WHEN: Noon Sunday
WHERE: NRG Stadium, Houston
RADIO: WWL-AM, 870; WWL-FM, 105.3 in New Orleans; KMDL-FM, 97.3 in Lafayette; WDGL-FM, 98.1 in Baton Rouge
RECORDS: New Orleans 4-6; Houston 5-5
COACHES: Saints, Sean Payton, 10th season (84-54); Texans, Bill O’Brien, second season (14-12)
LAST WEEK: Houston is officially on a run. Playing with backup quarterback T.J. Yates, the Texans rode a dominant performance from J.J. Watt on defense and an impressive day from DeAndre Hopkins against Darrelle Revis to a 24-17 win over the New York Jets that keeps Houston right in the thick of the AFC South race.
Offense: Everything on Houston’s offense begins with Hopkins. The breakout star ranks second in the NFL in touchdown catches (nine), and third in both catches (76) and yards (1,045). What makes Hopkins’ performance even more impressive is that he’s played with three starting quarterbacks this season and doesn’t have a consistent running mate. C.J. Shorts (31 catches) and Nate Washington (30 catches) are solid veterans, but neither has been consistent this season. Hopkins gets a boost this week with the return of Brian Hoyer, who’s turning in an efficient season despite his journeyman reputation. Hoyer has completed 59.5 percent of his throws for 1,704 yards, 13 touchdowns and just four interceptions this season.
Houston’s weakness has been the running game. The Texans are averaging just 3.3 yards per carry, tied for last in the league. With Arian Foster out for the year, Houston will use a combination of Alfred Blue and Chris Polk against a Saints defense that has made some of the league’s worst rushing attacks look dominant.
Defense: Watt remains the NFL’s best defender. Watt leads the league in sacks (11.5), tackles-for-loss (21) and quarterback hits (33), and the fact that he usually lines up on the left side or the interior means Terron Armstead will get precious few chances to block Watt, leaving the duty to Zach Strief and the interior. Watt also has solid complementary pass rushers, getting 6.5 sacks from Whitney Mercilus and 3.5 from John Simon, plus sporadic help from former No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney.
Behind that front, Houston’s defense is on a tear. After hitting a low point by giving up 503 yards to Miami, the Texans have allowed just 244.7 yards per game over their last three, including just 256 to Cincinnati’s high-scoring attack. With solid cornerbacks in veteran Johnathan Joseph and rookie Kevin Johnson, Houston ranks fifth in the NFL in passing yards allowed and 12th in opposing quarterback rating, but the Texans are a little worse against the run, where Houston’s 20th in yardage allowed. Middle linebacker Brian Cushing remains a difference-maker at the second level.
Special teams: Kicker Nick Novak and punter Shane Lechler are reliable veterans, and return man Keith Mumphery is solid, although he hasn’t been explosive. Houston’s coverage units have struggled at times; there’s potential for Marcus Murphy to make a big play.
Joel A. Erickson