1. Make some plays in the return game. Buffalo’s biggest advantage against the Texans is found on special teams. The Bills rank first in kick return average and punt return average, while Houston is last in the NFL on both kickoff returns and kickoff coverage (based on average drive start after kickoffs). Bills returner Leodis McKelvin is a threat to take the ball deep at any point. His average punt return of 24.0 yards is almost 10 yards better than anyone else in the NFL. McKelvin just needs some help from his defense in making third down stops to force the Texans to punt. The Bills are allowing opponents to convert 47.3 percent of their third downs. That’s the worst number in the league.
2. Will the real Super Mario please stand up? Mario Williams is 12 days removed from surgery on his left wrist. He’s optimistic that the procedure will transform his season. His first chance to prove that comes today. Williams says he doesn’t have any extra motivation from playing against his former team. Does anyone believe that? He’ll mostly line up across second-year right tackle Derek Newton, who’s in his first season as a starter. Williams’ best two games this season, against Cleveland and Arizona, came against young right tackles. He needs to not just win, but dominate the matchup with Newton today.
3. Tighten up the red zone. The Bills rank dead last in the NFL in percentage of touchdowns allowed to their opponents inside the red zone. Buffalo’s opponents have reached the red zone 25 times and crossed the goal line 19 times, 76 percent. The Bills have allowed five field goals, meaning opponents have scored 24 out of 25 times. If they can turn more of those red zone trips from six into three, they’ll hang in the game longer.
4. Give Chris Hairston some help. It’s not a great week for changes to the offensive line, with a matchup against the NFL’s leader in sacks looming. But with Erik Pears doubtful because of a hip injury, the likelihood is second-year man Chris Hairston will have the herculean task of blocking Houston’s J.J. Watt, who has 9.5 sacks. The Bills can help Hairston by keeping tight end Lee Smith on the right side of the line. Smith is a tremendous blocker. Buffalo will also have to rely on running back Fred Jackson to “chip” block Watt. Jackson is one of the best in the league at that.
5. Control the clock. This will be a tall order against a Texans team that leads the NFL in time of possession, holding the ball more than 35 minutes (35:23) a game. The Bills are in the bottom half of the league in time of possession at 29:23. The obvious improvement the Bills must make is in their run defense, which is giving up 6.0 yards per carry and 176.9 yards per game. Getting off the field on third down starts with being better on first down. The Bills are giving up an AFC-worst 6.62 yards on first down plays.
Outlook: The Bills sense their backs are against the wall. The bye week afforded them the opportunity to get healthier and make the tweaks coach Chan Gailey found necessary. Unfortunately, the Texans had that same chance. The Bills should put in a game effort, but it won’t be enough to hang with the AFC’s top team.
Prediction: Texans 30, Bills 20