When the 2012 NFL schedule first came out back in April, a Week 6 primetime matchup between the Houston Texans and Green Bay Packers looked like a potential Super Bowl XLVII preview.
Through five weeks of the 2012 season, Houston has held up its end of the bargain. The Packers have not.
The Texans, ranked in the top 5 of both scoring offense and defense, are one of just two NFL teams currently undefeated. The Packers have stumbled to a disappointing 2-3 record, including an upset loss to the Indianapolis Colts last Sunday.
The Texans look Super-Bowl caliber. The Packers can't stop shooting their own foot.
Now, the Packers will make their fifth-ever trip to Houston (4-0 prior, 1-0 vs. Texans) with their 2012 season at a very important crossroads. A loss drops Green Bay to 2-4, which could push the Packers to at least three games back in the NFC North. Recent history isn't on the Packers side: 11 teams started 2-4 or worse last season, and only the 8-8 Denver Broncos ended up in the playoffs. 8-8 isn't getting the Packers into the postseason.
Even with five division games remaining for Green Bay, Sunday night represents as close to a must-win as a team can get this early.
Here's some other things you could watch Sunday night:
In defensive ends J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith, the Texans have arguably the NFL's best interior passing-rushing duo. Watt is second in the NFL in sacks with 7.5, while Smith has 8.5 over the last 20 games and made the Pro Bowl in 2011.
The Packers struggles in protecting the passer this season are well-documented. After being sacked 21 times through five games, quarterback Aaron Rodgers is on pace for a franchise record 67 this season.
Consider these telling stats from Grantland's Bill Barnwell: Rodgers has been sacked on 10 percent of his drop backs this season, including an NFL-high 13.8 percent of third downs. The percentage on third down is over twice what Rodgers has been sacked over previous two seasons.
If the Packers get into predictable third-down passing situations in Houston, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will do his best to make sure that 13.8 percent number goes up after Week 6. He doesn't necessarily have to dial up big-time pressure the way Watt and Smith are playing inside.
Receivers need to win
To build on the last point above, expect Phillips to bring a lot of four-man rushes and drop seven into coverage, including two safeties deep. It's a formula that has worked against Rodgers for defensive coordinators this season, and the Texans have the horses up front to consistently pressure Rodgers with four. In fact, no team in the NFL has a higher sack rate this season when rushing just four players than the Texans.
More four-man rushes will likely mean a familiar look for Rodgers: Seven players in coverage against four- or five-man receiver routes. The Packers receivers mantain that they've been beating press-coverage and getting open downfield, even against heavy coverage looks. But that's a contestable notion considering how many times Rodgers has been sacked while holding the football this season.
Sunday night in Houston, the receivers need to consistently win their matchups on the perimeter. Texans cornerbacks Jonathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson will almost certainly be physical with Jordy Nelson and James Jones at the line of scrimmage, but Rodgers likely won't have the time to wait for separation to occur.
Discipline on defense
The Texans are 6th in the NFL in rushing yards per game (143.0), but no team is better throwing the football off playaction. That leaves the Packers defense in a precarious situation.
Attacking Arian Foster (and potentially Ben Tate) downhill in the running game can leave the necessary space behind the linebackers and in front of the safeties for Matt Schaub to butcher the Packers defense, but sitting back on your heels in the run game can mean the Texans run all over a suspect defense at stopping the run (114.2 yards/game, 17th in NFL).
The Packers need to upset that balance between an effective run game and playaction passing, and that probably starts and ends with stopping the run early and jumping out to an lead Sunday night. If Houston takes an early lead via the run, this game could get ugly for Dom Capers' defense.
Ways of replicating the run
Losing running back Cedric Benson (Lisfranc injury) is a big blow. While the Packers were not becoming a power run team with Benson healthy, the veteran back brought an air of respectability to the run game and balance to the playsheet. Benson also carried on over 85 percent of Green Bay's called runs before going down in Indianapolis. His injury now brings the Packers offense back to square one with Alex Green, James Starks, John Kuhn and Brandon Saine in the backfield.
More than likely, Green Bay will need to manufacture news ways to appear balanced and replace Benson's production on the ground. Slip screens, swings screens, delayed runs and underneath routes to Randall Cobb are all ways Mike McCarthy can pick up intermediate gains while also negating the Texans pass rush.
The Packers will still need production from Green and Starks when McCarthy dials up a run, but handing off to one guy 20 times probably isn't in the cards Sunday night. McCarthy has to get creative against this front seven.
Everyone is already writing off the 2-3 Packers, but McCarthy and Rodgers have historically rose to the occasion in this situation. Green Bay took down a 6-2 Cowboys team in 2009 after a 4-4 start and beat both Minnesota and New York after a 3-3 start a year later. This week feels a lot like the lead up to those season-changing wins.
But for all the intangible reasons to pick the Packers this week, the Xs and Os of this matchup are simply not in Green Bay's favor. The Texans are the most balanced team in football, featuring a multi-pronged offense and a defense that can smother a game plan up front. The Packers' one strength on offense is struggling and the defense has yet to establish any kind of identity. This is also a beat-up football team that will likely be without tight end Jermichael Finley and nose tackle B.J. Raji. Receiver Greg Jennings has already been ruled out.
I don't see the Packers being able to either stop the run or establish any ground game offensively, which plays right into the Texans' hands on both sides of the football. Rodgers will play better, but beating a Super Bowl caliber football team on the road takes more than just Rodgers.
The Texans, who are currently the better team in every facet of the game besides maybe special teams, drop the Packers to a very dangerous 2-4 with a double-digit win.
Texans 34, Packers 24 (Season record: 1-4)