NFL Preview - Houston (3-1) at Dallas (3-1)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - It's a good time to be a football fan in the state of Texas right now with both the Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys occupying first place in their respective divisions.
The two Lone Star State squads look to remain atop their perch when they hook up Sunday afternoon at AT&T Stadium.
Texans first-year head coach Bill O'Brien is off to a 3-1 start and the players have bought in to what he preaches. The Texans showed some resiliency with Sunday's 23-17 victory over the Buffalo Bills, one week after a 30-17 road loss to the New York Giants.
Houston running back Arian Foster didn't play against the Giants because of a hamstring injury and returned this week, posting just six yards on eight carries and 55 yards on a team-high seven receptions. Foster said afterward he didn't feel 100 percent and is listed as day-to-day.
The Texans, who surpassed their win total in 2013 (2), only had 37 yards rushing and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick led the way with 14 yards on six attempts. He passed for 269 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.
Defensive star and Player of the Week J.J. Watt intercepted a pass and rumbled 80 yards for a score to help his team to the best start since an 11-1 mark in 2012.
"I think anytime J.J. makes a play like that, anybody on our team makes a play like that, especially at home where you get the crowd into it, I mean the roof almost came off on that one," O'Brien said. "The crowd was so loud, it was just a great play. He's a very instinctive, great player. It really turned the game, no question about it."
DeAndre Hopkins has been the focal point of the passing game and leads Houston with 291 yards and three touchdowns. His 35-yard TD catch before halftime was the only offensive touchdown for the Texans.
Andre Johnson's better days could be behind him and he left the Buffalo game with an injured ankle. The injury is nothing serious and Johnson should be ready to go against the Cowboys.
"I just think I was more scared than anything because I felt a little pop," Johnson said. "I didn't know what it was, so I went and got it checked and they let me come back in."
Johnson had six catches for 71 yards and needs one more reception to match Marvin Harrison as the fastest man to reach 950 receptions in NFL history.
The Cowboys have reeled off three straight wins after a season-opening loss to San Francisco, and handed the New Orleans Saints a 38-17 beatdown Sunday night at AT&T Stadium.
Dallas had a comfortable 24-0 lead at halftime and Tony Romo finished 22-of-29 passing for 262 yards and three touchdowns. Romo is 34-22 at home, 16-12 against the AFC and 45-22 with more than one touchdown pass. He has 121 TD passes in Big D. He has thrown a TD pass in every game this season and said the offense is one of the more balanced he's ever played in.
"Each week in the NFL is different. But I think what you find is that we are consistently doing the same things each week, and in the past we weren't able to do that," Romo said.
A big reason for that is running back DeMarco Murray. Murray had 149 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries Sunday night and leads the NFL with 534 yards on 99 touches. Murray is averaging 133.5 yards per game and has reached the 100- yard mark in all four games, while scoring a touchdown in each.
The only other NFL players to accomplish that feat were Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson and Emmitt Smith. Murray will face a Houston defense that is allowing 130.2 yards per game and looks to join Brown (6) and Simpson (5) as the only players to turn the trick in at least five games to start a season.
"We are going to be a little tough to deal with just because of our ability to run the football," Romo said. "We have some guys on the outside that are pretty good players as well. We are just a complete unit. In my time in the NFL, this is as complete a unit as I have been a part of, and I think you can almost simplify the game a little bit."
Dallas has scored more than 30 points in each of its last two games and is 3-1 for the first time since 2008. Having two exceptional wide receivers in Dez Bryant and Terrence Williams helps put points on the board. Williams, though, is taking full advantage of the double-teams Bryant faces on a weekly basis.
"I told T-dub, 'If they want to double me, it's a disrespect to you and you kill'em,'" Bryant said. "And that's exactly what he did. And as long as teams continue to double me, 83 is going to kill'em. And that's how it's going to be."
Williams had 77 yards and two scores on six catches, and Bryant ended with three receptions for 44 yards and a TD.
The Cowboys hope their offense will continue to click against the Texans in the fourth meeting between the teams. Dallas is 2-1 in the series and won the only matchup at home back on Oct. 15, 2006 in a 34-6 romp. The Cowboys won the most recent game with Houston, posting a 27-13 victory on Sept. 26, 2010.
Romo threw for 284 yards and two scores, while Foster ran for 106 yards.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Now that Cowboys defensive back Morris Claiborne is done for the season with a torn patellar tendon, the Cowboys will have to go with a backup plan. Claiborne has been plagued by injuries throughout his short career and will undergo surgery on the knee.
"Mo's been dealing with a lot of different things from a physical standpoint," Dallas head coach Jason Garrett said. "This is another one of those things. He's going to get the surgery done and he's going to come back stronger and better than ever."
Garret can only hope that happens because a few weeks ago he said Claiborne may lose some playing time if he didn't improve on the field. Orlando Scandrick is expected to jump in at the corner spot.
To make matters a bit worse for the Dallas defense, linebacker Bruce Carter sustained a quad strain late Sunday and is unlikely to play. Garrett said Carter, who leads the team in tackles, is considered day-to-day. Carter returned an interception for a touchdown the week before against St. Louis.
"It's just one of those football injuries, just one of those things," Carter said. "I've just got to get my body back healthy as fast as I can, but not rush it at the same time and hopefully get back on the field quicker."
The Cowboys are already without top linebacker Sean Lee (knee). On an uplifting note, the Cowboys got defensive lineman Anthony Spencer back after he missed the first three games of the season with a knee issue.
"I've been away for so long," Spencer said. "It felt really good to be back out there. I missed it and it was fun to be in a game like that and work myself back into it. I didn't get too gassed out there. I'll check out the film and learn from it."
Dallas was able to slow down the Saints' up-tempo offense for most of the game and will face a pair of dangerous Houston wideouts in Hopkins and Johnson. And if Foster is healthy enough to go, than Sunday's game could get interesting.
The Texans need to apply pressure up front to disrupt Romo's timing with his receivers and Watt is the man to do it. Linebacker Brian Cushing and free safety Kendrick Lewis are tackling machines, and will have their hands full with Bryant, Williams and tight end Jason Witten, who can still get it done in the twilight of his career.
Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph are tough Houston corners and need to step up this week because, as O'Brien put it, the Cowboys are playing hot right now and Sunday's game will be played in a hostile environment. O'Brien also mentioned Dallas' usual suspects of Romo, Murray, Bryant, Witten and the offensive line as reasons to be concerned.
As stated above, the Cowboys are a hot team right now with three straight wins and a handful of weapons. The only question for Sunday is who will be the gamebreaker. It could be Murray, who is aiming for another 100-yard performance, or maybe Bryant or a surprise contributor. It won't be a surprise, though, when the Cowboys win easily and hold their position atop the NFC East.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Cowboys 30, Texans 20
10/05 07:35:40 ET