The Buffalo Bills and Houston Texans will meet in Week 9 after enjoying their Bye Weeks, hoping to make a second-half playoff push. For the Texans, that's a much more promising proposition. The Bills, however, have dropped three of their past four and are yielding points at an alarming rate. They're still in the hunt in the AFC, but they will need to change things dramatically on the defensive side of the ball in the second half.
Their first opportunity to do that will come against one of the elite offenses in the AFC. In a game between the two teams with the best AFC records, Houston ran away from Baltimore before their Bye. It was an impressive performance, that, at the time, cemented their status as a likely top seed in the conference. Houston's second half schedule could set up favorably, but they'll need to take care of business at home against an underdog Buffalo team desperate for a win.
Most of the headlines pregame will be focused on the return of defensive end Mario Williams, who left Houston this offseason and signed a massive free agent deal with the Bills. Buffalo made Williams the highest paid defensive player in the league, but he's been nursing a wrist injury recently. He improved with the Bye Week, and is expected to play against his former team.
Meet the Texans
By nearly all measures, Houston is one of the best teams in the NFL. The only blemish on their record is a loss to the Packers, but they responded in a big way with the blowout of the Ravens. Matt Schaub has been steady, but Arian Foster has been the go-to option for Houston on the offensive side of the ball. Foster leads the league with nine touchdowns, but he's also carrying the ball an average of 24 times per game. He has the most rushing attempts this season by a significant margin, so the Bye Week may have been most beneficial to the All-Pro back.
The extra rest, and the opponent, should mean a big day for Foster. The Bills have the worst rush defense in the league, allowing a whopping 176.0 yards per game. They were torched by Chris Johnson in their last game, and they should expect to see more of the same from Foster. In the air, Schaub will go to the reliable Owen Daniels and Andre Johnson. Daniels has repeatedly found space in the middle of the field this season, and leads the team with four touchdown catches. While Johnson may now be on the downward arc of his career, he's still the No. 1 option on the outside and leads the Texans with 34 catches through seven games.
While Foster, Schaub, and Johnson are the well-known offensive stars, it's been the Houston defense that has carried them to the 6-1 record. Houston is among the top five teams in the league against both the pass and run, shutting down opponents in all facets. J.J. Watt has carried over the success of his rookie season for a total break out sophomore year that has him in the running for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Watt will apply pressure up the middle and get in the face of Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, where he's likely to continue his impressive record of batting down balls before they pass the line of scrimmage.
On the ground, it will be strength-on-strength with the Texans' third-ranked rush defense facing the league's third-ranked rush offense. The one way the Bills have gotten to opposing defenses is via the big play, with home run hitter C.J. Spiller breaking off big runs. With a strong secondary to counter any threat from Fitzpatrick, expect Houston to key on Spiller and the run. Houston is still the only team yet to allow a rushing touchdown, a streak they're well aware of and will want to extend.
Meet the Bills
For the Bills, it's all about their defense. Buffalo simply can't stop anyone -- on the ground or through the air. In three of their past four games, they've given up at least 35 points. Week 7 may have been a low point as Matt Hassebeck, Chris Johnson, and a relatively pedestrian Titans' offense scored in bunches. The big free agent acquisition of Williams was expected to overhaul the defense, but the former Texan has just 3.5 sacks and 16 tackles through an injury-plagued first half of the season.
The defense will have to get their act together quickly if Chan Gailey's team wants to have any shot of playing meaningful games in the final month of the season. Their next four games in the month of November are against teams with winning records. Starting the second half against Houston is a tall task, but they'll have to hope the offense can keep pace.
That will be done on the ground with Spiller, who has the ability to strike quickly and break off the big one. Houston's defense has handled opposing rushers this season, but Tennessee's Johnson did shake loose against them in Week 4. Spiller is comparable and has that kind of speed, so he definitely gives Buffalo a shot. Fred Jackson is another one of the league's best rushers when he gets going, and he provides a nice change of pace to Spiller.
But against such a stout defense, Buffalo will need Fitzpatrick to contribute in some way. The Bills' QB has been inconsistent, to say the least. He's been prone to committing ugly turnovers, and the Bills have generally been unable to challenge teams deep down the field. The speedy Stevie Johnson will be the one threat on the outside who can work against a strong Houston secondary. They'll need all their offensive weapons to be at the top of their game in order to keep the defense off the field.
Local Takes: Texans
Tim of Battle Red Blog thinks the former face of the Texans defense will have his best game of the season:
Mario Williams will have his best game of the season on Sunday. I don't think it'll be Super-Mario-Unleashed-Against-The-Broncos, but I think you'll see a very motivated and nasty Mario Williams on Sunday. Derek Newton is going to need help. A lot of it. It'll be interesting to see how that help materializes. No matter how Kubes chooses to attack it, I'll be shocked if Mario doesn't notch at least two sacks against his old team.
Local Takes: Bills
Foster is predicted to have a field day against the Bills' rush defense, but Brian Galliford of Buffalo Rumblings writes about how the Bills may have a shot to at least slow him down:
Everything the Texans do offensively is built around Foster and its zone-blocking scheme. Their passing game, featuring Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson, is not particularly dynamic, but it's always effective thanks to their impeccable (and perfectly set up) play-action game. Buffalo's emphasis will be on containing Foster almost by default, but if they bring it too hard, Schaub, Johnson and the rest of the Texans' underrated receiving weapons will make them pay over the top. That means that key back-seven defenders - especially younger guys like Kelvin Sheppard, Nigel Bradham, Stephon Gilmore and Aaron Williams, among others - will need to be ahead of the curve when it comes to their assignments and their run-pass recognition.
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The Pregame: Week 9, 2012 sbn.to/UoMaRJ— battleredblog (@battleredblog) November 2, 2012
@taniaganguli -- Texans beat reporter
@ByTimGraham -- Bills beat reporter
Bills at Texans game offers juicy ground-game showdownbit.ly/Yxl3Zc— Tim Graham (@ByTimGraham) November 2, 2012
There's a reason Houston is a 10-point favorite. The lock of the week.
The pick: 31-14, Texans
The oddsmakers put the Texans as double-digit favorites at home, with an opening line at 11. That has come down a point in some places, but it's still in double digits.
The Texans will hit the road for a Sunday night showdown against another one of the league's top defenses, the Chicago Bears. Buffalo will make a trip to Foxborough to face a Patriots team that rolled over their defense in the first month of the season.