For two seasons, the Houston Texans have been the NFL's hottest tease.
Twice hyped out of training camp as a legitimate up-and-comer, head coach Gary Kubiak's team has broken from the gate fast to prolong the prognosticator's zeal before, only to stumble badly in the second half en route to maddening also-ran status.
But this year, thanks to a perfect storm of divisional mediocrity behind them, it appears the Texans are finally ready to crack the playoff code.
Owners of a 1 1/2-game lead over second-place Tennessee in the AFC South and already 3-0 against fellow division inhabitants this season, Houston enters its final pre-bye test against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday at Raymond James Stadium feeling deservedly good about itself -- albeit with just the right amount of caution.
"We're sitting where we want to be, first in the division, 6-3," Kubiak said. "But as everyone knows, things can go downhill fast in this league, so we have to remain focused. We're controlling the football and the clock, so we're doing a good job of keeping [opponents] off the field. They're only going to get tougher as we move forward.
"We've got enough guys around here that have been through enough tough times to know how hard they've worked for this opportunity that they're fixing to go into here over the course of the next seven weeks."
Previously a pass-happy outfit with the tandem of quarterback Matt Schaub and wide receiver Andre Johnson, the Texans have taken giant leaps toward changing their identity in 2011, boasting the league's second-ranked rushing offense and a defense that's allowed the fewest total yards en route to the best record after nine games in franchise history.
"I tell you guys [the media] all the time, [the goal] is hopefully get a team that's good enough when you show up on Sunday that you can win three different ways," Kubiak said. "Right now, I think we're heading very much towards that. I think we feel like we can play defense with anybody in the league and we feel like we can move the ball with anybody in the league."
Houston won its third straight by routing Cleveland, 30-12, last week with 124 rushing yards from Foster and 115 more from Tate, establishing a franchise- record 261 rushing yards in the process. Foster has rushed for at least 112 yards in three straight games and gone over 100 from scrimmage in his last six contests, the longest streak in the league.
The Texans are 4-0 when giving up fewer than 90 rushing yards. They allowed just 44 to the Browns.
Tampa Bay, meanwhile, is 0-4 when gaining fewer than 100 yards on the ground. Buccaneers running back LeGarrette Blount has averaged 100 rushing yards and 5.6 yards per carry over his last six home games, but the team has only eight touchdowns in 22 red-zone opportunities this season.
The Bucs trail New Orleans by 1 1/2 games in the NFC South after dropping a 27-16 decision to the Saints last Sunday.
"It's hard to win in this division when you're not scoring touchdowns," Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman said. "It's just taking advantage of the opportunities. Everything in the red zone is more condensed. It's got to happen faster and we just haven't been making plays."
Defensively, Tampa Bay made a big move on Wednesday, claiming lineman Albert Haynesworth off waivers a day after he was released by New England. The Buccaneers lost defensive tackle Gerald McCoy for the season with a torn right biceps he sustained in last week's defeat.
Johnson has missed Houston's last five games with a right hamstring injury and is questionable to return for Sunday's contest.
The Buccaneers and Texans have split two previous regular-season meetings, with Tampa Bay recording a 16-3 victory in Houston's only prior visit to Raymond James Stadium back in 2003. The Texans topped the Bucs by a 28-14 count in Houston during the 2007 campaign.
Houston's above-mentioned win in 2007 gave Kubiak a 1-0 lifetime record against Tampa Bay as a head coach, while the Buccaneers' Raheem Morris will be taking on both the Texans and Kubiak for the first time as a sideline boss.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
In four road games in 2011, Schaub has completed 82-of-128 passes (64.1 percent) for 1,119 yards and eight touchdowns with just one interception for a 109.5 rating. He also needs just four touchdown passes to reach 100 for his career. The Texans had a club-record 261 rushing yards last week and Foster seeks a fourth consecutive game with 100-plus yards on the ground (115, 112, 124). The standout running back also surpassed Domanick Williams (23 touchdowns) for the most rushing touchdowns in Texans history last week, and is averaging 106 rushing yards and scored seven touchdowns in his past six November games. Foster (656 rushing yards) and Tate (623 rushing yards) are the first running back duo to have 600-plus rushing yards apiece through a team's first nine games of a season since Denver's Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell in 2005. Johnson needs two receptions to reach 700 in the second-fewest games (120) in NFL history behind only Marvin Harrison (114), but may be held out another week with Houston having an upcoming bye.
