Green Bay Packers (2-3) at Houston Texans (5-0)
1. Houston, we have a winner
They finished last in their division in five of their first six seasons. It took them eight years to compile their first winning record. Finally, in Year 10, they struck silver, if not gold, and made their first appearance in the postseason.
Now that they have taken their place in the fraternity of NFL contenders, the Texans look like they plan to stick around awhile. They are one of only two teams with a perfect record, they have won one more game than their three division rivals combined and they have outscored their five opponents by an average of 15.2 points.
Houston declared itself a top caliber team last season by going 10-6, winning its first AFC South title and advancing to the playoffs, where it beat the Bengals with third-string quarterback T.J. Yates before losing to the Ravens in the next round.
Through the first five games this season, the Texans look like a playoff lock. They have led their opponents for nearly 243 of a possible 300 minutes; Arian Foster, the league's 2010 rushing champion, is again cutting swaths through opponents; and the defensive front is among the best in the league, even though it lost linebacker Brian Cushing (torn ACL) for the season in Monday night's 23-17 win over the Jets.
What more could they want? Well, a healthy season for quarterback Matt Schaub would be No. 1 on the wish list. Schaub suffered a season-ending foot injury in Week 10 last season, backup Matt Leinart replaced Schaub for only one start before he went on I.R., and Houston was forced to finish the season with Yates. The Texans limped into the playoffs, losing their last three regular season games, and just didn't have the offensive firepower without Schaub.
Protecting Schaub is paramount. He can't afford to take many shots like the vicious one he suffered in Denver in Week 3, when an illegal hit by Broncos linebacker Joe Mays caused him to lose a chunk of his ear lobe. After that play, Schaub didn't complete a pass in the next two series.
Asked later if he felt he needed to show his toughness to his teammates by returning in that game, Schaub said, "Well, it was more just wanting to be out there with my guys, not miss any time. ... You just want to go out there and play, and every snap is important. It could be the difference between winning and losing."
If Schaub can stay on the field and avoid injury, the Texans could be a tough out in the postseason.
2. Houston, we have a problem
The Texans lost the soul of their defense and their leading tackler Monday night when Cushing suffered his season-ending knee injury against the Jets. Cushing was the team's MVP last season and the NFL's defensive rookie of the year in 2009, and his loss is a huge blow to the defense.
Houston won't replace Cushing, but it will find someone to take his spot. With 11 linebackers on its roster, there is depth and versatility at the position.
Special teams captain Tim Dobbins, a seventh-year player who joined the Texans as a free agent in 2011, will get the first shot at filling Cushing's role. Although he has made his niche primarily as a special teams player (he led the Texans with nine special teams tackles last season), Dobbins is somewhat familiar with coordinator Wade Phillips' 3-4 defensive system, having played for Phillips as a rookie in 2006 in San Diego.
The 6-foot-1, 245-pound Dobbins took over for Cushing in the base defense Monday night, while Bradie James played in nickel situations. Dobbins is considered to be a good run stopper. He has started only 16 games previously in the NFL, with eight of those starts coming for the Chargers in 2008, when he had 46 tackles, one interception and three forced fumbles.
"It's a lot to ask, but that's why he's here," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said about Dobbins taking over for Cushing. "It's an opportunity for him as a player and we'll have to rally around him and, like I said, make up for Cush's loss as a group."
The next two options after Dobbins are second-year player Mister Alexander, who spent half of the 2011 season on the practice squad, and fourth-year man Jesse Nading, an outside linebacker who could play inside.
3. In the running in Green Bay
Early in training camp, Packers coach Mike McCarthy sat on a folding chair inside the Don Hutson Center, Green Bay's indoor practice facility, and talked about his three young running backs: James Starks (third year), Alex Green (second) and Brandon Saine (second). While acknowledging that Starks needed to avoid the injuries that had blemished his first two seasons, McCarthy said Starks "has a lot of promise." He also said Green and Saine were as consistent a pair of backs that the Packers have had.
"I really like that young group," McCarthy said.
That was a dozen days B.C. -- before Cedric Benson, the former Bears and Bengals veteran running back, signed with the Packers as a free agent. Now that Benson (71 carries for 248 yards and one touchdown) has been sidelined indefinitely by the nefarious Lisfranc injury he suffered in a 30-27 loss to the Colts last Sunday, the Packers will turn to that threesome.
Whether one of those three backs becomes the primary ball carrier or they share duties as a committee, one thing is certain: There's not a lot of experience in that group.
Starks, a sixth-round draft pick in 2010 who emerged as a running threat in the playoffs that season after missing 13 games, shared rushing duties with Ryan Grant (now departed) last season but had knee and ankle issues. Green, a third-round pick in 2011, and Saine, a free agent addition last year, had only 21 carries between them last season.
Neither Starks nor Saine have carried the ball this season. Green has rushed 12 times for 65 yards, with 10 of those carries and 63 yards coming against Indianapolis. Already heavily dependent on quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the passing game, the Packers became even more pass-heavy after Benson was hurt. Eight of Green Bay's first 17 offensive plays against Indianapolis were runs, but after Benson left the game the Packers ran just nine times on their final 42 snaps.
