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Bills, Texans playoff dreams hitched to workhorse backs

Playoffs or bust. That's the motto for the Buffalo Bills and Houston Texans as they open the season today in Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The Bills barely missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record last season. They unveil a new starting quarterback in J.P. Losman, and a veteran supporting cast that is determined to make a breakthrough in 2005.

The Texans have improved steadily from 4-12 in their inaugural season to 5-11 in 2003 to 7-9 last season. The postseason would be the next step in the progression.

Here's a closer look at the matchup:

> The Bills

Offense: Bills are counting on RB Willis McGahee being a workhorse for run-oriented, ball-control attack. . . . Offensive line has size to control Texans' front seven, which would allow McGahee to keep Bills out of third-and-long situations. A good running game will force Texans to move extra defender toward line of scrimmage, thus making them vulnerable to play-action passes. . . . Losman's mobility gives offense an extra dimension, and he'll get chances to make plays with his arm and legs today. Key for Losman is staying poised. Texans will give Losman different looks and will blitz often to rattle him. If he plays within the system and limits mistakes, he could have a successful debut. . . . Losman can keep plays alive with his legs, but his O-line still must provide protection. New LT Mike Gandy has held up thus far, but Texans figure to test him with blitzes and stunts to his side. RG Chris Villarrial may be limited by a sprained ankle. . . . Bills didn't throw many deep passes in the preseason, but if given time to throw, Losman will try to stretch Texans' defense with deep throws to big-play WRs Eric Moulds and Lee Evans. TE Mark Campbell will also be more involved in passing game.

Defense: Bills' goal is to take away Texans' running game. DTs Sam Adams and Ron Edwards must occupy blocks so active LBs Takeo Spikes, London Fletcher and Jeff Posey can be free to pursue ball carrier. . . . DEs Aaron Schobel and Chris Kelsay are leading pass rushers, but defensive coordinator Jerry Gray will come after Texans with conventional and zone blitzes to generate pressure and create big plays. . . . CBs Nate Clements and Terrence McGee will have tough matchup against Texans' big receivers. Both are playmakers and they will jump on any short passes by Texans. FS Troy Vincent can move back to cornerback against multiple receiver formations. Texans must be wary of SS Lawyer Milloy, who excels on blitzes.

Special teams: McGee and Clements are capable of burning Texans with big returns on kickoffs and punts. . . . P Brian Moorman's big leg can help defense by putting Texans in poor field position. . . . K Rian Lindell made field goals from 41, 44 and 54 yards in preseason. But he must improve on regular-season numbers (only 4 of 12 beyond 40 yards).

> The Texans

Offense: Texans need another big year from RB Domanick Davis (1,188 rushing yards, 68 catches, 14 TDs). A versatile runner-receiver, Davis accounted for 34.6 percent of offense last season. Look for Texans to run out of some three-wide receiver formations to spread out Bills defense and give Davis wider running lanes. . . . Texans are hoping this is QB David Carr's breakout year. Carr is athletic and has a strong arm, but he's been sacked 140 times in three years. Texans have incorporated more three-step drops and shorter routes by receivers to get ball out of Carr's hand quicker. . . . Texans' O-line, which returns four starters, must improve pass protection. New member is LT Victor Riley, who started 15 games for New Orleans in '04. . . . Pro Bowl WR Andre Johnson (79 catches for 1,142 yards and six TDs in '04) is physical target with great size (6-foot-3, 219 pounds), speed and run-after-catch ability. WRs Corey Bradford and Jabar Gaffney must take advantage of defenses rolling coverages toward Johnson. TE Mark Bruener is primarily a blocker.

Defense: After a league-low 24 sacks last season, Texans must put more heat on quarterbacks this year, beginning with Losman. Antwan Peek was promoted to a starting outside linebacker spot. He and fellow OLB Jason Babin must be productive edge pass rushers. No D-lineman had more than two sacks last season. Texans hope first-round pick DE Travis Johnson will bring more production up front. . . . NT Seth Payne and DEs Gary Walker and Robaire Smith anchor run defense that allowed just four rushing TDs in '04. LB Kailee Wong, who had team-high 5 1/2 sacks in '04, was moved inside to pair with free agent signee Morlon Greenwood. . . . New-look secondary features former Raider Phillip Buchanon and second-year standout Dunta Robinson (87 tackles, 6 INTs). Both have good cover skills, but will give up some big plays. Teams will pick on rookie SS C.C. Brown, so veteran FS Marcus Coleman must cover a lot of ground.

Special teams: K Kris Brown and P Chad Stanley are among best at their positions. . . . Rookie KR Jerome Mathis, who ran a 4.26-second 40-yard dash at combine, had six TD returns in college. Buchanon has an 11-yard career average and three TDs on punt returns.

> Prediction

Bills might struggle offensively with Losman under center as Texans mix coverages trying to confuse him into mistakes. But Texans' offense also will have tough time against Bills' attacking defense.

Season openers are hard to predict, but McGahee's running and Bills' defense and special teams make the difference in a close game. Bills 20, Texans 13.

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