The Texans can secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win, while the Vikings need a win to stay in the packed NFC wild-card race. The Seattle Seahawks are 9-5 and the Chicago Bears, Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants are all 8-6 on the season.
The Texans are coming off a 29-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts last week that clinched the AFC South title. The Vikings are looking to match their longest winning streak of the season with a third straight victory Sunday.
It's a quarterback-driven league, but it’s the running backs who are the key to both offenses. The Texans wouldn’t be atop the AFC without Arian Foster and the Vikings certainly wouldn’t be in the playoff hunt without Adrian Peterson.
Foster leads the league with 14 rushing touchdowns and is fourth with 1,313 rushing yards. Adrian Peterson has been absolutely dominant, putting himself in the conversation for NFL MVP and in a position to top 2,000 rushing yards.
Peterson has 11 touchdowns and 1,812 rushing yards, which is over 400 yards clear of the next best back, Marshawn Lynch. Look for Peterson to have a bigger impact than Foster in this game, due in part to the passing attack.
Matt Schaub is having another solid season, throwing for 3,555 yards and 22 touchdowns thus far. Schaub will likely target Andre Johnson deep on a few occasions, while tight end Owen Daniels will be expected to move the chains in key situations.
Christian Ponder has struggled throughout the season and has a total of 16 turnovers and a passer rating of just 78.6. On top of that, he no longer has Percy Harvin, one of the league’s best receivers in terms of yards after catch. If the Vikings want to stay in this game, Ponder cannot turn the ball over.
On a special teams note, look for Vikings rookie kicker Blair Walsh to have impact. Walsh has missed just three field goals on the season and is a perfect eight for eight on 50-plus-yard attempts.
Houston’s defense is seventh in the NFL in both points (20.0) and yards allowed per game (325.9). Although their secondary is suspect at times, they should have little trouble against Christian Ponder.
Look for the pass rush to force Ponder to use his feet and for J.J. Watt to get at least one sack. Watt is currently tied with linebacker Aldon Smith of the San Francisco 49ers for the league lead in sacks, with 19.5.
The Texans have the fifth best run defense, allowing 93.2 yards per game, but it’s hard to expect them to keep Peterson below the century mark. Houston's front seven need to limit Peterson's big gains by not letting him consistently break tackles and get into the open field.
Minnesota’s defense has been strong of late, allowing no more than 23 points in each of their last three games. They have not allowed a running back to go over 100 yards since Marshawn Lynch in Week 9. Linebacker Chad Greenway leads the league with 140 tackles and should play a big role in slowing down Foster.
However, slowing down Foster won’t be enough. The Vikings pass rush needs to force Schaub out of the pocket on a regular basis to give the defense a chance to be successful.
With that said, the easiest way to slow down the Texans' balanced offensive attack is to take the football away. In the Texans' two losses this season, their quarterbacks threw a total of four interceptions. The Vikings secondary will have to step up, considering they have just 10 picks on the season.
Peterson will have another great game, but he can’t win this one on his own. The Texans' two losses came against two of the NFL’s best quarterbacks and Ponder simply won’t play well enough to be effective against Houston’s defense.
Texans 24, Vikings 17