It's an in-state battle featuring the most popular sports franchise in North American sports, the Dallas Cowboys and the Houston Texans. While the Dallas Cowboys haven't played for a chance to win Lombardi Trophy number six, the Houston Texans haven't found much success either since their inception in 2002. Though they may have much different histories, the level of success each has attained since the turn of the millennium is eerily similar. The Dallas Cowboys haven't reached the NFC Championship Game since the last time they won a Super Bowl after the 1995 season. The Houston Texans haven't reached an AFC Championship Game in their 16 year history heading into 2018.
Both teams came into the 2018 season with high expectations, and yet, both have floundered in the first month of the season. The Dallas Cowboys are coming off a win that evened their record at 2-2 when they beat the Detroit Lions on a last second field goal attempt by rookie Kicker Brett Maher. Similarly, the Houston Texans won their matchup with the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday with a game winning field goal in overtime. For the Texans, however, it was their first win of the season.
After just four games, the expectations for these two Texas clubs have dropped off considerably as neither is seen as a playoff contender at this point in the season.
A win on Sunday could catapult either team toward a run at playoff contention.
This is only the fourth regular season meeting between Texas' two NFL teams. The Dallas Cowboys hold an all-time edge in the series, 3-1, winning the last three meetings after the Houston Texans beat the Cowboys in their first game as a franchise back in 2002.
In the two games with Jason Garrett as either the offensive coordinator (2010) or head coach (2014), the Dallas Cowboys averaged 23.5 points per game on offense. The 2010 game would be the only win that former Head Coach Wade Phillips would record in that season before being fired after losing six straight.
Check out Inside The Star Staff Writer Kevin Brady's Cowboys vs Texans Betting Trends for more historical data heading into the week five matchup.
Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans
Over Deshaun Watson's last nine games, he's averaged 302 passing yards, thrown 2.77 passing touchdowns, while completing 62% of his passes. If you were to stretch that pace out over the course of a 16 game season those numbers would look like this: 4,832 yards passing, 44 passing touchdowns, and 20 interceptions.
No quarterback who has dropped back to pass at least 100 times has been pressured as often as Watson's 47.3% pressured rate. So nearly every other time that Deshaun Watson drops back to pass, he's pressured. Only Buffalo Bills rookie Quarterback Josh Allen's been sacked more times than Watson's 17. That should bode well for DeMarcus Lawrence and company.
Though Watson's been under pressure a lot, it doesn't always phase him as he has the ninth highest passer rating in the NFL when under pressure at 82.1.
Through the first four games of the 2018 season, Watson's throwing on average an interception per game. In his 11 game career, he's thrown 12 interceptions. Sounds like a good week for the Dallas Cowboys to get their first interception.
In looking at his passing charts through four weeks as provided by Pro Football Focus, the majority of his success has come throwing to the middle of the field. He's had a lot of success throwing to the deep middle, which could be where the Houston Texans try to exploit the Dallas Cowboys defense. Last week, against the Indianapolis Colts, Watson was able to win for big gains down the right side of the field and unless Kris Richard and the Dallas secondary can rebound on that side of the field, it could be another area of weakness for the Cowboys defense.
Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys Quarterback Dak Prescott had his best game of the season last week against the Detroit Lions. He three for 255 yards while completing 63% of his passes for two touchdowns and finished with a quarterback rating of 118.6.
More importantly, for the first time in a long time, Prescott looked poised and confident completing several big passes down the sidelines; one to rookie Michael Gallup early in the game and the clincher to Ezekiel Elliott on the fourth quarter drive that set up the game winning field goal.
On passes 10 or more yards down the field, Prescott was 5/8 for 115 yards and a touchdown. That doesn't include the big catch and run on the screen play to Ezekiel Elliott.
Prescott looked like the quarterback we saw through his first 24 games. If he can keep up this play, he will silence all the doubters in route to a big-time contract in the 2019 offseason.
The Running Game
The Dallas Cowboys
Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys have reasserted themselves as one of the best running games in the NFL after four games. Elliott leads the league in rushing by nearly 100 yards. He leads the league in yards after contact and is third in the NFL in yards after contact per attempt.
Elliott also ranks third in the NFL in breakaway percentage, with 50.7% of his runs going for 15 yards or more, per Pro Football Focus. Elliott has the most runs of 15 yards or more this season with 10. The next closest are Matt Breida of the San Francisco 49ers and Melvin Gordon of the Los Angeles Chargers -- still weird typing that -- with six.
