NFL Preview - Houston (4-3) at Buffalo (3-4)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Ryan Fitzpatrick jersey sales probably did not undergo a noticeable spike following the Bills' 20-9 win at the Carolina Panthers last Sunday. But if Fitzpatrick engineers another victory on Sunday when he leads the Bills into battle against the emerging Houston Texans at Ralph Wilson Stadium, that situation could change drastically.
Fitzpatrick, making his first start as a Bill after relieving the injured Trent Edwards (concussion) midway through a sloppy win at the Jets in Week 6, didn't evoke memories of the K-Gun with his performance in Charlotte.
The Harvard product and former St. Louis Ram and Cincinnati Bengal completed just 11-of-22 passes for 123 yards and a touchdown, rushing for another 10 yards and leading the Bills to only 167 total net yards and nine first downs on the day. Four Carolina turnovers were the fire that fueled the win for Buffalo (3-4), which posted scoring drives of 7, 27, 55, and 16 yards.
That said, Fitzpatrick managed the win, and will get a chance to manage another when he makes his first home start as a Bill this week. Buffalo is being cautious with Edwards, and the fact that Fitzpatrick has walked off the field a winning quarterback the past two weeks is likely lending to that approach.
The Bills' upset win on Sunday gave the team its first road wins on back-to- weeks since the second half of 2004, when Buffalo actually won four away contests in a five-week span to narrowly miss the playoffs following an 0-4 start. And, though Buffalo was left for dead by most after its injury-laden, scoring-challenged 1-4 start, there is cause for optimism that a similar rise from the ashes could be coming for the embattled Jauron and his team.
Not that a club that was a 6-3 home loser to the woeful Browns can take anything for granted, but Buffalo's next six games all appear winnable in their own way. The Bills' three road games over that stretch are at the Titans (0-6), Jaguars (3-3), and Chiefs (1-6). At home, Buffalo could have things tougher competitively, but the Texans (4-3), Dolphins (2-4) and Jets (4-3) have all proven vulnerable.
For its part, Houston will be trying to dash the Bills' hopes of a rejuvenation before they've really started.
The Texans are on their first streak of the year, and in a twist that is largely a switch from the club's dismal eight-season history, it's a winning streak.
One week after humbling the first-place Bengals (28-17) in Cincinnati, Houston outlasted the 49ers, 24-21, at Reliant Stadium last Sunday. The Texans made things a little more interesting than their home fans would have wished, as a 21-0 halftime lead was trimmed to 21-14 early in the fourth quarter, then to 24-21 after Alex Smith hooked up with Vernon Davis for the duo's third touchdown connection of the half.
But the Houston defense held when it mattered, with safety Eugene Wilson ending the comeback attempt by intercepting a Smith pass late, and the Texans survived a game in which star receiver Andre Johnson attempted to play through a lung contusion suffered on a hit earlier in the game.
Johnson, who caught just two passes last week, but leads the NFL in receiving yards (634), is expected to play despite the injury. That is good news for Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, who leads the NFL in passing yards (2074) and touchdown passes (16) as Week 8 commences.
Buffalo leads the all-time series with Houston, 3-1, including a 24-21 road win when the teams last met, in 2006. The Texans are 0-2 against Buffalo since scoring their lone win against them, a 12-10 triumph at Ralph Wilson Stadium in 2003. The Bills' only home win against the Texans occurred in 2005.
The Bills' Jauron is 1-0 against both the Texans and head coach Gary Kubiak.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
Schaub (5 INT) has put up Pro Bowl-type numbers in 2009 to date, posting an impressive 104.4 passer rating and 65.5 completion percentage in addition to his league-leading totals in touchdown passes and yards. Johnson (38 receptions, 4 TD) has been his primary target, but has by no means been the only one, as No. 2 receiver Kevin Walter (18 receptions, 1 TD), emerging slot man Jacoby Jones (8 receptions, 3 TD), and underrated tight end Owen Daniels (39 receptions, 5 TD) have also had their moments. One of Daniels' moments came last week, when he caught seven balls for a game-high 123 yards and a touchdown versus the 49ers. Running back Steve Slaton (341 rushing yards, 27 receptions, 5 TD) has done a good job of keeping defenses honest, and has also been a major contributor in the pass-catching realm, but the second-year-pro has also been beset with fumbling problems. Slaton had 89 yards and two touchdowns on 22 total touches last Sunday, but his third-quarter fumble marked the sixth time in seven games the West Virginia product has put the ball on the ground.
