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13


NFL Preview - Houston (6-7) at St. Louis (1-12)



By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - You know...it didn't have to end like this.

For the Houston Texans, perched at 5-3 at the season's midpoint and heading into a four-game stretch featuring all divisional opponents, the future was finally taking shape.

A chance to knock off traditional powers. A chance to pursue a winning record.

And a chance to, gasp...gain entry to the AFC playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

But just a month-and-a-half later, it all reeks with the pained lament of a 1980s songstress.

"The sweet words you whispered/Didn't mean a thing/I guess our song is over/As we begin to sing/Could've been so beautiful/Could've been so right/I'll never hold what could've been/On a cold and lonely night."

Four division games. Four division losses.

Far too reminiscent of four inconsequential weekend appearances at a mall near you.

And, at 6-7 after a make-up win over Seattle last weekend, four obstacles still blocking happiness.

Oh sure, the romantics in the crowd still hold hope for the Texans to avoid their seemingly certain Tiffany fate and rise above the logjam - Baltimore, Miami, Jacksonville, the New York Jets - already sitting a game ahead in the race for the conference's second wild card berth.

Each member of the lead pack faces a potentially difficult test this weekend, with the Jaguars facing Indianapolis, the Jets taking on Atlanta, the Dolphins playing Tennessee and the Ravens meeting Chicago - while the Texans presumably feast on St. Louis.

Houston then faces Miami next week before wrapping up with a home game against a potentially resting New England on Jan. 3.

So what that the Texans have never bettered 8-8 and never seen the playoffs?

Impossible, schmimpossible...says Bernard Pollard.

"I really believe that things are going our way," the Texans safety said, after contributing a 70-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Seahawks. "And, we can be a wild card. Why not? Why not win four games and go to playoffs? We've just got to keep it going."

Mean time, like a blue and gold, horn-wearing Energizer bunny... the Rams just keep going and going.

Farther and farther away from respectability.

Winners in Detroit on Nov. 1 after an 0-7 start, St. Louis has returned to its roots with five losses since - somehow balancing a competitive five-point showing against New Orleans with a 10-point pasting by the Seahawks and a 40- point shellacking at the hands of the Titans.

Overall the Rams have averaged a measly 11.2 points per game, allowed 27.7 and won just six times in 45 tries since closing the 2006 with three consecutive Ws under long-since departed coach Scott Linehan.

"There are no excuses if you give up 40 points in a game," rookie linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "That is not acceptable on any level, whether it's high school, college or professional."

SERIES HISTORY

St. Louis was a 33-27 overtime winner in its only meeting with the Texans all- time, a come-from-behind affair at Reliant Stadium in 2005. In that game, the Rams recovered from a 24-3 halftime deficit behind the play of unheralded quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, now with the Buffalo Bills.

A St. Louis-based NFL franchise has not hosted a team from Houston since 1985, when the Oilers defeated the Cardinals at Busch Stadium.

The Texans' Gary Kubiak and Rams' Steve Spagnuolo will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.

WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL

In addition to momentum and motivation and all that jazz, the offensive matchups seem to favor the Texans as well. At quarterback, Matt Schaub has posted a 105.7 passer rating - including 333.3 yards per game and six touchdowns - in three games against NFC foes in 2009. He is 186 yards short of becoming the franchise's first 4,000-yard passer. On the receiving end, standout Andre Johnson leads the league with 1,237 yards and can become the first player since Jerry Rice to occupy the No. 1 spot in consecutive seasons. He needs one TD catch to eclipse the mark of eight he set in both 2007 and 2008. And in his last matchup with the Rams, Johnson torched the defense to the tune of 12 catches for 159 yards and a score. On the ground, veteran Chris Brown gained 83 yards in his lone career meeting with St. Louis - while with Tennessee in 2005.

An overall minus-10 turnover margin and an average of 370 total yards allowed per week go a long way toward explaining how the Rams have lost 12 of 13 games in 2009. As referenced earlier, St. Louis has been outscored by 215 points over 13 outings - including five games of 30-plus against, and two with 40 or more allowed. The 47-7 drubbing by Tennessee last week saw the Titans wind up with 446 yards, including 160 on the ground. Veteran Leonard Little has 6.5 of the team's 20 sacks, all of which have come in the last 11 games. He has 25.5 sacks in his last 31 games against AFC opponents. Other individual superlatives including youngster Laurinaitis, who leads with 104 tackles. Also, second- generation prodigy Chris Long has four sacks in his past six games. Strong safety James Butler has a team-best three of the Rams' eight interceptions.

WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL

The Rams are part of a seemingly league-wide flux of quarterbacks, with starter Marc Bulger presumably lost for the season with a fractured shin bone. No. 1 back-up Kyle Boller didn't play last week due to a thigh injury and then sat out Wednesday's practice with illness, leaving No. 3 man Keith Null on the verge of a second straight appearance. Null threw a TD pass against Tennessee last week while completing 27 of 43 passes for 157 yards, with five interceptions. Regardless of who starts, running back Steven Jackson figures to be a focal point while adding to a conference-best 1,279 yards on the ground and/or a team-best 46 receptions. He's averaged an NFL-best 124.2 yards from scrimmage since 2006, and, in his lone career game against Houston, rushed for 110 yards and a TD. Through the air, rookie wideout Brandon Gibson had a team- high six catches for 43 yards from Null last week.

Only three opponents have gone beyond 30 points - only one since Week 3 - against an increasingly respectable Houston defense that's in the middle of the NFL pack with 329.3 total yards allowed per week. Young talent leads the way, especially up front, where recent No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams continues to shine with a team-best eight sacks as he approaches double-digits for a third straight season. He has 15 sacks in 17 career December games. Also, rookie linebacker Brian Cushing leads the team and all NFL rookies with 112 tackles. In the backfield, the aforementioned Pollard's TD last week was the first of his career. His three INTs on the season are also a career-best and share the team lead with Cushing, the 15th overall selection in last April's draft out of USC. Pollard is in his fourth season - first with the Texans - out of Purdue.

FANTASY FOCUS

Houston's Johnson figures to be the biggest play in this contest, based on both his season-long numbers and previous mastery of the Rams. His success should also breed success for Schaub, who's fourth in the league in yards and fifth in TD passes. As for St. Louis, Jackson is the only real fantasy commodity on either side of the ball. That last statement - and the paucity of talent under center for the Rams - makes the Texans' defense close to a gimme as well.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Even without the lingering, though unlikely, lure of the playoffs, this is a game the Texans simply should not lose. If they want to either establish themselves this season, or be considered anything approaching a legitimate contender for 2010, a decisive victory is required. And against a team with zero options at quarterback and only one player of real note elsewhere on offense, it should come with little incident.

You want a barometer game, Houston? Here it is.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texans 30, Rams 17.

12/17 13:17:45 ET

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