The Texans seem to be on their way to the kind of start that Green Bay had last season. And the Packers seem to be running into the same kind of bad luck that's always plagued Houston.
While the Texans (5-0) are building off last year's 10-6 record, the Packers (2-3) come into Sunday night's game hardly resembling the team that won its first 13 games and finished 15-1 in 2011.
Aaron Rodgers ranks eighth in passer rating (96.9), but is not close to the form that won him the league's MVP honor last year. He's been sacked 21 times, and he's quickly running out of playmakers around him. Leading rusher Cedric Benson is lost for at least eight weeks with a sprained left foot, Pro Bowl receiver Greg Jennings has missed two games with a groin injury, and tight end Jermichael Finley hurt his right shoulder in the Packers' 30-27 loss to Indianapolis on Sunday.
Green Bay squandered a 21-3 halftime lead against the Colts, two weeks after losing 14-12 in Seattle when replacement officials made an incorrect call on a reception in the end zone on the final play. A loss in Houston would put the Packers at 2-4 for the first time since 2006, Brett Favre's second-to-last season with the team. Green Bay finished 8-8 that year and missed the playoffs.
"Expectations are obviously part of the preseason and going into the season we clearly have the same or even higher expectations of ourselves," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "But we also recognize the fact that every NFL season is different. Challenges are going to come at you, some different than (in the) past. We've experienced that some as a football team, but the reality is it's all part of the journey."
Texans who've been around a while can relate to hard times. Before last season's breakthrough, the franchise's short history was marked by agonizing losses.
For a while, Houston seemed snake-bitten again last season, with several prominent players going down to injuries, including receiver Andre Johnson and quarterback Matt Schaub. But first-year coordinator Wade Phillips revamped the defense, Arian Foster produced another Pro Bowl season and the Texans overcame the health issues to win their first AFC South title.
"It's something that every team has to go through at one point or another," Houston left tackle Duane Brown said. "Injuries, bad luck at the end of games. I've been through that a couple of years in my short time here. It's tough, but strong teams, great teams, can deal through it."
The Texans will get tested by another key loss this year. Linebacker Brian Cushing, the team's leading tackler and one of the emotional leaders, is out for the season after tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament in Monday night's 23-17 win over the Jets. Veteran Tim Dobbins will step into Cushing's role, and Houston signed linebacker Barrett Ruud.
Cushing put out a confident proclamation on Twitter on Wednesday, a sign of how much expectations have changed in Houston lately.
"Trust me when I say I'll be back better than ever," Cushing wrote. "I appreciate all the love and want u to know WE are STILL winning THIS year's Super Bowl."
The Packers would just like to beat anybody, and see Sunday's game as an opportunity to reverse their fortunes.
"It's exciting to go in there and get a shot at a team that you know is the cream of the crop right now," fullback John Kuhn said. "If you want to prove to everybody that you're the best, then you've got to start beating the best."
The Packers' shaky offensive line will have to find a way to control Houston defensive end J.J. Watt, the Texans' 2011 first-round pick out of Wisconsin. The 6-foot-5 Watt has 7 1/2 sacks and has made a more significant impact with eight pass deflections.
"He's quick, he's got great moves to the passer and he's smart," Rodgers said. "He knows that when he can't get there, he gets his hands up there. I think he's got 11-plus-inch hands and he's getting his hands on a lot of balls and impacting the game."
Clay Matthews has been equally dominant for Green Bay, currently leading the NFL in sacks (8). The fourth-year outside linebacker has 37½ sacks in his career, already sixth on the team's career list.
"He's obviously a very dynamic player, a good pass rusher," Schaub said, "so we're going to have to be aware of where he is, where he's lined up and our protection and everything."
Schaub has won nine consecutive starts, but Foster carried the offense Monday night, rushing 29 times for 152 yards, both season highs. Foster leads the league with 132 carries, and Houston coach Gary Kubiak expects regular backup Ben Tate to return Sunday after missing the Jets' game with a toe injury.
The Texans also cut returner Trindon Holliday this week. Rookie Keshawn Martin, a fourth-round pick from Michigan State, will take over punt and kickoff return duties.
AP National Writer Nancy Armour contributed to this story from Green Bay, Wis.
Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL