With the first of the two annual meetings between the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans coming up this Sunday, things seem to be a lot different. Probably because this is the first time this far into a season that the two are meeting for sole possession of first place in the AFC South.
The Titans are coming off of a bye week following a brutal loss to the Steelers and the Texans are coming off of their third loss in four games. So both teams are looking to right the ship and get their season back on track.
This is far from a "must win game" for the Texans, but it could go a long way in determining how the rest of their season shakes out. You don't want to fall two and a half games behind the Titans in the standings and surrender a potential tiebreaker to them. Also, falling to 3-4 on the season in a year that had high expectations is not a good scenario for the Kubiak administration.
To get back on track, there are five key players for the Texans that need to have big games. Let's take a look at them now.
Matt Schaub - You have to start at the top, and that means Matt Schaub, who has struggled thus far in 2011, needs to have a big game. I realize that his safety valve Andre Johnson is still out, but there are plenty of other weapons on this offense to help him succeed against Tennessee.
I'm not ready to run Schaub out of town like most of the masses in Houston, but if he lays an egg this Sunday that could all change real fast. If it's a close game in the fourth quarter, he needs to make the plays to win.
Arian Foster - With Johnson being out, teams have committed their safety to the box and Foster has been losing that equation. But that doesn't explain his lack of burst in the open field or his new habit of dropping passes right in his hands. For the first time since he's been a starter, he has also looked indecisive with his cuts.
If this team can't get the ball moving with the run, the defense will just tee off on Schaub. And when that happens, he gets "happy feet" and loses any effectiveness. I don't know if he needs to take some runs outside or what, but his play the last two weeks must improve for this offense to start clicking again.
Jason Allen/Kareem Jackson - I'm counting this as one since it appears these two are interchangeable. By now we all know of Kareem Jackson's shortcomings: He lacks top corner speed, can't cover and never makes a play on the ball. Jason Allen does the same things, but he'll get you an interception or a big play here and there. However, if Kubiak's latest press conference is to be believed, Kareem is still going to be the starter come hell or high water.
With Kenny Britt out for the season, the Titans have no deep threat. This means that Johnathan Joseph is unlikely to get thrown at much in this game. It also means that Jackson and/or Allen is going to see a lot of targets. They need to be at least average for Houston to win this one. Under no circumstances should they let Matt Hasselbeck beat them consistently.
Brooks Reed - Pretty much until the end of the season, Houston is going to need the rookie to grow up real quick. Stepping in for a star like Mario Williams is never going to be easy, but Reed has played well the past two games.
He may not be accumulating sacks and I know that's the only thing casual fans look for at the end of the day, but as long as he is disruptive and not horrible against the run, he should be fine. The sacks will come in time off of his effort and energy alone. He will need to get Hasselbeck's uniform dirty this Sunday.
Jacoby Jones - This one should be a permanent fixture on this list until he proves he can do it consistently. This is another one of those guys who Gary Kubiak is going to play no matter what. Last week, he had a good game and made some big catches. But the thing with Jacoby has never been his talent, but whether or not he can perform in a consecutive string of games or not. So fan, it's been not.
Derrick Mason is still getting acclimated and he's probably just going to be the slot guy for now anyways, so Jacoby needs to put on his big boy pants and start making defenses have to do more than just cover him with the referee.
This is a big game and the Texans need to win it. Another disappointing road loss to a decent team and this franchise may start to lose it's loyal fanbase. Lord knows they've put up with a lot up to this point and spent thousands upon thousands of dollars on season tickets and merchandise. It's past time to show them it was for a good cause. It all starts with Houston present beating Houston past on Sunday in Tennessee.