Packers vs. Texans: Preview, Prediction & Analysis for Sunday Night Football
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If everyone truly loves an underdog, then a good portion of the general football-watching public will be rooting on the Texans as they take on the Green Bay Packers Sunday night on NBC at 7:20 p.m. CT.
As a team that's had little success since entering the NFL in 2002, it's easy to embrace the Texans. They qualified for the playoffs for the first time in franchise history last season and have continued their string of good play into 2012.
The Packers, meanwhile, are one of the most tradition-rich teams in the NFL. They had the best record in the NFL last season and won the Super Bowl two years ago.
This year has been a different story, however. Green Bay comes into Houston with a below .500 record at 2-3, looking to get back on track with a win on the road against a good opponent.
Packers Run Game vs. Texans Run Defense
The attention will be on the Packers' running backs now that Cedric Benson has been placed on the injured reserve/designated for return list.
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy has acknowledged that Alex Green will get the start on Sunday against the Texans, but the majority of the workload will go to the running back with the hot hand.
James Starks has been a starter for the Packers in the past, most notably during their Super Bowl run two seasons ago, but he hasn't played yet this season while recovering from a turf toe injury.
Green and Starks, along with some combination of fullback John Kuhn, the multi-dimensional Randall Cobb and the speedy Brandon Saine, will form a running back by committee approach for Green Bay.
They'll face a Texans defense that ranks in the top 10 in the NFL at stopping the run by allowing an average of less than 100 yards per game (85.4). The Packers' offensive line will have its hands full with a Texans defensive line consisting of Defensive Player of the Year candidate J.J. Watt, the underrated Antonio Smith and nose tackle Shaun Cody.
Packers Pass Game vs. Texans Pass Defense
The vaunted Packers passing game isn't putting up numbers like it did a season ago and is searching for answers.
In truth, the problems are everywhere. Injuries have put Greg Jennings and Benson on the shelf. Production from the receivers has been subpar. The offensive line has allowed the second-most sacks in the NFL. And even though the reigning NFL MVP hasn't exactly been poor, his play is far off the pace of 2011 and the playoff run of 2010.
Certainly, the talent is still there. And perhaps it's only a matter of time until the aerial attack starts operating at peak efficiency. Even without Jennings, Aaron Rodgers still has a lot of weapons at his disposal in Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Donald Driver.
The Packers' offensive line needs to try to find a way to contain Watt and his pass-rushing cohort, Brooks Reed. That duo has been a big reason why the Texans are ranked third in the NFL in pass defense, giving up an average of 190.2 yards through the air per game.
Right tackle Bryan Bulaga has been particularly vulnerable this year by giving up 24 pressures, according to ProFootballFocus.com (premium subscription), which comes as a surprise. Bulaga was viewed as an up-and-comer prior to this year, but he's had the most trouble of any Packers offensive lineman in 2012. Perhaps his early-season knee injury has affected him more than anyone is willing to admit.
Texans Run Game vs. Packers Run Defense
Arian Foster is the focal point of the Houston run game and has gained a reputation as one of the best running backs in the NFL. After joining the league as a rookie in 2009, Foster led the NFL in rushing in 2010, was second in 2011 and is currently second this season with 532 yards, only a few yards behind Jamaal Charles of the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Packers are a middling team at stopping the run, ranking 17th in the NFL by giving up an average of 114.2 yards per game. Foster isn't likely to be stopped cold, but if the Packers could hold him under 100 yards, they could probably consider that a winning effort.
One player worth watching is Green Bay defensive lineman B.J. Raji, who is questionable for Sunday's game with an ankle injury. He was originally hurt in the Colts game the previous week and didn't practice all week.
McCarthy said Raji will be a game-time decision and is comfortable allowing him to play even though he hasn't practiced.
An underrated hero in the Packers' run defense this season has been linebacker A.J. Hawk, who has quietly been putting together a good campaign. He'll need another solid performance on Sunday if the Packers have any hopes of containing Foster.
Texans Passing Game vs. Packers Pass Defense
The Texans have put together a nice collection of skill-position talent between quarterback Matt Schaub, wide receiver Andre Johnson and tight end Owen Daniels.
Schaub is in the midst of one of his best seasons as a professional with a 99.2 passer rating through the first five games of the season.
There's a variety of weapons for Schaub to throw to, headlined by Johnson. Despite not doing anything special this season, he's still a threat and cannot be taken lightly by the Packers' defense, which has allowed twice as many passing touchdowns this season (10) as it has interceptions (five).
Coming into his own has been former Wisconsin tight end Owen Daniels who leads the Texans in catches (23), receiving yardage (311) and receiving touchdowns (three).
The Packers' secondary has been up and down this season with top-notch performances against the Bears and Seahawks, but poor outings against the 49ers, Saints and Colts. It's impossible to tell what type of performance it'll turn in on Sunday.
Not only is Cobb a key factor on special teams, but he's becoming a bigger part of the Packers offense too.
Cobb played 66 percent of the Packers' offensive snaps last week in Indianapolis, his biggest play-time percentage of the year.
Who will win?
What's unique about Cobb is how the Packers have been utilizing him. He's been a receiver, but he has also lined up in the backfield, and sometimes he is motioned out of the backfield. He's lightning quick and deadly in the open field and has become a jack-of-all-trades for the Packers.
The Texans have also given up two touchdown returns this season, which will have Cobb and the rest of the Packers' special teams players salivating.
The Texans have been too good this season and the Packers have been too inconsistent to predict any other outcome than a Houston win.
Would it be a surprise to see the Packers get a victory? Absolutely not. It's just not the most likely outcome given the time (coming into the game with a losing record) and place (on the road).
The Texans will get a win with the same formula they've used all season: Solid defensive play led by Watt and a balanced offense with strong games from both Foster and Schaub. Houston wins 33-27.
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