The Houston Texans
Lamar Miller is leading the Texans in rushing with 225 yards this season, which is 14th in the NFL. His 3.9 yards per attempts is also 14th in the NFL and he hasn't scored a touchdown this season. In yards after contact per attempt, Miller ranks 24th.
Alfred Blue has been slightly better than Miller in fewer attempts this season. He has a better yards per attempt, a better yards after contact per attempt, and has scored the only rushing touchdown by a running back for the Texans in 2018.
The Wide Receivers
The Houston Texans
If there is a place that the Texans have the most sizeable advantage it's in the weapons they have on the outside. The Texans are able to roll out DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, Bruce Ellington, and Keke Coutee when they go to 11 and 10 personnel groupings and all four of those guys could be starters or have sizeable roles for the Dallas Cowboys.
DeAndre Hopkins is one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. Yes, he's up there with Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr. He's finally getting to play with a good quarterback and you can see how that's helping him. He's fifth in the NFL in receiving yards and has two touchdown receptions on the season. DeAndre Hopkins may find himself matched up against Anthony Brown on Sunday since he lines up in the slot on nearly a quarter of his snaps.
Fellow wide receiver, Will Fuller, is tied for fourth in the NFL with three touchdown receptions and has 263 yards receiving this season.
Both Hopkins and Fuller are averaging more than 14 yards per reception.
Keke Coutee broke out in week four, recording all 11 receptions he has on the season for 109 yards including 96 yards after catch. He's going to be an assignment that could give the linebackers trouble underneath on Sunday.
The Dallas Cowboys
Aside from Cole Beasley, the Dallas Cowboys haven't really received -- pun intended -- consistent production from their wide receiver group. Beasley's leading the team in yards and receptions. Only Ezekiel Elliott and Geoff Swaim have at least 10 receptions on the season and more than 100 receiving yards. That's how sparse the WR production has been.
Michael Gallup showed up in a big way on Sunday vs the Detroit Lions when he came up with a big play in the first quarter, but his 41.7% reception rate is the lowest on the Dallas Cowboys.
Tavon Austin has been an X-Factor with his ability to run the jet sweep and get down field on "go" routes, but his playing time hasn't been nearly enough. The coaching staff is limiting how much of an impact he can have on the game by keeping him off the field. His snap count continues to trend in the right direction. Sunday's 25% snap share was higher than any other game Tavon's played this season.
Deonte Thompson and Allen Hurns have had some solid moments. Thompson is second on the team in first down receptions, but hasn't provided much else. Hurns has been a disappointment. He had a drop on what would have been a crucial first down reception on Sunday.
The Dallas Cowboys are ranked higher than the Houston Texans in most defensive categories heading into week five.
Where the Houston Texans defense has been better is against the run and in forcing turnovers. The Texans have forced five turnovers in the first four games, while the Dallas Cowboys have forced two.
Against the run, the Texans are allowing only 3.5 yards per attempt. The Cowboys are allowing 3.6 yards per attempt. Both are top five in the NFL.
The Dallas Cowboys pass defense is seventh in passing yards against, 10th in passing TDs allowed, and is third in sacks. The Houston Texans have allowed the sixth most passing yards, third most passing touchdowns, and are tied for ninth in the NFL in sacks. The Texans have only intercepted one pass in the 2018 season.
Both the Texans and the Cowboys are allowing opposing offenses to convert on third down at just over 44% of the time.
Opposing offenses are coming away with points on trips to the red zone 78.6% of the time against the Texans compared to 54.5% of the time against the Dallas Cowboys.
Brett Maher, Dallas Cowboys
- 8/9 on field goal attempts, including 1/1 on attempts greater than 50 yards, and a game winning field goal, and 5/5 on extra point attempts.
Ka'imi Fairbairn, Houston Texans
- 9/11 on field goal attempts, 1/3 on attempts greater than 50 yards, and has a game winning field goal in overtime, and is 9/9 on extra point attempts.
Chris Jones, Dallas Cowboys
- 46.1 yards per punt, net of 40.2 (tied for 15th in the NFL), and has put only five punts inside the 20 yard line, which is tied for 26th in the league.
Trevor Daniel, Houston Texans
- Averaging 42 yards per punt, net of 39 (29th in the NFL), but has put 11 punts inside the 20, which is good for 7th in the league.
Running Back Tyler Ervin is the Houston Texans primary return man on both kickoffs and punts. He's averaging 9.9 yards per punt return and 25.3 yards per kickoff return. That 25.3 yards per kickoff return leads the league.
