NFL Preview - Houston (5-6) at Jacksonville (6-5)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Apparently, neither of them wants to be a second banana.
With top-banana status in the AFC South already sealed up for the Indianapolis Colts, the next two perceived contenders - the Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars - have been in a death struggle in which both have been trying to pass the No. 2 spot to the other as if it were a red-hot potato.
The Texans had won three straight, moved their record to 5-3 and seemed poised to distance themselves from the gaggle before a 20-17 loss at Indy on Nov. 8, triggering a skid that reached three last week when they gave up 28 second-half points and lost to the Colts at home, 35-27.
Jacksonville has ridden a contrary road, but finds itself in a similar place.
The Jaguars searched vainly for consistency in the early going and were just 3-4 on Nov. 2 after less-than-awe-inspiring defeats of Houston, Tennessee and St. Louis were mixed with losses at Indianapolis (14-12), home to Arizona (31-17), at Seattle (41-0) and at Tennessee (30-13).
They then reeled off three straight wins to get to 6-4 and grab a spot in the muddled conference playoff chase, before taking a giant, coma-inducing step backward last week in the form of a 20-3 loss at San Francisco - in which a 73- yard advantage from scrimmage was trumped by two costly fumbles.
Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard called an offense-only meeting after the loss to the Niners.
"I just felt like it was something that needed to be done," Garrard said. "I talked with (tight end) Marcedes (Lewis) and a few of the other guys, and they thought it was a good idea, too.
"Marcedes was trying to make a big push for it. I've been watching (Marcedes), and he's been taking more of a leadership role. It's got to be from the guys that have been here and have done things, so it's good to see him stepping up."
So, entering their battle for middling status in Week 13, the teams find themselves treading water in the South, drifting aimlessly in the conference and suddenly the limping quarry in the eyes of the resurgent Titans, who've won five straight with Vince Young after being left for dead at 0-6.
The Jags maintain a tenuous grip on the second AFC wild card position heading into the weekend, at least temporarily beating out Baltimore by virtue of six conference wins to the Ravens' five and Pittsburgh's four.
Denver holds position No. 1 with a 7-4 mark, ahead of that six-win trio and a quartet of teams - Houston, Miami, the New York Jets and the Titans - with five wins apiece.
The Texans are 10-5 in December under coach Gary Kubiak.
"It's a must-win game," Houston strong safety Bernard Pollard said. "We have to win out. In the last three games, we've found a way to lose. We don't want to make losing contagious. I'd take swine flu all day over losing. The only antidote for losing is to play your butt off. It's self-check time, and everybody understands it."
Houston leads the all-time series with the Jaguars, 8-7, but was a 31-24 home loser when the teams met in Week 3. The clubs embarked on a conventional split of last year's home-and-home, with the Texans coming up 30-27 overtime losers in Jacksonville in Week 4, and exacting revenge with a 30-17 home win over the Jags in Week 13. The Jaguars, who will be going for their first home-and-home sweep of the Texans since 2005, are 2-0 in home games against Houston since falling to the team within friendly confines in 2006.
Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio is 6-7 versus the Texans all-time, including 4-2 in Jacksonville. The Texans' Kubiak is 4-3 against both Del Rio and the Jaguars as a head coach.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
Quarterback Matt Schaub, who's third in the league in yardage and second in the conference in touchdowns, has a pair of four-TD road games on his slate this season. He's been particularly efficient against the Jaguars in his career, completing 69.8 percent of his passes for 866 yards, six touchdowns and a 105.3 passer rating. He's thrown three TDs in his last two starts against Jacksonville, and, with 290 passing yards, will surpass David Carr's single- season franchise record. Also faring well against this week's foe has been running back Steve Slaton, who's averaged 5.6 yards per carry in 43 attempts against Jacksonville. Fellow ground-gainer Chris Brown is nine yards short of 3,000 for his career. On the outside, receiver Andre Johnson is 55 yards from reaching 1,000 for the fourth time and has averaged 92.5 yards per game against South Division foes since 2008. Also, Kevin Walter has racked up 118 yards per game on the Jags' home turf in his last two visits.
Primary among the information for the Jaguars is the absence of cornerback Rashean Mathis, who'll miss the game with a groin injury. The seventh-year man from Bethune-Cookman had two interceptions in his last three games against Houston and led the team with three this season. The rest of the defense has combined for just six in 11 games. Getting a consistent pass rush has also been an issue. Mammoth defensive tackle John Henderson leads the unit with just three sacks, 1.5 more than second-place linebacker Daryl Smith. Smith leads the team in tackles through 11 games with 70, including 57 solos. Collectively, the Jaguars have been outscored in three of four quarters overall, and opponents are averaging 349.5 yards per game, including 106.6 via the run and 242.9 through the air. The team's turnover ratio is minus-2.
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
Whether the offense's meeting will have an impact is unclear, but it's not as if the Jaguars don't have some quality personnel. Garrard has won four of six career starts against Houston with an 82.5 passer rating, while spending much of his time reveling in a ground game that includes mighty mite Maurice Jones- Drew, who's second in the conference in yardage and first in the league in touchdowns. He needs two scores to top Fred Taylor's franchise record for single-season rushing TDs and went for 119 yards and three TDs on 19 carries in the teams' last matchup. Also, three more touchdowns get him to 50 in his career. Elsewhere, youngster Mike Sims-Walker has emerged as the No. 1 target and needs 60 yards to become the first Jaguar with at least 800 in a season since Jimmy Smith in 2005. Alongside, veteran Torry Holt passed Andre Reed to reach 10th in league history in yardage last week. Lastly, tight end Lewis averages a healthy 15.2 yards per catch against Houston.
Rookies have been nothing if not pleasant additions to the Houston unit in 2009. First-round pick Brian Cushing (15th overall, USC), recently named AFC Defensive Rookie of the Month, leads both the team and all NFL rookies with 99 tackles. He also grabbed his third interception last week against the Colts. That total also leads the team. Meanwhile, rookie cornerback Brice McCain (sixth round, Utah) picked off his first pass as a pro last week as well. Crunching the numbers, Houston has been outscored in two of four quarters overall on the season and has posted a plus-1 turnover ratio. Recent No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams has a team-high five sacks and has chipped in with 31 tackles from his spot at defensive end. The Texans surrender a weekly clip of 334.2 yards per game, with 120 on the ground and 214.2 in the air. Largely unsung linebacker DeMeco Ryans is second on the team with 81 tackles and has forced a fumble and deflected a pass.
With a generous pass defense on the other side, especially without Mathis, it ought to be a good numbers day for Schaub, Johnson and perhaps even Walter, who's fared well habitually against the Jaguars. The split of Slaton and Brown in the backfield makes either of them more iffy. For Jacksonville, Jones-Drew is a no-brainer against a team struggling to stop the run. Sims-Walker has also moved to must-use status.
Matchups, matchups, matchups. What will happen first, the Jags stopping a prolific Schaub or the Texans limiting a prodigious Jones-Drew? The guess here is the former, just enough to please the home crowd. Look for MJD to gobble clock and keep the ball away from Houston in a close one.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Jaguars 28, Texans 24
12/03 15:28:39 ET