder in last week's loss but was back on the field when the Texans reconvened for practice on Wednesday, a strong indicator that he'll start this Week 14 tilt. Houston won't have leading rusher Steve Slaton available for the remainder of this season, however, after the speedy sophomore was placed on injured reserve this week because of a nerve problem in his neck.
In contrast to their upcoming opponent, the Seahawks have made noticeable progress after stumbling out of the gates in head coach Jim Mora's first season at the helm, and can record their first three-game win streak since 2007 with a victory over the Texans. After disposing of the doormat St. Louis Rams in Week 12, Seattle came through with a hard-fought 20-17 decision over San Francisco last Sunday at Qwest Field to improve to 5-7.
Olindo Mare provided the winning points with a 30-yard field goal as time expired, a kick that was set up by quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's 32-yard pass to rookie Deon Butler after a clutch 21-yard punt return by wide receiver Nate Burleson.
While the Seahawks have been showing improvement, they've still endured their share of struggles on the road. Seattle's only win in an enemy venue this season came against the lowly Rams, and Mora's troops have lost by double- digits in all five of their setbacks as the visitor in 2009.
The Seahawks and Texans have faced off just one other time, when Seattle was a 42-10 winner at Qwest Field in 2005.
The Seattle franchise has not traveled to Houston for a meaningful game since 1994, when the Seahawks defeated the Oilers at the Astrodome.
Kubiak and Mora will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
Seattle employs a pass-first philosophy around the still-accurate arm of Hasselbeck (2153 passing yards, 13 TD, 7 INT), who's coming off a sharp 25- of-34, 198-yard, two-touchdown performance against San Francisco last weekend despite dealing with a sore right shoulder. Most of the 34-yard-old's targets go to the reliable wide receiver duo of Burleson (60 receptions, 762 yards, 3 TD) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (61 receptions, 3 TD), while young running back Justin Forsett (394 rushing yards, 32 receptions, 5 total TD) has done some damage as a pass-catcher out of the backfield as well. The second-year pro had also been making an impact on the ground in the absence of usual starter Julius Jones (459 rushing yards, 25 receptions, 4 total TD), ripping off a pair of 100-yard efforts in November games versus Arizona and St. Louis, but gave way to his veteran counterpart in last week's win. Jones returned from a two-game hiatus due to a bruised lung and chest in the San Francisco game but wasn't much of a factor, generating a modest 67 rushing yards on 20 carries and a negative total on five receptions. Effectively running the football has been a constant challenge for Seattle, which ranks an unwanted 27th overall in rushing offense (93.4 ypg).
The Texans will spend the week trying to tighten up a pass defense that gave up too many big plays in last Sunday's loss to the Jaguars, with tight ends Zach Miller and Marcedes Lewis hauling in catches of 62 and 47 yards, respectively, and reserve wide receiver Nate Hughes coming up with a 35-yard touchdown reception. A season-ending toe injury to free safety Eugene Wilson (29 tackles, 2 INT) in a Week 11 loss to Tennessee has been a tough blow to a secondary that was also without starting cornerback Glover Quin (46 tackles, 9 PD) for the Jacksonville game because of a concussion. The rookie surprise was cleared to practice this week, however, and is slated to be back in the fold on Sunday. Houston did record four sacks in last week's defeat, a positive sign for a team that's third-worst in the NFL in that category, and 2008 Pro Bowler Mario Williams (33 tackles, 6 sacks) has gotten to the quarterback once in each of the past two games from his end spot. The Texans are just 22nd in rushing defense (118.9 ypg) for the year but have been better in that department over the season's second half, thanks to the insertion of hard- hitting strong safety Bernard Pollard (71 tackles, 2 INT) into an every-down role and the emergence of rookie outside linebacker Brian Cushing (102 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 3 INT) alongside standout DeMeco Ryans (86 tackles, 1 sack) in the middle. Houston held Jaguars star Maurice Jones-Drew to a pedestrian 76 yards on 24 attempts last week, with Pollard making 11 tackles (10 solo) to lead the way.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
