Like most Houston Texans games, this one has the potential to be the biggest game in franchise history. The Texans have the chance to simultaneously hit 3-0 for the first time in franchise history (with the Raiders up in Week Four, no less) and all but eliminate Dallas from the playoff picture at 0-3, dealing another blow to its superiority (real or imagined) in the minds of many. Momentum clearly favors the Texans in this game, if you believe in such a thing. Most of the big guns look like they will play this week, as Jason Witten and Mike Jenkins are both practice participants and Andre Johnson would have to be dragged off the field by the whole team to miss one with his ankle. Duane Brown will start serving his suspension for violating the league's PED rules, and Dez Bryant may also be in danger of missing the game, which would seem to be a big boost for the Texans if true.
WHEN THE TEXANS ARE ON DEFENSE
The Texans play defense? /end segment
Look, it's been an ugly first couple of games. and I have no reason for optimism for you other than the hope that Frank Bush can turn it around quickly like he did last year. The run defense has remained stout so far, and they allowed just 18 total yards rushing against the Redskins. Of course, the Redskins running game was never really equipped to take advantage of the Texans with their stable of old and ineffective running backs. Talentwise, the Cowboys should be a much better test for them. Marion Barber has been a little iffy over the past calendar year, but Felix Jones shows flashes and Tashard Choice is probably a better back than anyone Washington has. The Cowboys gained just 36 yards rushing against the Bears last week, but the Bears also denied Jahvid Best and he seemed to do pretty well against other competition. In other words: I think this was a solid running attack struggling against a good defense. How this matchup turns out, in my mind, ultimately determines who wins the game. If the Texans can continue to stuff the run well without Brian Cushing against a good rushing offense, then they'll be able to get some holds. If they can't, that puts the job in the hands of...
Amobi Okoye. Wow, you probably didn't see that one coming, did you? The pass defense right now is just scary. They were beaten deep several times by Washington, forcing Frank Bush to the zones early and often. Kareem Jackson is raw, neither safety can cover anyone one-on-one, and a secondary whose best pass defender is Glover Quin scares nobody. Tony Romo, Miles Austin, and Witten are going to get theirs. I'd say that Bryant possibly missing this game is a big deal, but we just watched a game where the Texans got beaten deep twice by noted geriatric Joey Galloway, so I'm not sure it even matters. It all comes down to the pass rush here. Antonio Smith and Mario Williams will show up make themselves known against the Cowboys offensive line, but the Texans desperately need extra pressure up the middle. My most important matchup for this weeks game will be Okoye versus Cowboys center Andre Gurode. Okoye handled him in preseason, but that was without the guards Gurode is used to playing with. If Okoye can generate three or four pressures, it'd go a long way towards turning the tide in what I expect to be another shootout. Especially since Bush will probably be blitz-phobic with how poorly the secondary is playing.
WHEN THE TEXANS ARE ON OFFENSE
If the Cowboys watch last week's tape with the Redskins, they'll quickly figure out that this offensive line, for all the good it's done in the run game, hasn't kept its quarterback clean. Matt Schaub took multiple pressures, hits, and sacks from an aggressive Washington defense that blitzed LaRon Landry early and often. Dallas gets all of that, and the Brown suspension thrown in will put Rashad Butler in the spotlight against DeMarcus Ware. It will be mighty tempting for the Cowboys to send five on virtually every play, just like the Skins did. Ergo, the most important decision will be what the Texans do to counteract that extra pressure this game. Owen Daniels is probably in line for a reduction in snaps, with Joel Dreessen taking his spot for blocking purposes, but I'm not sure the loyal Kubiak would allow that to happen. The running back screen that has become a fiction of the playbook's imagination (just one RB screen in two games after leading the league in Football Outsiders' screen DVOA last year) could also serve as a valuable counter-balance to a blitz-happy defense.
The Cowboys look more vulnerable in the air then on the ground. Jay Ratliff (or any dominant 3-4 nose tackle) against Chris Myers is probably a mismatch in favor of Dallas, and other than Igor Olshansky their front seven seems pretty solid to me. That shouldn't stop the Texans from establishing Arian Foster, of course, but if there was one area that the suspended Brown excelled in, it was run blocking, and I think Butler will probably be a big downgrade there. I'd expect more like 75-90 yards rushing out of Foster rather than what happened the last time he played at Reliant. The one weak spot the Cowboys have is at safety, and the Texans are well-equipped to attack it between Johnson, Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones. Look for Schaub to find a way to get his, but look for the most important stat to be pressures by Dallas, as the playbook might be in need of some scaling back to accommodate the loss of Brown.
I know it's going to run counter to momentum, I know the Cowboys played poorly against the Texans in the preseason, and I know they're 0-2. I just can't shake the feeling that they're going to win this game. The Ratliff-Myers matchup goes for them, and my suspicion is that they will be able to run the ball on the Texans without Cushing. Brown getting suspended certainly doesn't help. Both of their losses thus far have been close - they clearly outplayed Washington and lost to the Bears despite getting no turnovers, missing a field goal and giving the ball up three times.
To the extent that one can hedge a pick like "losing to the team most of our fanbase loathes more than any outside of Tennessee," I think this will be a very close game. If Amobi Okoye shows up or if the Cowboys kicker crisis is real, things could easily fall in place for the Texans. But between the matchups that I think the Cowboys win, the fact that they literally need to win this game or the season is over, and my gut instinct, I think Dallas saves its season on Sunday. Cowboys 35, Texans 30.