1) Arian Foster vs. the Browns run defense
There's no doubting Cleveland's run defense is improving. Bengals running back Jeremy Hill found out the hard way when he was limited to 55 yards on 12 carries. Against Houston, the Browns can really earn the respect of their peers if they are able to limit Foster, who is second in the NFL with 822 rushing yards while averaging 5.1 yards per carry. "We all know we've had our struggles," coach Mike Pettine said on Wednesday. The Texans also use Foster in the passing game (26 catches, 229 yards, three touchdowns) which means linebackers Karlos Dansby and Chris Kirksey could be extra involved in slowing him down. One other note: Foster tweaked his groin against the Eagles two weeks ago and did miss practice on Wednesday. Houston's backup is LSU rookie Alfred Blue.
What to watch for: Phil Taylor. He blew up several runs last week against Cincinnati and Pettine loves the flexibility he brings to the defensive line rotation.
2) Ryan Mallett vs. the Browns secondary
There may not be a hotter unit in the AFC than Cleveland's backline of defense. Joe Haden, Buster Skrine, Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson have all risen their level of play, hounding receivers and forcing turnovers on the regular – seven total in the last three games, all of them wins. Look for Houston to unleash Mallett's big arm with deep passing plays down the field. Their game plan likely will have many different wrinkles coming off of a bye week and to help Mallett make quick decisions. Sunday is the 26-year-olds first career start. Houston comes into the game ranking 28th in the NFL in passing yards per game.
What to watch for: DeAndre Hopkins. Some league insiders believe his talents at the receiver position have passed the legendary Andre Johnson. Don't be surprised if we see Joe Haden on Hopkins more than he is on Johnson.
3) Brian Hoyer and the Cleveland running backs vs. protecting the football
Perhaps Hoyer's biggest strength – outside of winning – has been keeping the football in the possession of the offense. The quarterback seems to be always making the right decisions on when to take chances on a defense. In nine starts in 2014, Hoyer has thrown just four interceptions. He will have to be a little more weary this week. Houston is leading the NFL in takeaway's with 21. The Texans play aggressively especially when it comes to tackling. Houston has forced 12 fumbles and they've recovered 11 of them.
What to watch for: D.J. Swearinger. The second year safety from South Carolina flies all over the football field and will likely be the player brought up in the box when the Texans try and hone in on stopping the run. He's made great plays this season, and he's been burnt a few times. Hoyer will have his eyes on number 36.
4) J.J. Watt vs. the Browns offensive line
5) Browns punt return game
The lone complaint in Cleveland's 24-3 blowout win over the Bengals was Jim Leonhard's fumbled punt in the first quarter. The Browns rank last in the NFL in yards per return (3.2) and the club's longest return of the season is for 13 yards. Jordan Poyer is now the number one player listed on the depth chart.
What to watch for: Somebody new for a spark. Maybe Taylor Gabriel. Maybe Terrance West. What about even using Joe Haden one time? The Seahawks employ one of their best players, Earl Thomas, in returning punts. All signs are pointing towards the Browns-Texans game coming down to the wire, meaning field position and one big return could make all the difference.
6) The weather
Right now the forecast is calling for a high temperature of 40 and a low of 32 – with a 20 percent chance of snow. Winds a projected to whipping at 13 MPH. Expect the Browns special teams unit to drive up to FirstEnergy Stadium on Friday to get a feel for the conditions.