Week Eight Preview: Houston at Buffalo

The last time the Bills were in the friendly confines of Ralph Wilson Stadium, the confines were, well, unfriendly to say the least. Coming off a horrendous 6-3 loss to Cleveland, the Bills were reeling like a punch-drunk boxer with only the ropes holding them up. But some road cooking turned out to be a blessing for the Bills. They’ve won two straight road games away from home, a 16-13 overtime thriller against the Jets and a gritty 20-9 victory against the Panthers. Now the Bills return home in a lot better shape to face the Houston Texans and red hot quarterback Matt Schaub.

Since an opening day clunker against the Jets, Schaub has captained the Texans to win four of their last six, including two straight victories over Cincinnati and San Francisco. Schaub’s numbers on the year are gaudy. He’s already set a franchise record with 16 passing touchdowns, which leads the NFL. Schaub also leads the NFL with 2, 074 yards passing, and only Peyton Manning (313.3) and Philip Rivers (297.8) have posted a better yards per game average than Schaub’s 296.3.

In three road games this season, Schaub has thrown 10 touchdowns (4 apiece against Tennessee and Cincinnati) to only two interceptions. On the road, Schaub is averaging 373.3 yards passing. His passing yards total has increased in each road game, going from 357 against the Titans to 371 against the Cardinals to 392 against the Bengals.

In any defensive meeting on Wednesday afternoon, most of the discussion about how to stop or slow the opposing quarterback starts with stopping the run. But for Houston, their running game has been stuck on stop this season. The Texans rank 30th in the NFL in rushing averaging just 79.1 ypg, while second-year back Steve Slaton is experiencing a sophomore slump.

A year removed from setting the franchise record with 1,282 rushing yards, through seven games this season Slaton has 341 yards on 109 carries and two touchdowns. While Slaton has found tough sledding on the ground, he’s making up for it through the air. Slaton has 304 yards receiving and three touchdowns, averaging 11.3 yards per catch. He has successive games with a receiving touchdown and he’s caught a touchdown pass in three of the past four weeks. Two weeks ago in Cincinnati, Slaton was a nightmare out of the backfield, catching six passes for 102 yards including a 38-yard touchdown catch and run.

Slaton’s biggest problem this season has been ball security. Not counting quarterbacks, Slaton leads all players with six fumbles. He’s lost four of six fumbles, which puts him in dubious company with embattled Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell for second in the NFL in that category. Slaton has fumbled in five of the seven games thus far this season, including two against Tennessee in Week 2.

The bread and butter of the Texans offense remains getting the ball down the field and Houston’s two best horses to do the job are wide receiver Andre Johnson and tight end Owen Daniels. Johnson leads the NFL with 634 yards receiving, but Daniels’s name isn’t far behind. Daniels leads all NFL tight ends and ranks 10th in the league with 497 yards receiving.

He leads the team with five touchdown receptions, one better than Johnson. His five touchdowns equal his total output the past two seasons. Daniels is coming off a great game against San Francisco, catching seven passes for 123 yards, including a career-long 42-yard touchdown.

While Johnson remains one of the game’s best wide receivers, he won’t be 100% healthy entering Sunday’s game with the Bills. Johnson is nursing a bruised lung suffered in last week’s victory over San Francisco. He is listed as day-to-day, but expect Johnson to be ready to go against the Bills on Sunday.

The Bills turnaround the past two weeks starts with opportunistic defense, sprinkled with some bad quarterbacking. Two weeks ago, Buffalo picked off Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez five times and last week in Carolina, the Bills intercepted Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme three times. In their two straight road victories, the Bills forced a combined 10 turnovers.

Backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick will start for the second straight game this week and since stepping in for injured starter Trent Edwards, Fitzpatrick hasn’t made anyone forget about Jack Kemp or Jim Kelly, but we’re not lumping him in with JaMarcus Russell either. Dating back to last season, Fitzpatrick has won five straight games, completing 21 of 47 passes for 239 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.

Both his touchdowns were to wide receiver Lee Evans, whom Fitzpatrick has developed a good rapport with. His first touchdown pass two weeks ago against the Jets tied the game at 13 and last week, Fitzpatrick’s second score to Evans put the Bills in front 14-2 against Carolina. Last week against Carolina, Evans had his best game of the year catching a season-high five passes for 75 yards and a score.

While the Bills went from stopping the run the first few weeks to stopping nobody since, the Texans have turned around their running woes. After giving up an average of 205.0 yards rushing per game the first three weeks of the season, Houston has stepped it up as of late.

Through the past four games, Houston has given up an average of only 48.5 yards per game while bottling up Cincinnati’s Cedric Benson and San Francisco’s Frank Gore. Two weeks ago, Benson was held to just 44 yards rushing on 16 carries, and last week Gore managed only 32 yards on 13 carries. Both running backs were held to under 3.0 yards per carry.

Fitzpatrick’s first home start for Buffalo could get the Bills back to .500 for the first time since Week 2 against Tampa Bay. While Houston has thrived on the road, Buffalo has not been able to take advantage of their home turf. The Bills are 1-2 at the Ralph, but in their last 2 homes games the Bills have scored a combined 10 points.

Buffalo’s last offensive touchdown at home came when Terrell Owens hauled in a 43-yard pass from Trent Edwards at the 9:16 mark of the fourth quarter. For those keeping score at home, the Bills have gone eight quarters without scoring a touchdown at home.

Buffalo holds a 3-1 advantage in this series, but this will be the first meeting since 2006. The Bills won that Nov.19th contest three years ago, 24-21, in Houston. That was a memorable day for Bills wide receiver Lee Evans, who caught two 83-yard touchdown passes in the first quarter and finished the day with 11 catches for 265 yards and two scores. The Bills have won the past two meetings against the Texans.

Prediction: Buffalo 20, Houston 17. The Bills have won two straight on the road and now they return home with a golden opportunity to beat a quality Houston Texans team and get back to .500 for the first time since Week 2. Houston has been good on the road, going 2-1 so far this year. Even though Schaub is playing like his hair is on fire, something tells me the Bills will be ready in this spot. This could be similar to the game against San Diego at home last season, when the Bills found a way to bottle up a stout Chargers attack. I think the Bills get it done.

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