Call them the "Maybe This Time They're Ready for Primetime Players."
Two seasons after whetting southeast Texas playoff appetites with a plus-.500 record and nine months after wrapping up a defensively-challenged 6-10 flop of an encore, the Houston Texans might finally be on the verge of that long- awaited next step.
Next on the staircase will be the New Orleans Saints, who host the currently unbeaten Texans Sunday at the Superdome.
In spite of a nagging injury to breakout running back Arian Foster, the Texans have broken out of the 2011 gate with consecutive wins and could take advantage of an amalgam of mediocrity in their normally-stacked home division of the AFC South. More accustomed to lockstep battles with a certain blue-and-white powerhouse from the Midwest, Houston already find itself a game clear of the pack in the four-team grouping and two games up on the Peyton Manning-less defending kingpin Indianapolis Colts, whom they starched by a 34-7 score in Week 1.
Houston followed the season-opening rout at Reliant Stadium with a 23-13 road smothering of the Miami Dolphins, and in as stunning a reversal as there's been in September, leads the entire NFL in both scoring defense (10 points per game) and total defense (271 yards per game).
It's no coincidence, perhaps, that the Texans' ball-stopping unit which finished among the league's dregs last season is being led for the first year by long-time guru Wade Phillips, who was hired on as coordinator in January, two months after his head coaching tenure at Dallas ended with a midseason firing in 2010.
Phillips came to town with plans to implement a 3-4 scheme, but more importantly, arrived with the sideline cred that instantly got the locker-room attention of holdovers and youngsters.
Eight Phillips-led defenses have finished in the league's overall top 10. and he's reached the postseason eight times as either a head coach or assistant as well. In fact, the last four times he's taken over a defense of a team that didn't make the playoffs in a given year, it got there the next season.
"The good thing about a reputation is they believe things before you go in," Phillips said. "When I was first coordinator, I had to convince everybody that I knew what I was doing. It helps that 'Hey, this guy knows what he's doing. If we'll get the things that he says right, then it will work.'"
Veteran linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who missed much of 2010 with an injury, bought in immediately.
"[Phillips] had that respect coming into our room," Ryans said. "You've got a lot of eager guys here who are wanting to be great on defense. Wade brings a track record of turning teams around. We were all just wide-eyed, [wondering] 'What's he got for us?'"
A prolific Houston offense has worked so far without one of its biggest weapons in Foster at full strength. The third-year back, who led the league with 1,616 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns last season, carried 10 times for 33 yards against Miami after missing the opener with a hamstring problem.
Foster aggravated the injury against the Dolphins and seems unlikely to play in Sunday's tilt. Much of his workload has been carried by rookie Ben Tate, who can join Cadillac Williams as the only players in league history to run for 100 yards in the first three games of their careers.
He'll face a New Orleans defense that sacked Chicago's Jay Cutler six times in a 30-13 win last week, one game after it was torched by defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay in a 42-34 loss in the Thursday night league opener 10 days earlier.
Saints safety Roman Harper was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week after registering seven tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble against the Bears. Chicago was held to 246 total yards, completed just 19-of-45 passes and managed only 3.6 yards per pass play.
New Orleans head coach Sean Payton knows his team will face a challenge duplicating that performance against a potent Houston offense on Sunday.
"[The Texans] cause a lot of problems for defenses because of their balance with their ability to throw it and their ability to run it," Payton said. "We go through in our morning meetings the opponent, kind of statistical analysis of each opponent, and when you look at all the things they've accomplished offensively, they do a lot of things very well."
The Saints and Texans have met twice previously during the regular season, with each time winning once. New Orleans topped Houston by a 31-10 score at the Superdome in 2003, with the Texans exacting revenge by virtue of a 23-10 home verdict in 2007.
These teams also faced off at the Superdome during the third week of this year's preseason, with Houston delivering a 27-14 victory on Aug. 20.
Texans head coach Gary Kubiak is 1-0 all-time during his tenure, while Payton lost his only previous encounter with both Kubiak and Houston with that 2007 defeat.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
Houston quarterback Matt Schaub has an NFL-best 71.7 percent completion percentage (38-of-53) this season and in his last meeting with New Orleans, passed for 293 yards and two touchdowns and compiled a 112.3 rating. Schaub also needs just two completions to pass David Carr (1,243) for most in Texans history. Foster is 94 rush yards short of 2,000 for his career, but seems unlikely to reach that mark this week due to his lingering hamstring injury. Wide receiver Andre Johnson aims for his third straight game with seven catches, 90-plus receiving yards and a touchdown. He had six receptions for 120 yards with a score in Houston's last matchup against the Saints. Tight end Owen Daniels posted the 18th touchdown of his career and first of the season in last week's win.
For the Saints on defense, Harper has 12 sacks since 2006, the most in the league by a defensive back over that stretch. Defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis aims for a third game in a row with a sack against an AFC opponent on Sunday, while eighth-year middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma is tied for third on the team with 10 tackles.
The Texans are ninth in scoring (28.5 ppg) and 14th in total yards (364.5 ypg) through two games, while the Saints are 22nd in scoring defense (27.5 ppg) and 12th in yards allowed (322.5 ypg).
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Since joining New Orleans in 2006, quarterback Drew Brees leads the NFL in pas attempts (3,099), completions (2,078), passing yards (23,607) and passing touchdowns (161). He has won 14 of his past 19 starts at home, completing 500 of 712 passes (70.2 percent) for 5,533 yards with 46 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and a 105.2 rating over that stretch. In his past six games against AFC foes, Brees has completed 73.4 percent of his passes for 1,900 yards, 16 touchdowns and a 106.9 rating. Running back/return specialist Darren Sproles had eight catches last week, including a 12-yard touchdown grab, and leads the NFL with seven receptions on third down. Running back Pierre Thomas has five touchdowns (4 rushing, 1 receiving) in his last six outings against AFC opposition, while wide receiver Devery Henderson had three catches for 103 yards and a 79-yard touchdown in Week 2 and aims for a third game in a row with 100-plus yards and a score. He also had a touchdown catch in these teams' last meeting. Fellow wide receiver Robert Meachem has 19 career touchdown catches, 13 of which have gone for 25-plus yards, and averages 29.4 yards per score. Tight end Jimmy Graham had six catches for 79 yards last week and has scored five touchdowns in his last five games.
Texans defensive end Antonio Smith aims for a third consecutive game with a sack and cornerback Johnathan Joseph posted his first interception as a Texan last week. Inside linebacker Brian Cushing, the 2009 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, leads Houston with 17 tackles.
New Orleans is fifth in scoring (32.0 ppg) and third in total offense (429.5 ypg), while as mentioned earlier, Houston is first in scoring defense and also first in total yards allowed.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Saints' defense struggled against a multi-faceted Green Bay foe in Week 1 and stiffened against a less-varied Chicago opponent in Week 2. Their performance on Sunday will go a long way toward determining their fate.
With Foster gimpy, Tate needs to continue to emerge and help Houston pull some focus away from the aerial tandem of Schaub and Johnson.
One week is a fluke, two is a trend. So if the Texans can maintain its excellent early performance on defense against the high-powered Saints, it'll be time to consider them elite.
While they've surely been impressive in discovering their inner defensive selves, it's not as if the Texans have met the cream of the NFL crop in the Manning-less Colts and the direction-less Dolphins. It's a huge step up in class, not to mention a difficult road test, this time around. A win makes believers out of many, but the feeling here is that it's not quite time for parades.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 27, Texans 17