For a team with as short a history as the Texans, it's easy to be overly dramatic and lose perspective. Yet on this particular Sunday, the game truly is that important.
A win over the hated Cowboys sends the Texans to their first 3-0 start in club history. It would cap a three-week lineup of murderer's row at QB -- Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb and Tony Romo -- and allow the Texans to survive unblemished, all without their best defensive player (Brian Cushing).
It would put the Texans on a clear path to 4-0, with hapless Oakland looming the next Sunday. It would place them on the NFL map as a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
The Texans have fought a losing battle to the Cowboys for market share since their inception, with Dallas' return to national relevancy in recent years mirroring a series of underachieving seasons here in Houston. Casual, or bandwagon, fans are annoying, sure -- but they do help in building a brand. More than ever before, the Texans have an opportunity on Sunday to truly be considered legitimate, and carry the torch as the premier football team in the state of Texas.
But for all that to happen, the Texans must continue their recent success and beat the Cowboys in the noon matchup at Reliant Stadium, just as they did in week 3 of the preseason on August 28. Here's a look at five tipping points that could determine the outcome.
With Brown suspended four games, much will be made about the potential for Demarcus Ware to bull-rush backup left tackle Rashad Butler in passing situations. But the reality was always that Ware would be doubled in many obvious passing downs.
The key will come on early downs and with the run game, when Butler will be one-on-one with Ware. Can the backup open up holes for Arian Foster, and give the Texans the balance they need to run play-action and keep the Dallas offense off the field? The Texans are 6-0 in games in which Foster has played, based largely on the balance a capable running game gives them.
2) Can the secondary cause (and hold on) to a turnover?
Lost amid the struggles of the Houston pass defense have been two potentially crucial fourth-quarter interceptions that were dropped. The Texans might have held the Colts to 10 points in week 1, if Glover Quin had secured an easy pick from Peyton Manning. Likewise, Eugene Wilson dropped a ball thrown right into his hands by Donovan McNabb in week 2.
The Texan secondary is young and will give up yards, but Gary Kubiak and defensive coordinator Frank Bush have them well coached and in positions to make plays. On the other side of the ball, Cowboys QB Tony Romo has shown a tendency throughout his career to take risks. Houston defenders can cause turnovers, but whether they hold on will go a long way toward determining their fate.
3) Will the Amobi Okoye of August 28 be in the building?
Just as the Houston offensive line will double-team Ware, the Dallas line will double Mario Williams from time to time, and it will be up to someone else to create pressure on Romo. In the teams' earlier meeting, Okoye delivered on that opportunity. The fourth-year Texan defensive tackle routinely collapsed the Dallas pocket, and denied Romo the time to allow downfield routes to develop.
Okoye looked excellent against the Colts, but he was limited by an ankle injury in the Washington game. His being healthy and having a repeat performance from August would go a long way toward helping the much-maligned Houston secondary.
4) Can Steve Slaton's kick returns please not suck?
Slaton averaged under 15 yards per kick return against Washington, including a truly horrific return in which he went out of bounds at the Houston 1-yard line. Even when he didn't sprint out of bounds, he showed a tendency to run into traffic.
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It's well-documented that Slaton has not previously served as a return man in the NFL, so perhaps last week represented his growing pains. But the Texans offense can't afford to consistently be at a 10-yard plus disadvantage on kickoffs, in terms of field position, relative to most teams.
The Texans thrashed Dallas 23-7 in the earlier meeting, but one nitpick would be their settling for three field goals within the Cowboys' 10-yard line. Red-zone struggles were a theme from last regular season, but they largely haven't translated to this regular season, in which the Texans lead the NFL in scoring.
One difference is the return of Daniels, who missed the preseason game while rehabbing his knee injury. While Daniels hasn't been a big factor in the passing game, the return of Houston's tight end in the red zone has forced other teams to take him seriously as a receiving threat. He's also a very good blocker, so the Texans aren't forced to tip their hand on run/pass based on what tight end they have in the game. Daniels is due for a breakout receiving game and has yet to score a touchdown. He could be due.
Prediction: Texans 31, Cowboys 20