The nuts and bolts

SAINTS at TEXANS

Noon Sunday, NRG Stadium Houston

TV: Fox

Radio: WWL-AM, 870; WWL-FM, 105.3; WDGL-FM, 98.1; KMDL-FM, 97.3

Favorite: Texans by 3

Over/under: 48

Storyline of the day: Resurgent Texans seem primed to exploit Saints’ weaknesses

Sean Payton said the Houston Texans aren’t the same team that was struggling earlier in the season. He isn’t wrong.

The Saints head to Houston to face a 5-5 team that recently has played much better than its record — and will be getting its preferred quarterback, Brian Hoyer, back. This is a scary team that should not be overlooked.

No one needs to be reminded of J.J. Watt. The defensive end is as ubiquitous off the field as he is on it, and he will give the offensive line issues, particularly those who line up on the right side.

Against receiver DeAndre Hopkins, cornerback Delvin Breaux will face his biggest test since matching up against the Falcons’ Julio Jones. Hopkins, who has 76 receptions for 1,045 yards and nine touchdowns, has emerged as one of the better receivers in the NFL and has a knack for contorting his body to make catches no one else can make.

The Saints will have an interesting decision to make in how to defend him. They can deploy Breaux, hope for the best and use the rest of the defense to match up against the rest of the guys. Or they can focus on Hopkins and pay less respect to the rest. Either way, Houston possesses players who could cause fits for the Saints.

This Texans team is not the pushover it once appeared to be. After a rough start, the Texans have won four of their past five, including a stingy performance against the Bengals that resulted in a 10-6 victory.

New Orleans is going to have to be on point on both sides of the ball to have a shot at coming out of this with a victory. And that is an especially urgent task this week — and every week moving forward — if the Saints hope to have any chance of making the playoffs.

Four downs

1. Guarding Brees During New Orleans’ game against the Washington Redskins, the team rotated Senio Kelemete and Tim Lelito at left guard. It’s possible the team will take a similar approach this week, but it wouldn’t be a shock if they try something entirely different by using rookie Andrus Peat at the spot. A natural tackle, he might be the best option at guard.

2. Containing Hopkins It will be fascinating to see how the Saints go about stopping receiver DeAndre Hopkins. If Rob Ryan were still the defensive coordinator, the best guess would be that Delvin Breaux matches up with him. With Dennis Allen now leading the charge, maybe the Saints play sides or use a different approach.

3. Scheme change Speaking of Allen, one of the more interesting aspects of this game will be to see how the team changes — if at all — on defense. Allen historically has been aggressive and likes to disguise his coverages. It will be difficult for him to introduce major change, but it seems safe to assume some things will be different.

4. Backing it up New Orleans should have Ramon Humber and Hau’oli Kikaha available, which should help with some of the issues the team has faced at linebacker. More than anything else, the defense needs to show some improvement here. The lackluster play of the backups has been one of the biggest reasons behind the skid.

Injury report

Saints

OUT: Dannell Ellerbe (hip), LB David Hawthorne (thigh), CB Damian Swann (concussion) PROBABLE: LB Stephone Anthony (lower leg), T Terron Armstread (knee), LB Ramon Humber (hamstring), RB Mark Ingram (shoulder), LB Hau’oli Kikaha (ankle), WR Willie Snead (knee)

Not having Ellerbe or Hawthrone available will be something the team has to overcome, but having Humber and Kikaha should help — assuming they play. The Saints have had major issues at linebacker the past few weeks, and it’s been one of the biggest culprits behind the recent slide. To have a chance against the Texans, New Orleans needs to get better play here.

Texans

PROBABLE: RB Alfred Blue (back), CB A.J. Bouye (concussion), LB Max Bullough (shoulder/hamstring), LB Jadeveon Clowney (wrist), DT Christian Covington (hip), LB Akeem Dent (hamstring), QB Brian Hoyer (concussion), CB Kareem Jackson (ankle), CB Charles James (foot), C Ben Jones (hand), CB Jonathan Joseph (knee/wrist), LB Whitney Mercilus (back), T Derek Newton (elbow), S Eddie Pleasant (neck), RB Chris Polk (knee/hamstring), WR Nate Washington (hip)

Predictions

Nick Underhill: Saints 24, Texans 23

This is one of the hardest games to predict. No one knows what to expect from this defense. Perhaps New Orleans is revitalized by new defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. Maybe it isn’t.

Coming off a bye, even with how good Houston is playing, gives the Saints an edge. There are plenty of reasons to pick Houston, but maybe New Orleans finds a way to pull through in this one.

Joel A. Erickson: Texans 24, Saints 20

Picking New Orleans this season has been almost impossible, but if there’s a common thread, it seems to be that teams with a pass rush can make life difficult enough on the Saints offense to keep the game from becoming a shootout.

Whatever else Houston is or has, the Texans have J.J. Watt, who will line up away from Terron Armstead and wreak havoc all day.

Scott Rabalais: Texans 25, Saints 23

A few weeks ago, this was one of those winnable road games on the manageable second half of the Saints’ schedule.

Now the Saints have lost two straight, the most recent defeat a 33-point dismantling at Washington, while Houston has grabbed a share of the AFC South lead. Things change quickly in the NFL, but they won’t change quickly enough to bail out the Saints.