Schaub's (3449 passing yards, 22 TD, 12 INT) probability of playing this week is welcome news for a Houston team that figures to rely even more on the capable triggerman and its fourth-ranked passing offense (278.9 ypg) with Slaton (437 rushing yards, 44 receptions, 7 total TD) done for the year. The Texans still have their best weapon and most dangerous playmaker, wide receiver Andre Johnson (70 receptions, 1044 receiving yards, 6 TD), healthy and available, however. The 28-year-old is well on the way to a fourth career Pro Bowl nod and just missed a fifth 100-yard game of the season with his seven-catch, 99-yard display against the Jaguars. Kevin Walter (42 receptions, 1 TD) is a solid complement on the opposite side, while return specialist Jacoby Jones (16 receptions, 4 TD) had been coming on as the third receiver before being deactivated last week for arriving late to a team meeting. The Texans will miss Slaton's contributions to the passing game, but the fumble- prone back's disappointing 3.3 yards per carry will be easier to replace among the remaining backfield group of Brown (249 rushing yards, 3 TD, 13 receptions) and fellow retread Ryan Moats (261 rushing yards, 8 receptions, 4 total TD). Kubiak has liked what he's seen out of rookie Arian Foster in practice, and the practice-squad promotee could be in line for more of look as Houston tries to find a spark to the NFL's 29th-best ground game (88.7 ypg).
The Texans' potent aerial attack could very well present problems for a Seattle stop unit that stands 25th overall against the pass (243.5 ypg) and has surrendered 22 touchdowns through the air, with San Francisco signal- caller Alex Smith putting up 310 yards on the Seahawks a week ago. The team's coverage liabilities make it imperative that ends Patrick Kerney (23 tackles, 5 sacks) and Lawrence Jackson (23 tackles, 4 sacks) and the rest of the defense apply consistent pressure to the tender Schaub, something Seattle had trouble doing to Smith last Sunday. Houston's moribund running game should not pose much of a threat to a defense that was able to shut down the 49ers' Frank Gore in Week 13 and possesses a quality linebacking crew of David Hawthorne (83 tackles, 4 sacks, 3 INT) in the middle and veteran Leroy Hill (30 tackles, 1 sack) and rookie first-round pick Aaron Curry (56 tackles, 2 sacks) on the outside. Leading tackler Jordan Babineaux (86 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 INT) has also played an important part towards the Seahawks' gaining a respectable No. 13 overall rating versus the run (105.9 ypg), and the athletic safety forced a key fourth-quarter fumble of Gore that led to a field goal.
Schaub's shoulder injury certainly causes some concern for his owners at a critical point of the fantasy season, but the fact that the Houston triggerman was able to come back and put up yards in last week's game should alleviate some of those fears. Both he and Johnson should have their customary places in this week's lineup in an appetizing matchup against a vulnerable Seattle pass defense. There's far more uncertainty regarding the Texans at running back, and with a committee approach the most likely of scenarios, it may be best to avoid the situation altogether. Seattle has a bit of a quandary going on at that position as well, with Julius Jones the favorite to receive the bulk of the work even though Forsett's been the more productive of the two players. The latter has still been used quite a bit as a receiver, though, and may be worth a flier as a flex option. Hasselbeck is viewed as more of a low-end alternative as a No. 1 quarterback, with Burleson and Houshmandzadeh both decent choices at wide receiver. The Seahawks have one of the hottest kickers in the league in Mare, who's booted two or more field goals in four of the last five weeks and is a sizzling 21-of-23 on three-point tries this season.
This game may have little effect on the playoff outcomes in either conference, but it will go a long way in determining the Texans' plans for next season. Houston could very well decide to pack it in here after enduring four straight dejecting losses and getting hit hard by the injury bug, but the team may also be motivated for a strong finish with both its head coach and plenty of players' futures on the line. Fortunately for the Texans, they'll get to face a Seattle club that hasn't been good on the road and still has questions to answer on both sides of the ball. The Seahawks will compete, but it's hard to tell if they're really good enough to knock off a Houston team that's hung tough against better competition over the past few weeks.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texans 20, Seahawks 17
12/10 16:41:40 ET