The Green Bay Packers (2-3) make the long journey south Sunday night for a game against the perfect Houston Texans (5-0) that looked like a potential Super Bowl XLVII preview when the NFL schedule first came out in April.
Through five games, the Texans still look like an AFC favorite. The Packers are struggling to even stay playoff relevant.
A difficult early schedule for Green Bay has combined with a struggling offense and a defense void of turnover plays, resulting in a disappointing 2-3 record and third place in the NFC North behind the 4-1 Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears.
Falling to 2-4 Sunday night would put the Packers in a major hole just six weeks into the 2012 season.
Here are the matchups that will likely decide whether Green Bay improves to 3-3 or the Texans remain perfect:
Packers RT Bryan Bulaga vs. Texans DE J.J. Watt
Widely considered an up-and-coming tackle capable of making the Pro Bowl in 2012, Bulaga has regressed in pass protection this season. The numbers from Pro Football Focus back up that claim. After allowing just 21 total pressures (one sack, two quarterback hits and 18 hurries) in 2011, Bulaga has already allowed 24 this season (three sacks, three quarterback hits and 18 hurries).
His attempt at a rebound doesn't get any easier Sunday night, with the early front-runner for the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award expected to see a number of snaps across from Bulaga. Watt, a 2011 first-round pick, has 7.5 sacks, five tackles for losses and eight pass defensed in five games.
Excuse the hyperbole, but Watt has been the definition of unblockable this season.
While defensive coordinator Wade Phillips lines Watt up across the defensive line, the defensive end does a majority of his work from the defense's left side. It will be on Bulaga and right guard Josh Sitton to ensure Watt doesn't single-handedly blow up another offensive game plan Sunday night.
Packers CB Tramon Williams vs. Texans WR Andre Johnson
Williams and the Packers secondary got a taste of what a crafty veteran receiver can do to a struggling pass defense last Sunday. Colts receiver Reggie Wayne, 33, carved up Green Bay for 13 catches for 212 yards and the game-winning touchdown in the Packers' Week 5 loss.
Johnson, 31, represents another test Sunday night.
Johnson is on pace for just 54 catches this season, which would a new career-low during a healthy season. Expect the Texans to find new ways of getting Johnson involved against a reeling Packers secondary.
Williams, a former undrafted free agent pickup of the Texans, is playing closer to his 2010 form, but Wayne got the best of him on several occasions Sunday. He needs a better performance against another dangerous receiver in Houston.
Packers KR/PR Randall Cobb vs. Texans Coverage Units
If the Packers have a clear advantage Sunday night, it may come on special teams, and especially in the return game. Houston has already allowed a kick and punt return for a touchdown this season, and opponents are averaging almost 26 yards a kick return and 12 on punts.
Joe McKnight of the Jets took a kick return 100 yards to bring New York back into striking distance in the second half Monday night.
The Packers will bring Randall Cobb to Houston Sunday night. Cobb, a top-10 returner average-wise in both kicks and punts last season, has three return scores in just 21 career NFL games. A big return could help spark a struggling offense on the road.
Packers LBs A.J. Hawk and D.J. Smith vs. Texans RB Arian Foster
Few NFL teams are better at executing the zone-blocking scheme, and Foster is a perfect fit at running back. He isn't overly fast or physical, but his feel for pressing the edge and finding the seam when defenses over-commit is among the best in the business.
Hawk and Smith have been better this season at attacking downhill in the running game, but two other factors will be in play here for the Packers linebackers .Foster will not only pressure the gap integrity on outside stretch plays, but the Texans' playaction game puts a lot on the linebackers to correctly react.
Play flatfooted, and Foster will run over the Packers defense. Play overaggressive, and Matt Schaub will carve up this defense on intermediate routes off playaction.
It's a mental and physical game that Hawk and Smith need to be consistent with Sunday night.
Packers WR Randall Cobb vs. Texans CB Brice McCain
Cobb was already mentioned as a factor in the kicking game, but his role on offense will be equally important.
Considering Texans starting cornerbacks Jonathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson have allowed just one touchdown this season, Cobb's matchup with McCain in the slot could be the engine that makes the Packers offense go Sunday night.
According to PFF, Cobb has caught 17 passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns from the slot this season. Despite just 110 slot snaps, Cobb's 17 receptions are the fifth-most in the NFL.
McCain, the Texans nickelback, has allowed just seven receptions while covering the slot in 2012.
Without Cedric Benson in the lineup, the Packers may have to employ Cobb in the short passing game as a quasi-running game. It will be on McCain to ensure Cobb isn't the game-breaker Sunday night.
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