(Sports Network) - The Houston Texans, one of the two remaining undefeated teams in 2012, will host the Green Bay Packers, last year's final unbeaten, which has fallen on hard times this season.
Two of the premier defensive players in the NFL will be in the spotlight on Sunday night: Green Bay's Clay Matthews and Houston's J.J. Watt. Watt leads the NFL with 8 1/2 sacks and Matthews is on his heels with eight.
Who is missing might be the bigger story, however. The Texans improved to 5-0 with a 23-17 win at the New York Jets on Monday night but lost leading tackler Brian Cushing, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
"It's what we thought. He tore his ACL and we lost him for the year," said Texans head coach Gary Kubiak. "He's going to have surgery, probably in about two or three weeks, when the swelling goes down. It's a big blow to our team. You feel bad for Brian because he works so hard. He's going to be missed."
The Packers, meanwhile, lost three key players in their 30-27 setback to Indianapolis last week. Running back Cedric Benson left the game in the second quarter with a left foot injury, tight end Jermichael Finley departed in the third stanza with a shoulder injury and nose tackle B.J. Raji hurt his left ankle.
Cushing, a friend and teammate of Matthews in college at USC, had amassed 29 tackles and one interception so far this season. Seven-year veteran Tim Dobbins replaced Cushing in New York and is the first option to slide into his role, while the newly-signed Barrett Ruud will also be considered down the road.
Ruud, a former starter in Tampa Bay, had seen limited action with New Orleans this season before being released. The eight-year veteran has amassed 642 tackles, six forced fumbles and seven interceptions over the course of his career.
"It's a challenge for our team, that's what this is," Kubiak said. "We know Dobbins is going to go in there and play well, and every player in our locker room is going to take on a little bit more responsibility."
For the Packers, Benson was placed on the injured reserve designated to return list earlier this week with what was diagnosed as a Lisfranc injury. He is expected to be out at least eight weeks and possibly the rest of the season. Finley and Raji, along with star wide receiver Greg Jennings, were all held out of Wednesday's practice, leaving each's status for Sunday in question.
On the field, Arian Foster ran for 152 yards and a touchdown as the Texans held off the Jets on Monday night.
Matt Schaub completed 14-of-28 passes for 209 yards with a touchdown and an interception in that one, while Shayne Graham connected on three field goals for the Texans, who keep building on their best start in franchise history.
Owen Daniels added 79 yards and a score on four receptions in the win.
"Being that we're undefeated right now, I think it perks everyone's interest when they're playing us to go out and give us their best shot," Schaub said.
The Packers, meanwhile, are aiming to get back to .500 after dropping to 2-3 in Indianapolis last Sunday.
The Colts' Reggie Wayne caught 13 passes for a career-high 212 yards, which included the go-ahead touchdown with just 35 seconds remaining.
Green Bay kicker Mason Crosby had a chance to force overtime, but his 51-yard field goal with eight seconds to go hooked wide left.
Aaron Rodgers completed 21-of-33 passes for 243 yards with three scores and an interception for the Packers.
"We talked about the fundamentals and I'll stop right there because that's as far as it went for me in the second half," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. "The number of penalties we had. We're just not doing a very good job of handling the football ... Give credit to the Colts. They battled back."
Alex Green replaced Benson on Sunday and produced 55 yards on nine carries. The Packers also have James Starks, who is expected to return from a turf toe injury that has kept him sidelined.
This is just the third meeting between the two clubs. The Texans evened the series at 1-1 with a 2-21 win on Dec. 7, 2008 when Schaub passed for 414 yards and Kevin Walter caught a 58-yard touchdown.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Packers weren't exactly an elite running team with Benson but having him this week would have meant a lot since the Texans' top run defender (Cushing) is gone and you need to slow down the relentless rush Watt and Brooks Reed provide.
Obviously Green Bay can throw the ball but Jennings' groin injury has been tough to overcome. Jordy Nelson is an elite No. 2 receiver, James Jones is a great third receiver and Randall Cobb is an excellent No. 4 but bump them up a notch and things start to even out for the opposition.
After averaging 35.0 points last season, the fifth-highest total in NFL history, the Packers are down to 22.4 in 2012.
While Watt, who has eight passes defended along with his 8 1/2 sacks, is the star of a Texans' defense, which ranks third in total yards allowed with 275.6 per game and fourth in scoring at 14.6 points, Cushing was the on-field leader.
Both Dobbins and Ruud are cerebral players but lack Cushing's athleticism and playmaking skills.
The Houston offense , on the other hand, is one of the most balanced units in the game and can beat you in a variety of ways.
Schaub is playing at an extremely high level and has one of the NFL's top-five receivers, Andre Johnson, and top-five running backs, Foster, at his disposal, as well as an excellent pass- catching tight ends in Daniels.
Foster is second in the NFL with 532 rushing yards and reached 5,000 scrimmage yards in just his 40th NFL game on Monday, the third-fastest in league history. Johnson, meanwhile, has caught 17 passes for 283 yards and Daniels is third among all tight ends with 311 receiving yards and leads the Texans with three touchdown receptions.
Green bay's secondary headlined by the aging Charles Woodson has been underperforming for well over a year now and needs cornerbacks Sam Shields and Tramon Williams to step up and provide some consistency from week to week.
Both teams obviously have significant injury concerns but the Packers are the far more desperate team.
"We're a focused football team; we're just not playing to the level that we want to play at right now," McCarthy said. "That's what we have to stay focused on. We have to stay focused on our habits, our discipline, our preparation, the process leading up to Sunday night."
Losing to an NFC team wouldn't be the end of the world for the Texans, who figure to cruise to an AFC South title. That said, great teams strive for greatness and Houston will want to send a message here saying it plans on being elite with Cushing or without.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texans 27, Packers 21