Tavon Austin has been the only Cowboys player to return a punt this year, but he's only averaging 4.7 yards per return on his punts. Any good returns he's had have been negated by penalties. Deonte Thompson has mainly handled the kick return duties and is averaging 24.5 yards per return.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
The Houston Texans and the Dallas Cowboys are pretty evenly matched on paper and it should be a close game on Sunday.
For the Cowboys, the key to the game will be how well they're defense will be able to contain Deshaun Watson and the passing game. When they get opportunities to make plays on Watson or the ball when he's under pressure, they'll need to take advantage of it.
On offense, Dak Prescott and the passing game will have to be able to exploit the Texans pass defense that is allowing 288 passing yards and 2.75 passing touchdowns per game.
For the Texans, they'll have to contain the Dallas Cowboys running game with the same effectiveness they have been in 2018 so that the Dallas Cowboys aren't able to use play action with as much efficiency.
On offense, they'll need to keep Deshaun Watson clean and make plays when he's under pressure, because he's going to be under pressure.
Cowboys, Colts Week 15 Injury Report
The Dallas Cowboys can clinch the NFC East with a win this week, while the Indianapolis Colts are fighting to stay alive in the AFC wild card race. Only one team can accomplish their goal, and both have some big names on the Week 15 injury report.
We'll begin with the visiting Cowboys, who could be getting at least one star player back while another is already confirmed to miss the game.
- TE Geoff Swaim (wrist) - OUT
- G Zack Martin (knee) - OUT
- DL David Irving (ankle) - OUT
- WR Tavon Austin (groin) - Questionable
- WR Lance Lenoir (illness) - Questionable
- OT Tyron Smith (neck) - Questionable
- DE Randy Gregory (personal) - Questionable
- LB Sean Lee (hamstring) - Questionable
Yes, sadly, Zack Martin will be out tomorrow. The good news is that Connor Williams got the entire week to practice with the starters at right guard. You can read much more about this situation and it's impact on the game here, courtesy of our own Sean Martin.
Also ruled out, as they have been for a while now, are TE Geoff Swaim and DL David Irving. Swaim is still recovering from wrist surgery but has not been placed on injured reserve, so the team must feel he could be back for the playoffs. Irving could return as soon as next week.
Speaking of returns, Sean Lee may be back on the field this Sunday. It's unknown yet how he'll rotate with Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, but Dallas has the luxury of working him in slowly thanks to the play of their young duo.
Tavon Austin could also return this week, creating another new offensive wrinkle. Austin has been injured since the Jacksonville game and has yet to play since the Cowboys acquired Amari Cooper. Not only could Tavon do some interesting things in the offense, but he should bring some additional sizzle to special teams.
While appearing on the injury report, Randy Gregory missed practice this week for "family reasons" according to Jason Garrett. He could still play tomorrow.
- G Mark Glowinski (ankle) - OUT
- LB Skai Moore (neck) - OUT
- S Mike Mitchell (calf) - OUT
- WR T.Y. Hilton (ankle) - Questionable
- TE Ryan Hewitt (ribs) - Questionable
- S Clayton Geathers (knee) - Questionable
The big name here is Hilton, the star receiver who missed all practice this week with an ankle injury. Indianapolis has not ruled him out, wanting to give Andrew Luck's favorite target every opportunity to play. But it's not looking good, and a bad ankle could limit Hilton's effectiveness even if he goes.
Also hurt among the passing options is starting TE Ryan Hewitt, but he did practice full on Friday and should go. Not playing, however, is starting right guard Mark Glowinski. That means third-year player Evan Boehm should start, who just joined the team in October.
Indy's hurting at safety this week. Not only did starter Clayton Geathers miss the whole week of practice, but veteran backup Mike Mitchell is already ruled out. The Colts would have to rely on undrafted rookie George Odum if neither plays.
Fun fact before we go; former Cowboy Jihad Ward was picked up by the Colts after Dallas included him in their roster cuts to start the season. However, he landed on injured reserve back in October so won't get a chance at revenge.
Zack Martin Out, Connor Williams In at Right Guard for Cowboys at Colts
The Dallas Cowboys offensive line depth will be tested as they play for a chance to clinch the NFC East on Sunday at the Indianapolis Colts. Suffering a knee injury last week against the Eagles, Right Guard Zack Martin will not be able to play. In missing his first career start, rookie Connor Williams rightfully returns to the starting lineup as Martin's replacement.
