NFL Preview - Houston (5-6) at Philadelphia (7-4)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Houston Texans are showing they're still willing to fight, both literally and figuratively, for a chance at an elusive first-ever playoff berth in franchise history. The AFC South contenders continue that quest with Thursday's visit to Lincoln Financial Field, where a Philadelphia Eagles team attempting to cement its own postseason hopes lies in wait for a Week 13 interconference bout between two high-powered opponents.
The Texans had just about fallen out of contention in the division race after losing four straight games to begin November, but bounced back with a highly- charged effort to take down the spiraling Tennessee Titans last Sunday at Reliant Stadium. The resounding 20-0 victory, coupled with Week 12 defeats by AFC South front-runners Jacksonville and Indianapolis, moved Houston within a single game of the Jaguars and Colts for the top spot.
Houston took advantage of a depleted Tennessee offense directed by over-his- head rookie quarterback Rusty Smith to record its first shutout since 2004, but the defense's surprisingly sturdy effort was overshadowed by a nasty fourth-quarter brawl between Texans star wide receiver Andre Johnson and chippy Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan that saw both players tossed from the contest.
Neither Johnson nor Finnegan were suspended for the ugly incident, with each receiving $25,000 fines from the NFL office. The verdict brought a sigh of relief to the Texans, who'll have one of their best weapons on the field for a pivotal game against the NFC East co-leading Eagles.
Lost in the Johnson/Finnegan scuffle was the performance of a maligned Houston defense that entered last week's tilt ranked 31st in the league in yards allowed and dead last against the pass. The unit limited the punchless Titans to a paltry 162 total yards and nine first downs while bottling up All-Pro running back Chris Johnson, who mustered a career-low five rushing yards on seven attempts.
Duplicating that display figures to be a tall task, however, against a dangerous Philadelphia contingent that's second in the NFL in both total offense and points scored. The Eagles have put up 26 points or more in all six games in which revitalized quarterback Michael Vick has started and finished this season, while posting a 5-1 record in those outings.
The lone blemish occurred this past Sunday, however, when Philadelphia was outdueled by surging Chicago in a 31-26 setback that ended the Eagles' three- game winning streak. The usually-potent offense was beset by a number of critical breakdowns in the Windy City, managing just one touchdown in five red-zone trips and Vick throwing a costly interception (his first of the season) near the goal line that led to a key touchdown for the Bears.
Philadelphia's defense also wasn't up to par, surrendering four scoring passes to Chicago signal-caller Jay Cutler and 117 rushing yards to running back Matt Forte on only 14 carries. The Eagles may be in for a tough time on that side of the ball again on Thursday, with the Texans bringing the NFL's leading ground-gainer in Arian Foster along with the league's seventh-rated offense in terms of total yardage.
Sunday's loss placed Philadelphia back into a first-place tie with the New York Giants, a 24-20 victor over Jacksonville in Week 12, in the NFC East standings.
The Eagles won their only two all-time meetings with the Texans, downing Houston on the road in the 2006 regular season opener (24-10) and at home (35-17) during the 2002 regular season. Houston-based NFL teams are 0-4 in Philadelphia all-time, including an 0-3 mark there by the Oilers.
Eagles head coach Andy Reid is 2-0 in his career against the Texans, while Houston's Gary Kubiak is 0-1 against both Reid and the Eagles as a head man.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
While Johnson's contributions and presence cannot be minimized, the main driving force behind a balanced Houston offense that's averaging 367.7 total yards per game has been Foster (1147 rushing yards, 48 receptions, 13 total TD), an overlooked MVP candidate who's accounted for nearly 40 percent of the team's output this season. The undrafted second-year pro is fresh off a monster day against the Titans in which he rushed for 143 yards on 30 carries and added a game-high 75 receiving yards on nine catches as one of the primary targets for steady quarterback Matt Schaub (2752 passing yards, 15 TD, 7 INT). Johnson (65 receptions, 869 yards, 5 TD) had nine grabs as well prior his premature exit, and the four-time Pro Bowl honoree's ability to stretch the field and draw added attention from the defense helps open the field for complementary pieces such as wideout Kevin Walter (31 receptions, 4 TD) and tight end Joel Dreessen (22 receptions, 4 TD), who's emerged as a reliable fill-in for the injured Owen Daniels. Schaub enters Thursday's matchups on a three-game streak without a turnover, and the Philadelphia-area native has been intercepted just twice in five road tests this season.