The Bills will counter Schaub and the Houston passing attack with a defense that has managed a whopping nine interceptions in its past two games combined, and is now tied for the NFL lead in that category (13) along with the New Orleans Saints. Rookie safety Jairus Byrd (27 tackles, 5 INT) has burst upon the scene with four picks in the last two weeks, the first NFL rookie to put up back-to-back two-INT days since the Cowboys' Everson Walls in 1981. Byrd and fellow safety George Wilson (39 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) will have to assist cornerbacks Terrence McGee (32 tackles) and Drayton Florence (19 tackles) in slowing the Texans passing attack, while top pass rushers Aaron Schobel (27 tackles, 4 INT) and Chris Kelsay (31 tackles, 3 INT) will try to apply pressure off the edges. The Bills' biggest problem this season, without question, has been a run defense that ranks last in the league in rushing defense (172.4 yards per carry), yards allowed per carry (5.2), and is tied for last in the league in 20-plus-yard rushes allowed (10), along with the Raiders. Tackle Marcus Stroud (32 tackles, 2 INT) is among those who must do a better job of taking away running lanes, and linebackers Paul Posluzsny (26 tackles, 1 INT) and Keith Ellison (68 tackles) must be sharper behind him.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
Fitzpatrick (239 passing yard, 2 TD, 1 INT) hasn't put up anything resembling eye-popping numbers in his two appearances, but he has developed something of a chemistry with No. 1 Buffalo receiver Lee Evans (21 receptions, 3 TD). Evans' best two games of the year have come with Fitzpatrick in the lineup, and two of his three touchdowns on the year have been delivered by the Harvard grad. A quarterback change has not spelled great things for the volatile Terrell Owens (18 receptions, 1 TD), who is putting up career-low numbers and has totaled just six catches for 40 yards in his last two games combined. Given the limitations of the passing game, which extend to an offensive line that has allowed a bloated 21 sacks on the year, the Bills would love to develop more of a rushing presence with Marshawn Lynch (174 rushing yards, 1 TD, 14 receptions) and Fred Jackson (417 rushing yards, 20 receptions, 1 TD). Lynch has averaged just 2.9 yards per carry in his four games since returning from suspension, though he did score Buffalo's first rushing touchdown of the year last week. Jackson has largely taken a back seat since Lynch's return, and managed only two yards on five carries last Sunday.
The Texans don't look capable of being a dominant defensive unit this season, but have shown signs in recent weeks of becoming a credible one. During the two-game winning streak, Houston has held current NFL rushing leader Cedric Benson (16 carries, 44 yards) and well-regarded Niners rusher Frank Gore (13 carries, 32 yards) firmly in check, with a defensive line led by tackle Amobi Okoye (19 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and the linebacking crew of DeMeco Ryans (51 tackles), rookie Brian Cushing (56 tackles, 1 INT), and Zac Diles (26 tackles) all doing their jobs. Cushing had a team-best eight tackles in last week's win, and Ryans pitched in with six solo stops in the win. Houston ranks near the bottom of the league with just nine sacks through seven games, including only three from top pass rusher Mario Williams (24 tackles), and that situation has exposed the Texans' main weakness: the secondary. Though Wilson (16 tackles, 2 INT) added value with an interception from his safety spot last week, cornerbacks Dunta Robinson (24 tackles) and Jacques Reeves (8 tackles) have not been major playmakers for the team. Ex-Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard (23 tackles) has added a bit of life to the unit in the past four weeks, but is still seeking his first big play as a Texan as well.
Fantasy owners of Schaub hold their breath every week hoping that the less- than-mobile signal-caller's former injury problems don't re-surface, but as long as they don't, Schaub is a must-start. The same goes for Slaton, who has been productive despite his fumbling problems; Johnson, as long as he is healthy; and Daniels. Houston generally scores enough points that kicker Kris Brown is a worthy play, but the Texans defense is a middle-of-the-road choice, even against a mediocre Buffalo attack.
The Bills don't have any lead-pipe-cinch fantasy starters, but Evans has caught touchdown passes from Fitzpatrick in each of the past two weeks, and Lynch figures to get enough touches to add some value. The Bills defense has a ton of recent takeaways, though it's hard to know whether that has more to do with the strength of the Bills defense or with the terrible quarterbacks it has had the pleasure of facing.
The road served the Bills well, as Jauron and company got out of an increasingly tense situation with the home fans in Buffalo and looked relaxed in a pair of back-to-back away wins. Bills fans are still hesitant to believe in this team, but a couple of breaks on Sunday against a superior Houston club could have Jauron's popularity in Buffalo on the rise. Unfortunately, it would appear that they're facing the Texans at the exact wrong time. Houston's confidence is peaking after back-to-back decent wins over the Bengals and 49ers, and the Texans simply have too much firepower for the Bills to keep at bay for four quarters. It won't be easy for Matt Schaub and company, but Houston will again make the necessary fourth-quarter plays to emerge with the win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texans 17, Bills 12
10/29 13:55:43 ET