The 50th overall pick from this year's AT&T Stadium hosted Draft has started eight games this season at left guard. Williams' last start happens to be in the last game Dallas lost, a week nine defeat to the Tennessee Titans. This opened the door for Xavier Su'a-Filo to become something of a sensation for Cowboys Nation as the starting left guard throughout the team's current five game win streak.
Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin has been ruled out of Sunday's game with a sprained knee. Rookie Connor Williams will start in his place.
Zack Martin being unavailable is hardly how Marc Colombo wants to prepare for the Cowboys first road game since week 11. Having both Su'a-Filo and Williams in the lineup will be valuable for the Cowboys moving forward though, as Williams could earn his job at left guard back from the right side.
While he won't nearly be expected to play at the level of Martin, Williams looked poised coming off the bench against the Eagles and helping the Cowboys offense score their final three touchdowns. Williams was on the field for all three of Amari Cooper's scores, as Dallas rushed for 34 yards on 11 carries with him in the game.
Williams flashed some of the traits that made him a top left tackle prospect out of college, flowing to the second level with ease and creating movement with quick feet at the point of attack. The Cowboys have forced him to remain game ready despite losing his starting position by finding a few emergency snaps for him in recent weeks, as well as special teams looks. The team has every reason to believe Williams is an ascending young player still.
The same cannot be said of Su'a-Filo, who simply has to focus on continuing to hold up at left guard again this week. With each passing win, Su'a-Filo's LG spot has become more of a liability in a Cowboys offense in need of a jump-start late in this 2018 season.
Consistent offensive line play is one of the few things that's clearly hurting the Cowboys as contenders in the NFC behind a stellar defense and game breaking wide receiver.
The Cowboys won't be at full strength against the eighth best rushing defense and 15th ranked passing defense in yards per game. With three separate chances to clinch the NFC East starting at the Colts and extending until the end of the regular season, the Cowboys stand to learn all they need to know about the offensive line that will start in the playoffs.
Martin, who's elevated his game to a new level this season despite this lingering knee injury, should be on track to return when the Cowboys come home to play the Buccaneers in week 16.
Final Thoughts and Prediction for Cowboys vs Indianapolis Colts
Over the last five weeks, the Dallas Cowboys have put themselves in a position in week 15 to clinch the NFC East with a win over the Indianapolis Colts or a loss by the Philadelphia Eagles vs the Los Angeles Rams.
My how things have changed.
Just six weeks ago, the Cowboys were coming off an embarrassing two touchdown loss on Monday Night Football at the hands of the Tennessee Titans and looked dead in the water sitting at 3-5. A month and a half later they are in position to win the division and potentially have little to play for the final two weeks of the season. That's an amazing turnaround. One that should have Jason Garrett in the Coach of the Year discussions.
As we get ready for the Colts on Sunday, let me give you my final thoughts on the week 15 matchup.
Will Key Injuries Tell the Tale?
By week 15 of the NFL season, pretty much everyone is dealing with injuries and most teams are dealing with injuries to key players. The Dallas Cowboys and the Indianapolis Colts are no different.
All-Pro Right Guard Zack Martin has already been ruled out of Sunday's contest, as he's been battling a knee injury for several weeks. It was worsened on Sunday vs the Eagles when he took a bull rush from Fletcher Cox and fell awkwardly. This will be the first start that Zack Martin has missed in his illustrious five-year career. He's been an iron man for the Cowboys at a position that makes it extremely difficult to stay healthy.
On the plus side, it looks like the Cowboys mat get All-Pro Linebacker Sean Lee and Wide Receiver Tavon Austin back for Sunday. Both Lee and Austin will likely be in reserve/rotational roles if they suit up this week, but if they're active, they'll make important impacts to their respective units.
Indianapolis is struggling with an injury to a very important player in their own right as Wide Receiver T.Y. Hilton has not practiced this week. He's dealing with an ankle injury and Colts Head Coach Frank Reich doesn't sound optimistic about his chances of playing.
The Colts will also be missing their Right Guard Mark Glowinski, who has started the last eight games for Indianapolis. Glowinski suffered an ankle injury during the Colts win over the Texans last Sunday. That's a key loss for an offensive line that has played as well as anyone in the NFL this season.
Can the Cowboys Limit Andrew Luck?
The Cowboys defense has been one of the best units in football in 2018 as they've put on a show against really good offensive teams like the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints. They'll have another tough test this week against Andrew Luck and the Colts.
