This Lone Star State showdown is the fourth meeting all-time between Houston and Dallas and will unfold Sunday on CBS. The Cowboys have won the past two meetings — 27–13 in 2010, 34–6 in ’06 — after an embarrassing 19–10 loss in the Texans’ first-ever game as an expansion franchise in ‘02, a game in which David Carr outdueled Quincy Carter. This time around, both of Texas’ teams are riding high with a 3–1 record.
Houston has a legit MVP candidate (albeit an non-traditional one) in defensive end J.J. Watt, who has two sacks, an 80-yard pick-six and a receiving TD so far this season. The Cowboys ride in on a three-game winning streak that includes last Sunday's 38–17 beatdown of the Saints in what was probably Dallas' most complete performance in years.
Houston Texans at Dallas Cowboys
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Dallas -6
Three Things to Watch
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1. Can the Cowboys Handle Success?
By Week 5, I think we all expected to be speculating about Jason Garrett's replacement in Big D, and whether the 'Boys would cut bait with Tony Romo. Instead, Garrett and Romo are at the helm of one of the best offenses in the NFL, a unit that's averaging 28.8 points and 384 yards per game. "In my time in the NFL this is as complete a unit as I've been a part of, and I think you can almost simplify the game a little bit," Romo said. The Cowboys' 21-point win over New Orleans — a preseason Super Bowl favorite — was the fourth-largest winning margin of the Garrett era and came against a team that retains enough cachet to make the victory significant in terms of confidence. But the obvious question remains: Can the Cowboys build on their hot start, or will things inevitably implode at Valley Ranch? At least Garrett & Co. have bought themselves some time with their hot start, and they should be able to play loose and relaxed.
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2. Staying Grounded
The Cowboys' most significant step forward has come in the running game. They lead the NFL by a wide margin in rushing yardage, averaging 165 yards per game on 32.5 attempts per contest, their most rushing attempts per game since 2005. DeMarco Murray has joined Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson and Emmitt Smith as the only players with at least 100 yards and one TD in each of their first four games of a season. Murray is finding room to run behind a rejuvenated offensive line that was an offseason priority in Dallas, and a punishing ground game could help neutralize pass-rusher extraordinaire J.J. Watt. The Texans haven’t had nearly as much success on the ground — they're averaging 114.8 yards per game — but they remain committed to establishing the run, especially if injury-plagued running back Arian Foster is ready to go. "We have to keep making sure that we stick the run in there. We can't just throw it 55 or 60 times a game and get away with that," coach Bill O'Brien said. "We've got to figure out how to run the ball better from a coaching standpoint and from a playing standpoint."
3. Tracking the Takeaways
In a game that's relatively evenly matched, turnovers can make the difference, and this is where the Texans might have a slight advantage. They've forced a league-leading nine turnovers, with J.J. Watt's electrifying 80-yard pick-six in the win over Buffalo the highlight. An injury-riddled Dallas defense has also relied on turnovers, forcing eight in the team's first four games. After tossing three interceptions in the opener in San Francisco, Romo has done a great job protecting the football — which means that we might be overdue for a few miscues. His counterpart, Ryan Fitzpatrick, has thrown five interceptions in the last two games, so the Cowboys might be able to pressure him into mistakes as well.
With a punishing, explosive ground game and a quarterback who's playing some of his best football, the Cowboys look like a safe bet to run their record to 4–1 in front of some appreciative, postseason-starved fans. Of course, there's always a chance that the fast start in Big D is merely more tantalizing fool's gold, but there is something a little different about Dallas these days. Until they show us otherwise, we'll continue to be bullish on these Cowboys.