"It's unfortunate," offensive coordinator Tom Clements said of Benson's injury, "because Cedric was playing well and was getting comfortable with the offense."
With 23 catches for 311 yards, the Houston tight end is on pace for his best season in the NFL. He also has caught a touchdown pass in each of the last three games. A fourth-round draft pick in 2006, Daniels has experienced the good and the bad during six-plus seasons with the Texans. Here's an excerpt of his chat with SI.com:
At what point last season did you realize that the Texans had turned the corner and had something special developing?
I think we had a good idea during camp that we could be pretty good. It got to a point where we were 3-3, and it was going to go one way or the other. We put things together and won seven in a row, lost Matt in the process, but we had guys step up all over the place. When we were sitting there 3-3, we decided as a team that we wanted to get things done and that was the turning point, I think.
In what ways is this team even better this year?
I think we're a lot better for a lot of different reasons. Just the experience we had last year really matured us a lot. Losing a ton of guys -- I think we had seven or eight guys get hurt; some big-time players in spots -- other people had to step up and play really well. That experience transferred over to this year. Being in the playoffs, that was our experience with that. We played at home, we played on the road. We learned a lot about ourselves and the potential we have in this locker room. Going into the offseason, we knew we could be pretty good if we could just get things together and work hard every day. And that's what we're continuing to do.
You're on a pace to have your best season in receptions and yards. What's different about your play this year?
Not too much. I kind of tinker with what I do in the offseason, just to make sure I'm feeling good and feeling fresh. In terms of running, I went and trained with Arian [Foster]. I tried to work on my mechanics and being more efficient when I was running. That's the one thing I did differently this year that I haven't done in the past. The strength guys here do a good job of getting us in shape and getting us conditioned and ready to go for camp. I got some days off during camp, which hopefully should translate into me being fresh toward the end of the season. I feel as good as I've felt in a long time.
Speaking of staying fresh, coach Gary Kubiak said having Garrett Graham helps you because you don't have to play as many snaps. Do you agree?
Obviously, Garrett is finally getting an opportunity to play and is playing well. We do a lot of two-tight end stuff, so he's on the field a lot. If I need a spell in a one-tight end set, he can come in and there's really no drop-off in productivity. I'm still playing a lot of plays, about 60 a game, but it's good to get those breaks here and there during the game.
Is there one NFL tight end, current or past, who you admire?
Tony Gonzalez. I got a chance to talk with him at the Pro Bowl (after the 2009 season). It's just amazing what he's done over his career -- how consistent he's been and the numbers he continues to put up. The kind of shape he keeps himself in is really impressive. The guy who's retired that caught my eye was Shannon Sharpe, who was a beast on the field. He played in the same offense I'm in, and he was really an impressive player.
Do you and Matt Schaub do anything special outside of regular team practices to establish a rapport on the field?
I've played with Matt for a while. He came in here my second season (2007). I think we connected right away and developed a good relationship, and it just kind of built from there. We got together this offseason -- not just me but the other receivers, tight ends, and backs -- and trained to try to get back to where we were in terms of communication and stuff before his injury (last year).
With Clay Matthews standing across the line on Sunday night, will you have to focus more on blocking and protecting Schaub?
There's always somebody you have to look out for, but he's a special player. He's super athletic and has a non-stop motor. You don't know where he's going to end up. He's got inside moves, he's got outside moves, and he's a pretty powerful guy on top of that. He's a guy who's a big focus this week.
You majored in meteorology at Wisconsin, where they nicknamed you "The Weatherman." Do you still have an avid interest in the weather?
Absolutely. It's always been something I've been interested in. I grew up in the Midwest, where you see every type of weather, every type of storm, everything. I'd like to use my experience with that and my experience playing during different kinds of weather and hopefully do something with football and weather when my playing days are over.
One of the questions the Texans defense will face as it gameplans for Green Bay is: Which receiver should we double cover? The answer isn't easy. Through the first five games, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has distributed the ball in nearly equal amounts, and Green Bay is the only team in the league which has four receivers with at least 20 receptions.
The Packers, who are in the midst of three straight road games for the first time since 1998, aren't looking like the team that went 15-1 during the 2011 regular season and won the Super Bowl the year before that. And quarterback Aaron Rodgers isn't looking like the league's reigning MVP. "I'm not playing my best football right now," he said this week on his radio show.
Still, Green Bay will be the first of back-to-back strong challenges at home for the Texans, who will then face Baltimore before going into their bye week. If Houston is still unbeaten by then, no one will question its qualifications as a leading Super Bowl contender.
"We demand a lot out of ourselves as a group across the board, the whole team," Schaub said. "There is no perfect game out there. Whatever it calls on for us to win, we're going to go do it. We want to be consistently good at everything, so we're going to demand that out of each other every week."
Texans 33, Packers 27Last week: Patriots 31, Broncos 23Season record: 3-2