According to Pro Football Reference, Luck sits second in the NFL in touchdown passes, sixth in passing yards, third in completions, second in attempts, 12th in quarterback rating, and ninth in QBR. At 7.1 yards per attempt, he sits 22nd in the NFL in and 20th in the NFL in air yards per attempt at 7.3.
Luck has been one of the best passers in the NFL, but he's also thrown the second most interceptions this season. On the flip side, among quarterbacks who have started 13 games, Luck has been sacked the second fewest times. Only Drew Brees has taken less sacks. Luck has only been sacked 16 times in 13 games and has been sacked multiple times in only five games. Over the last three weeks, Luck has taken an average of two sacks a game.
In that four week stretch, the Colts have gone 3-1, and Luck has averaged 321 yards passing, two touchdowns and an interception per game.
The Dallas defense has come on strong and is finding ways to get pressure with four rushers. Taking advantage of the injury at right guard and getting to Luck with their front four is a huge key to the game as it is against most quarterbacks. Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence are playing as well as any defensive end duo in the NFL this season and I expect that to continue this week.
Big Games from Explosive Duo?
The Dallas Cowboys have been getting huge games from their two most important skill position players; Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and Wide Receiver Amari Cooper. Over the last five weeks, Elliott has averaged 116 rushing yards a game, 55 receiving yards, and at least one touchdown per game. During the same stretch, Cooper has averaged seven receptions for 116 yards and a touchdown per game.
Elliott and Cooper may find it difficult to reach their respective 100 yard milestones against the Colts. As Patrick Conn of WFAA.com illustrates below.
Colts haven't given up 100 yards to a single rusher. 2-100 yard receiving games vs Texans in first matchup (Hopkins/Coutee). Other than that, no other 100 yard performances
Now, it could be argued that the Colts have only played three games against teams with good to great offenses. The Houston Texans (twice), and the New England Patriots. They went a combined 1-2 in those three games and the defense allowed an average of 32 points per game. The Colts have played better defense over the last seven games than they did earlier in the season. Over the last seven, they went 6-1 and allowed an average of 17 points per game. Of course that stretch of games doesn't feature any offensive juggernauts. They played the Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans, and the Oakland Raiders. The best team they played in their last seven games was the Houston Texans and they allowed 21 points. The Cowboys only allowed 16 points in regulation to the Texans.
Only one team on the Colts schedule to this point is in the top 10 in rushing; the Houston Texans. And only one team on their schedule is in the top 10 in passing; the New England Patriots. Again, in three games against those teams, they went 1-2.
They haven't faced an offense this season that is playing as well, and as balanced, as the Cowboys have over the last five weeks.
Rookie Linebackers Dominating
We've all witnessed the standout play of rookie Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, as the "Wolf Hunter" has taken the NFC by storm during Sean Lee's absence. Vander Esch is third in the league in solo tackles this season. The two players in front of Vander Esch are perennial All-Pro Luke Kuechly and the guy who will probably run away with Defensive Rookie of the Year award, Indianapolis Colts rookie Darius Leonard.
Leonard is leading the NFL in solo tackles and combined tackles per Pro Football Focus. He's tied for the lead league among linebackers with seven sacks and is second in the NFL in Pro Football Focus' "stops" metric. Leighton Vander Esch is fourth.
Both linebackers have been huge contributors for their teams, at times taking over games and coming up with big plays to turn the tide. Throw in Fred Warner in San Francisco and 2018 has been the year of the rookie linebacker.
Since I've been writing this column, the Dallas Cowboys have enjoyed a bit of a win streak. I haven't always picked them, as you can see in the New Orleans Saints edition of Final Thoughts, but when I have picked the Cowboys, they've made me look smart and I'm going to go with them again this week on the road.
Indianapolis isn't really known as a tough place to play and in the Jason Garrett era, the Cowboys have generally been a really good team away from AT&T Stadium. I believe this game will be a close one, as most have been this year, but I think that Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott continue their impressive string of performances and are able to do enough to keep Andrew Luck on the sideline and limiting his impact on the game. If T.Y. Hilton is limited in the game or unable to go, that gives the Cowboys a huge advantage as they then can focus on touchdown maker Tight End Eric Ebron and we know what Byron Jones does to tight ends.
This is going to be a tough game, but I like the Cowboys to come out on top. Randy Gregory continues his sack streak and they get to Luck multiple times in the game and are able to force at least one turnover. Dak Prescott is efficient and doesn't turn the ball over this week and finds ways to beat the blitz. So, I've got it...
Cowboys 24 - Colts 20
Be sure to leave us your prediction in the comment section.
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