SURFACE: Natural Grass
TV: CBS, Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts
PREDICTION: Texans 34-30
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Chargers are 22-5 since 2007 in regular-season games played in November or later and appear primed for another run in the AFC West. QB Philip Rivers' stats haven't suffered with key receivers injured. He's averaging 331.1 passing yards per game, and this week will likely have to keep the passing game rolling minus TE Antonio Gates (foot). San Diego has diversified its approach of late, incorporating multiple backs, including Darren Sproles as a receiver out of the backfield, to peck away at the umbrella defenses they frequently face.
The Texans are equipped for a shootout, as has been the norm with the handicap of a defense ranked 32nd against the pass and 29th in points allowed. To avoid falling in a big early hole, better first-half play from QB Matt Schaub is a must.
FAST FACTS: The Chargers are first in the NFL in total defense and pass defense. ... Schaub is 14-8 at home with the Texans.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
TE Antonio Gates
Tight end Antonio Gates is slowed by three different injuries -- a toe, ankle and plantar fasciitis -- and could be down on Sunday in Houston.
Or, like he has the past two weeks, he will trot out Sunday after not practicing during the week and be productive.
Gates is ailing. But so are the Chargers. And they can ill afford to fall to 3-6 by losing to Houston if Gates doesn't play.
There is no guarantee the Chargers would win for the first time in five road games if Gates did play. But there's little doubt that the offense needs Gates. He leads the NFL with nine touchdown receptions.
Or would the Chargers be better served to let Gates continue to rest his injuries and then extend the down time heading into the bye week? That could give Gates roughly 14 days of not putting pressure on his feet. That might put him, and the Chargers, in a better position for a second-half run.
But the Chargers, at 3-5, are running out of time. That is why Sunday presents a dilemma.
Gates is such a gamer that he will try to go -- no matter how compromised he might be.
But should the Chargers resist taking advantage of his competitive urge by making sure Gates is right for the second half?
The answer might not come until near game time.
If Gates does play, don't underestimate him -- even if he is quiet early in the game. The last two weeks he has eased into the mix and contributed nine receptions for 173 yards and two scores.
If Gates can't go, the Chargers turn to Randy McMichael and Kris Wilson. Between them they have eight catches for 87 yards.
One reason Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has been sacked 21 times is because he likes to hold the ball and wait for his receivers to get open down the field rather than check down to a shorter route.
Rivers, who has thrown seven interceptions, doesn't have to worry much about being sacked or intercepted by the Texans because they have been poor at both.
The Texans have four interceptions in seven games, including two in the last four games. They've recorded 11 sacks -- only two in the last three games.
Based on their lack of pressure, Rivers should be able to stand tall in the pocket and find receivers down the field. The question is who will those receivers be? Injuries and Vincent Jackson's holdout have robbed Rivers of his primary targets, but it hasn't hurt his yardage total because he's on a pace to break Dan Marino's record of 5,084 yards.
The Texans have the 32nd-ranked defense. They have the worst pass defense. They're tied with Philadelphia for the worst red-zone defense.
This one could get ugly.
--LG Kris Dielman (neck) returned to practice and is a go for Sunday.
--WR Malcom Floyd (hamstring) didn't practice and is not going to play Sunday.
--TE Antonio Gates (toe, foot) didn't work but he will likely test it before game time.
--PK Nate Kaeding (groin) was out and he won't kick on Sunday.
--WR Legedu Naanee (hamstring) wasn't able to practice and he will miss the game Sunday.
--ILB Brandon Siler (foot) didn't practice and isn't making the progress the Chargers had hoped for. He could be down Sunday.
--OLB Larry English (foot) was a limited participant. He is at least another week away from being game ready.
--ILB Kevin Burnett (shoulder) was a full participant and will start on Sunday.
--WR Kelley Washington was signed; he was cut by the Eagles before the season. Washington is in his eighth year and has 107 catches for 1,327 yards and 11 touchdowns in his career.
--WR Andre Johnson returned to practice even though he's nursing a high ankle sprain. On Wednesday, it looked as if Johnson wouldn't practice this week even though he's going to play against the Chargers. The injury has caused Johnson to miss one game, a victory at Oakland.
--TE Owen Daniels didn't practice. He suffered a groin injury in Sunday's loss at Indianapolis. He's wearing a tight bandage for protection. In the victory over Kansas City before the bye, Daniels looked like the Pro Bowl tight end he was before undergoing major knee surgery. Coach Gary Kubiak called him day-to-day.
--PK Neil Rackers is going against the player he beat out, Chargers kicker Kris Brown. Rackers is 10-of-12 on field goals. His longest is 53 yards. He's been perfect on 20 extra points. He has four touchbacks on kickoffs that have been returned an average of 22.5 yards. Rackers was signed in the offseason after Brown missed 12 field-goal attempts last season. They went head-to-head during the OTAs, training camp and preseason. Brown was cut on the last roster reduction.
--OLB Kevin Bentley is fired up about his first start at a new position. He started on the strong side for seven games in 2008, but he's been a backup and special teams standout since. For the last two seasons, Bentley backed up DeMeco Ryans in the middle. When Ryans went down for the season, Brian Cushing was moved from the strong side into the middle. Bentley replaced Cushing but didn't play against the Colts because the Texans played their nickel defense. Bentley is a nine-year veteran who's smart, strong and knows every trick. He lacks the athleticism and big-play ability of Cushing.
--DE Antonio Smith plays as hard as any defensive lineman, and it's time for him to put some consistent pressure on the quarterback if the Texans want to beat the Chargers to elevate their record to 5-3 at the midway point. Smith has 2.5 sacks, but his pass rush has been inconsistent. He plays the run well and moves inside in passing situations. Smith plays the run well, but it's his pass rush that's needed more against San Diego.
GAME PLAN: The Texans lead the NFL with a 5.3-yard average per carry. They didn't run Arian Foster enough in the loss at Indianapolis, but he produced 102 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. Expect him to get the ball early and often as they try to use the running game to keep quarterback Philip Rivers and tight end Antonio Gates on the bench.