The Eagles head into this week's clash with one big question mark in the secondary, with top-flight cornerback Asante Samuel's (23 tackles, 7 INT, 12 PD) status likely not to be determined until game time due to a sprained left knee that caused him to sit out against Chicago. Without the NFL's interception leader, Philadelphia was burned for 247 yards and four touchdowns by Cutler, and there's no other coverman on the roster you can deem capable of go going one-on-one with Johnson with much confidence. End Juqua Parker (15 tackles, 5 sacks), the team's second-leading sacker, is also iffy with a hip flexor, though rookie replacement Brandon Graham (12 tackles, 3 sacks) took down Cutler once last week and the defense did come up with four sacks total on the day, including a pair from standout rush end Trent Cole (49 tackles, 9 sacks). The Eagles had been playing very well against the run up until last Sunday, with the midseason insertions of tackle Antonio Dixon (23 tackles, 2 sacks) and strongside linebacker Moise Fokou (28 tackles) into starting roles helping shore up an area that was a trouble spot early on. Philadelphia has yielded a scant 81.9 rushing yards per game over its past seven contests.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Philadelphia's offense is among the most explosive in all of football, having produced a league-best 15 plays of 40 or more yards through the first 11 games, and boasts two premier home-run threats in flashy wide receiver DeSean Jackson (35 receptions, 678 yards, 5 TD) and running back LeSean McCoy (779 rushing yards, 59 receptions, 7 total TD). It's also been quite efficient, with Vick (1941 passing yards, 13 TD, 1 INT) having turned the ball over just twice thus far while completing a career-best 63.4 percent of his passes during his impressive comeback campaign. The multi-faceted quarterback is still a major threat with his legs as well, topping all NFL signal-callers in both rushing yards (419) and touchdowns (5), and his scrambling skills are part of the reason why the Eagles have compiled the third-most yards on the ground (146.6 ypg) in 2010. McCoy's done his part as well, with the versatile sophomore averaging five yards per carry in addition to leading all running backs in receptions. The speedy Jackson serves as the big-play element to Reid's diverse pass attack, with underrated wideout Jeremy Maclin (51 receptions, 752 yards, 8 TD), sure-handed slotman Jason Avant (41 tackles, 1 TD) and McCoy utilized as Vick's main options underneath. Pass protection has been an issue at times, with the front line having allowed 32 sacks on the year.
The Eagles' deep corps of receivers will be working against a young and vulnerable Houston secondary that's been routinely toasted by enemy quarterbacks this season. The Texans have permitted a league-worst 25 touchdown passes and a troubling 286.2 yards per game via the air (31st overall), and last week's shutout marked the first time in 2010 the team gave up fewer than 24 points. On the positive side, second-year cornerback Glover Quin (59 tackles, 3 INT, 11 PD) set a club single-game record with three interceptions of the Titans' Smith in Week 12, while Pro Bowl end Mario Williams (26 tackles, 8.5 sacks) is an elite pass rusher who's registered three sacks over the past two weeks. While the defense has been shoddy against the pass, Houston can be awfully tough to run on, as Tennessee found out by gaining an anemic 24 yards on the ground on 12 attempts last Sunday. Outside linebacker and 2009 NFL Defensive Rookie of the year Brian Cushing (47 tackles) and physical strong safety Bernard Pollard (85 tackles) spearhead a group that comes in ranked ninth in the league in rushing defense (100.2 ypg) and has allowed 3.9 yards per carry.
Fantasy competitors will need to set their lineups early this week, as there are a wealth of appealing choices to select from in this potentially high- scoring affair. There hasn't been a single player better from a fantasy perspective than Foster this season, though McCoy's certainly held his own as well. Start both top backs without hesitation, and the same goes for Johnson and the Eagles' stellar wideout combo of Maclin and Jackson. Vick also gets a thumbs-up here in a prime opportunity against Houston's burnable secondary, but Schaub's overall numbers this year have been more in line with a good backup quarterback. Dreessen, who's caught a touchdown pass in two straight games, rates as a potential sleeper pick -- albeit one with risk -- at the tight end spot, and Texans kicker Neil Rackers isn't a bad option at his position. Start Eagles kicker David Akers, who's drilled 13 field goals over the past four weeks, but avoid either defense in a game that has the makings of a shootout.
The shutdown ways of the Houston defense will be short-lived, as the Eagles possess far too much speed and playmaking ability for the Texans to effectively keep under wraps. Philadelphia does have a few issues that need to be sorted out on that end as well, however, and their recent red-zone problems combined with Houston's aptitude for putting up points could ensure a competitive and entertaining contest. A short week often favors the home team, though, and the Eagles' edge in consistency and overall talent should also be enough to throw a wrench into the Texans' playoff plans.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Eagles 30, Texans 24
11/30 17:08:20 ET