Maybe this time, the Houston Texans will still be there in the end.
Similar to the last two seasons in which they've started 5-3 and 4-2, respectively, the Texans are piquing the interest of NFL prognosticators once again in 2011 with a 5-3 break from the gate.
Unlike 2009 and 2010, however, it seems the planets are aligning for them to finish the race this time.
Because unlike those two years, the competition alongside Houston, which entertains AFC North representative Cleveland Sunday at Reliant Stadium, in the AFC South doesn't seem up to par as before. That is, unless Peyton Manning rises from the walking dead in Indianapolis.
Short of that miracle, the Texans reached the halfway point last week with a half-game lead over the second-place Tennessee Titans, with Jacksonville languishing on another lower floor at two games ahead of the winless Colts and their Curtis Painter-led race to the draft board.
Houston has defeated its three divisional opponents by a combined 99-28 score, following a 41-7 win at Tennessee on Oct. 23 with last Sunday's 24-14 victory over the Jaguars. The Texans are also 3-1 at home this season.
"We can control our fate, and that's the way we want it," Houston owner Bob McNair said after his team improved to 3-0 in divisional play for the first time. "I think the guys understand where they are and I think they really stepped up [last week]."
The renewed uptick warrants credit for first-year defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, whose team is third in the league in total yards allowed, fifth in both scoring defense and against the pass and tied for ninth in sacks.
The Texans were 30th in the NFL after allowing 376.9 yards per game in 2010.
Houston allowed just 174 yards to Jacksonville, the first time in franchise history in which two straight foes were kept below the 200-yard mark.
"I do have a ton of confidence right now in the way we're playing defensively,��� Texans head coach Gary Kubiak said. "I know there are some statistics as far as points and yards, the last two or three weeks, that are off the charts. We're playing very well."
Cleveland has also distinguished itself on the defensive side, allowing just 20 points and 299.1 total yards per game in spite of a 3-4 record that's still dead last in the tough AFC North.
The Browns scored just 46 points while going 1-3 in four October games, however. A fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Colt McCoy to Joshua Cribbs in last week's 20-10 loss at San Francisco was the team���s first end-zone trip in two games.
"Back home, I hope they don't go into a frenzy like the world is going to end," Cribbs said after the game.
The Cleveland offense has been without running back Peyton Hillis for the past two games due to a strained left hamstring, and he's questionable for Sunday's contest as well. Backup Montario Hardesty is also on the injured list and is expected to miss multiple games with a calf tear suffered last week.
These teams have split six lifetime meetings, with the Texans evening the series by virtue of a 16-6 win in Cleveland in 2008. The Browns posted a 27-17 home victory over Houston the previous year but are just 1-2 in their three prior trips to Reliant Stadium, dropping decisions there in both 2005 (19-16) and 2006 (14-6). Cleveland's lone positive result against the Texans in Houston was a 22-14 triumph in the 2004 season finale.
Kubiak is 2-1 all-time against Cleveland during his tenure with the Texans, while the Browns' Pat Shurmur will be opposing both Houston and Kubiak for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
In his past three games on the road, former University of Texas standout McCoy has completed 65-of-111 passes (58.6 percent) for 667 yards with four touchdowns, an interception and an 84.2 passer rating. Hillis needs six catches to reach 100 for his career, while tight end Benjamin Watson needs nine catches to reach 100 with the Browns. Watson tied his season-best with 64 receiving yards last week. Rookie wide receiver Greg Little, a second-round pick in this past draft, ranks second in the NFL among rookies with 29 receptions, trailing only Cincinnati's A.J. Green's 33. Cribbs recorded his second touchdown catch of the season on a 45-yard reception last week.
Houston's defense is tied with Baltimore with an AFC-best 19 sacks, and rookie linebacker and 2011 second-round selection Brooks Reed aims for a third consecutive game with one. Linebacker Brian Cushing leads the Texans with 54 tackles and posted his first interception of the season last week. End Antonio Smith has 16 tackles, 4 1/2 sacks and a forced fumble in eight games, while cornerback Jason Allen has 27 tackles and three interceptions.
Statistically, Cleveland is 28th in scoring offense (15.3 ppg), 26th in total yards (305.7 ypg), 20th in passing yards (218.1 ypg) and 29th in rushing yards (87.6 ypg). The Texans are fifth in the league in scoring defense (18.1 ppg), third in total yards allowed (286.8 ypg), fifth in pass defense (189.4 ypg) and sixth versus the run (97.4 ypg).
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
In his past three games, Texans quarterback Matt Schaub has four touchdowns, no interceptions and a 102.1 passer rating. He needs four touchdown passes to reach 100 for his career. Running back Arian Foster aims for a sixth straight game with 100 or more yards from scrimmage, following efforts of 166, 184, 101, 234 and 124 yards. He recorded his 12th career 100-yard rushing game and third of the season last week. Foster has five touchdowns in the past two games (four rushing, one receiving) as well, and in his past five games in November, is averaging 102.4 rushing yards per game with six touchdowns on the ground. Backup running back Ben Tate averages 5.2 yards per carry (97 attempts, 508 yards). Wide receiver Andre Johnson posted 10 catches for 116 yards (11.6 average) in Houston's most recent matchup with Cleveland back in 2008, but is uncertain to return this week from a nagging hamstring injury that's kept him out of the past four games. If he plays, Johnson needs two catches to reach 700 for his career and would do so in the second-fewest games (120) in NFL history, trailing only Marvin Harrison (114). Wide receiver Kevin Walter had seven catches for 93 yards with a touchdown in that 2008 win over the Browns, while tight end Joel Dreessen aims for a third consecutive game with a touchdown catch.
On defense, the Browns allow 171.9 passing yards per game, second-fewest in the NFL behind Pittsburgh's 171.6. Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson leads the team with 65 tackles and cornerback Joe Haden tops all Cleveland players with 10 passes defensed. Rookie lineman Phil Taylor, the Browns' first-round choice in last April's draft, has two sacks in his past three games and is tied for third among AFC rookies with three sacks.
By the numbers, Houston is eighth in scoring offense (25.8 ppg), seventh in total yards (395.2 ypg), 11th in passing yards (253.4 ypg) and fourth in rushing yards (141.9 ypg). Cleveland is eighth in scoring defense (20.0 ppg), fifth in total yards allowed (299.1 ypg) and the aforementioned second overall in pass defense (171.9 ypg), but ranks just 26th against the run (127.3 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
Should he be healthy enough to go, Houston's Johnson could be prolific after posting 10 catches for 116 yards the last time the teams met, though the Browns have been one of the league's tougher teams to throw on.
While on the subject of injuries, the banged-up Browns could find an even more difficult road against the sixth-best rush defense in the league this week. Replacements Chris Ogbonnaya and Thomas Clayton have a combined career total of 35 rushes for 125 yards, but will need to produce if called upon.
The Texans have traditionally found adversity when beginning the second halves of recent seasons, as their last win in the ninth game of the season was in 2007. It's a hump the team must get over both for this week and beyond.
Johnson may be back in the fold. Foster's on a roll and the Texans' defense has held five of eight opponents to 14 points or less. Oh, and they're playing at home as well, where they're 3-1 this year. There weren't a lot of reasons to pick against the Texans anyway, but without Hillis at 100 percent for Cleveland, there's one less.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texans 30, Browns 14