Who will win: Houston Texans or Dallas Cowboys?
HOUSTON -- Eight years after the Texans’ most significant victory, they get a chance to top it on Sunday. Against the team that owns pro football in Texas.
Expansion Houston’s inaugural game in 2002 was a 19-10 victory over the Cowboys. Dallas was hardly a contender then, on its way to a 5-11 season, far removed from the Super Bowl years of the early 1990s. That didn’t matter to NFL-starved fans in Houston, who were just glad to have football back in town after Oilers owner Bud Adams moved his team to Tennessee in 1997.
It was an added bonus to embarrass the Cowboys, who always hogged the attention in the state, even when the Oilers were winning.
The Texans opened this season by beating Indianapolis for only the second time in 17 meetings, then staged the second-biggest comeback in franchise history in Washington. There have been other memorable wins, too—an upset of the eventual Super Bowl champion Colts in 2006, a victory over Jacksonville in their Monday night debut in 2008, and a rousing comeback against New England last year that clinched the team’s first winning record.
Owner Bob McNair thinks a victory over the Cowboys might trump them all, even that inaugural triumph eight years ago.
"That was a great win, because it was our first game," McNair said. "But at that point in time, the Cowboys weren’t very good, and we weren’t very good. The caliber of play now is entirely different. Now, you’ve got two good teams going after each other, so a victory here would mean more to me than even that first victory."
The expansion Texans (2-0) are all grown up now, a fast-improving team with blossoming stars on both sides of the ball. A win Sunday gives them their first 3-0 start and stamps them legitimate contenders in the AFC.
The Cowboys? They’re still grabbing headlines, but for all the wrong reasons.
Dallas (0-2) comes to Houston as one of the early season’s major flops. Another defeat could spring owner Jerry Jones into action, leading to personnel changes, perhaps even at head coach. Jones has promoted the notion that his team could be the first Super Bowl host to actually play in the title game, and its first 0-3 start since 2001 might prompt drastic moves.
"There’s a great sense of urgency," Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo said. "This is not where you want to be after two games. We understand that you’re only afforded so many opportunities. This is very important for us. We’ve worked very hard to put ourselves in a position to win games, and we haven’t done it yet.
"It’s disappointing and frustrating, but the only way to get out of this hole is to go out and win."
To do that, the offense must stop sputtering, the defense needs to finally produce a turnover and players on both sides of the ball must eliminate sloppy mistakes. David Buehler has missed potential game-tying kicks in the first two games.
Meanwhile, the Texans and their city are sky-high after beating Indianapolis in the opener, then rallying from 17 points down to beat Washington last week. Suddenly the bad vibes from linebacker Brian Cushing’s four-game suspension for using a banned substance seemed gone.
The feel-good story hit a snag Tuesday when left tackle Duane Brown was suspended four games for the same sort of infraction that got Cushing in trouble. Instead of talking about the chance to beat their in-state rival, the Texans faced nagging questions about steroid use.
"It’s a blow for us. It’s a tough loss for our team," linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "Guys have to be responsible for what you put in your body. If you haven’t gotten it checked out by the nutritionist or team trainers, then you probably shouldn’t use it."
Rashad Butler, in his fifth season, will make his first career start in Brown’s place. He’ll do his best to protect Matt Schaub’s blind side from All-Pro linebacker DeMarcus Ware.
"I’m not nervous about whom I’m going up against," Butler said. "I’m just nervous because everybody’s counting on me and I don’t want to let anybody down, especially myself."
Houston also can’t hide issues in its secondary. Peyton Manning and Donovan McNabb both threw for more than 400 yards, and receivers on both teams burned young cornerbacks Glover Quin and Kareem Jackson.
"We’ve had two quarterbacks who had some big days against us, but we’ve done some good things, too," Houston coach Gary Kubiak said. "Do we need to get better? You bet. We’re fixin’ to face another great one this week. The way you help young corners, in my opinion, is to get more pressure on the quarterback. Our safeties can pick it up and play better. We’re all responsible in helping those guys grow up."
So far, the Cowboys’ offense hasn’t shown it can take advantage. Dallas ranks fourth in total yardage (395 yards per game), but just 26th in scoring (13.5 points per game).
Ill-timed turnovers have cost them in both games, and Dallas is minus-4 in turnover margin. About the only encouraging sign for coach Wade Phillips is that the Cowboys have lost each of their first two games by only a touchdown.
"No, it doesn’t change your record," Phillips said, "but it makes you feel a little better about your team. We haven’t played well enough overall, but we played well enough to be close."
Phillips said tight end Jason Witten will play after leaving last week’s loss to Chicago with a head injury. Cornerback Mike Jenkins, who hurt his right knee against the Bears, is also expected to play.
Houston’s main injury concern was All-Pro receiver Andre Johnson, who sprained his right ankle in the 30-27 win over Washington. Johnson says he’ll be fine Sunday. He was the AFC offensive player of the week after catching 12 passes for 158 yards and one acrobatic touchdown in the victory.
The Texans are the league’s highest-scoring team (32 points per game), showing they can run and pass with equal effect. Arian Foster rushed for 231 yards in the opener before Schaub threw for 497 yards in Washington.
Foster ran for 110 yards in Houston’s 23-7 win over Dallas in the preseason.
"They can run it really well," Phillips said. "If you back off—basically that’s what we did in preseason—they can just tear you up in the running game. If you come after them, they can throw it. I’m impressed with them."