For the Tampa Bay defense, cornerback Ronde Barber has started 191 consecutive games, the most by a corner in league history. He is also the only player in NFL history with 25-plus sacks (27) and 40-plus interceptions (42). Defensive end Adrian Clayborn is tied for second among NFC rookies with three sacks, while safety Tanard Jackson aims for a third home game in a row with an interception and rookie middle linebacker Mason Foster has 41 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble.
Statistically, the Texans' offense is sixth in scoring (26.2 ppg), eighth in total yards (393.6 ypg), 14th in passing yards (238.4 ypg) and second in rushing (155.1 ypg). On defense, the Buccaneers are lowly in all four categories, placing 24th in points allowed (24.5 ppg), 29th in total yards allowed (398.9 ypg), 28th in pass defense (266.5 ypg) and 26th against the run (132.4 ypg).
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Freeman aims for a fourth consecutive win at Raymond James Stadium. Last week, he completed 27-of-37 passes (73 percent) for 281 yards and a touchdown and a 103.5 rating. When Blount has 18 or more carries, the Buccaneers are 7-1, and in those eight games he has rushed for 834 yards (104.3 per game) and five touchdowns. In his past six home games with 15 or more carries, Blount has 676 yards (112.7 per game) and four touchdowns. Wide receiver Mike Williams averages 4.9 catches per home game in his career (13 games, 64 catches), while tight end Kellen Winslow had a touchdown last week and has a catch in 84 straight games. He has 10 or more catches in two of three career games against Houston as well, compiling 21 receptions for 200 yards and a touchdown over those two contests. Wide receiver Dezmon Briscoe aims for a fourth game in a row with a 20-plus yard catch this week.
Houston rookie linebacker Brooks Reed had a career-best two sacks last week and aims for a fourth consecutive game with a sack. Eighth-year end Antonio Smith has 16 tackles, 4 1/2 sacks and a forced fumble on the season, while free safety Danieal Manning has 32 tackles and two interceptions in his first season with Houston. The free-agent acquisition won't play this week due to a fractured tibia, however.
By the numbers, Tampa Bay is 24th in scoring offense (18.4 ppg), 15th in total yards (343.5 ypg), 11th in passing yards (245.4 ypg) and 24th in rushing yards (98.1 ypg). Houston's defense is third in points allowed (17.4 ppg), first in total yards allowed (274.0 ypg), second against the pass (182.6 ypg) and fourth against the run (91.4 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
Unfortunately for the Bucs, it seems their main weaknesses -- running the ball and scoring points -- play right into the hands of a top-four team in both of those categories league-wide.
With Johnson either unavailable or not at 100 percent, the Texans will lean even harder on the two-headed running monster of Foster and Tate, who've taken the pressure off a happy-to-oblige Schaub. The Buccaneers are going to have to keep the pair in check to have a chance this week.
As mentioned earlier, it's another litmus test -- a game on the road against a credible foe -- for a Houston team that's a would-be playoff contender and has never really won a status-clinching late-season game. The Texans still need to show they're up to the task.
The Bucs have a way of winning these kinds of games. Get them at home and match them with an opponent seemingly content to play down a level or two, and it's often spelled an unlikely victory for opponents of Tampa Bay in the past. However, if you're a believer in the Texans' renaissance, you have to believe they'll find a way here over a foe that's superior in no other way but home turf.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texans 27, Buccaneers 14