The 4-9 Carolina Panthers are coming to the Bayou City to square off against the 10-3, AFC South Division Champion (has such a nice ring to it) Houston Texans.  Here are three things to watch for in Sunday’s game.

 
Cam Newton against the #1 defense in the NFL:
Cam Newton has silenced his critics en route to a spectacular rookie season, the likes of which have rarely, if ever, been seen before. While I’ll detail just how great his season is in a future article we’ll stick to this week's game for now.
 
Last year the Panthers were 32nd in passing yards per game, 32nd in points per game (a whopping four points behind the 31st ranked Browns), 32nd in total yards and 13th in rushing yards. Just in case I’ve got some NFL newbies reading there are only 32 teams in the NFL – thus they ranked dead last in essentially every offensive category. So what can Cam do for you?
 
The Panthers now rank 5th in yards per game, 8th in passing yards per game, 11th in points per game and 5th in rushing yards per game. In regards to CHFF’s highly touted real QBR (include link) the Panthers have gone from 31st to 8th. That type of offensive increase at the hands of a rookie quarterback is nothing short of astonishing. Moreover he’s accounted for 77% of the teams touchdowns (28/36) and 79% of their total yards (4,128/5,187) and that in short it's UNREAL.
 
Now the young phenom is going to travel to a hostile environment to face the best defense he’s ever seen in his brief but promising career.  With a defense that ranks, among other things, No. 1 in Defensive Passer Rating, No. 3 on the Defensive Hog Index and No. 1 in Defensive Real QB Rating, the Texans are nothing short of stout. In other words it will be the best defense Cam Newton has faced all season and his biggest test since he went up against the Packers in week two. In that game he managed 432 yards passing with 60.9% completion percentage, one touchdown and three interceptions with a rating of 72.0.  Not too shabby in his second start at Lambeau against the reigning Super Bowl Champions. Nevertheless this should be a tougher test, and could be a real opportunity for him to showcase his unique skill-set against the best.
 
It’s also a chance for the Texans to continue their domination of opposing quarterbacks; especially at home where they’ve been brutalizing opposing quarterbacks all year.  However, this is the first quarterback the Texans have played with Newton’s type of mobility. It will be an interesting test for the NFL’s top ranked defense and perhaps a litmus test in case they face the mighty Tebow’s in the playoffs.
 
Steve Smith vs. Johnathan Joseph
 
Dare I say that Johnathan Joseph has been the single most important free agent acquisition in the NFL this year? He’s certainly outplaying highly prized and paid Nnamdi Asomugha. Regardless one cannot disagree that he has had a huge role in the utter and complete transformation of the Texans' secondary from historically inept to currently dominant. Last year their secondary was only seen in the rear view mirrors of opposing receivers as they waltzed into the end zone. Last year they ranked No. 32 in DQBR and No. 22 in PRD and opposing quarterbacks average 100+ QB rating against them.  However the additions of Danieal Manning, Johnathan Joseph, and Wade Phillips have sparked perhaps the biggest one year turnaround ever seen. The Texans now rank No. 1 in DQBR and No. 2 in PRD, that’s up 31 spots and 20 spots, respectively – in short astounding. While Joseph has been playing at a Pro Bowl level all year A.J. Green abused him last Sunday in what was clearly his worst game of the year thus far. However, A.J. Green is a tough cover for anyone given his size and leaping ability. Thus it will be interesting to see how he matches up against the reinvigorated Steve Smith.
 
Last year Steve Smith waded in Jimmy Clausen limbo, having his worst season since his rookie year and leaving many to wonder whether he’d request a trade. However this year he’s enjoyed a remarkable resurgence with Cam Newton at the helm, is every bit as tenacious and explosive as ever.  He currently ranks 2nd in the league in receiving yards with a whopping 1,217, and has the best YPC of his career at 18.2. Smith is the type of player that can break a game open and the Texans must keep him in front of them if they want to push their franchise record win streak to eight and stay in the hunt for a first round bye.
 
Thus, one should expect them to put their big money cornerback Johnathan Joseph on him all day. The match-up between the two could go a long way in determining the outcome of the game. Keep a look out.
 
Atmosphere at Reliant
For the last decade in Houston there's been a dream - the Texans in the playoffs. You could only whisper it, anything more than a whisper and it seemed it would vanish, due to its fragility. Fortunately that dream was finally realized last week after T.J. Yates' incredible game-winning drive in Cincinnati. This Sunday look for the crowd at Reliant Stadium to be celebratory but rabid atmosphere as they want to see this win streak continue into a first round bye and possibly home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Over the course of this season the Texans' crowd has transformed from the ever pessimistic, ready to boo, largely fearing the worst crowd, beaten down by years of futility into a rabid fan base boiling over with enthusiasm from the affirmation (playoff appearance) that their team has an air of NFL legitimacy.
 
Look. I’ve been to a lot of games at Reliant Stadium – Texans inaugural game against the Cowboys, Super Bowl 38, 2002 Big-12 Championship, Sunday Night Football, Monday Night Football, The Final Four, The Rodeo, and even a Beyoncé concert (i'm sorry) so I’m speaking from experience when I say this; nothing outside of perhaps the inaugural game, compared to the Atlanta game two weeks ago. The atmosphere was flat-out electric and the noise so deafening that I almost believed the fabled brown note to be true. In case you’re unaware, the brown note is a theoretical infrasonic frequency that causes humans to lose control of their bowels due to resonance. In other words it’s so loud you shit your pants.
 
After the win Gary Kubiak and Demeco Ryans said it was the loudest game they’ve been a part of. More importantly the home crowd forced Matt Ryan to go to a silent count midway through the first quarter and they never quieted from there causing multiple false starts and giving the Falcons play calling fits all afternoon.
 
To truly understand the importance of a win the significance of a winning Texans team to the city one must place themselves in the shoes of a Houstonian. First off I’m sure everyone is aware of how Texas treats its football as a whole. Now imagine a city with handfuls of football misery, no championships in the only sport that they really care about, constantly in the shadow of the Cowboys, having dealt with their beloved team moving away, and finally coming back only to open up a decade of losing to replace the decade of losing prior to that. In fact the last time this city has seen the NFL playoffs was 1993, and it’s the longest such drought in the league. So you can imagine the fervor right now in this town.
 
The team's improvement, and city’s enthusiasm has created a tough environment for opposing teams and it will be interesting to see how Cam Newton reacts. There aren’t many things worse for a rookie quarterback to face than a hostile crowd coupled with the #1 ranked defense.