It may be early to tab a game as a must-win, but the Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers face just that as they square off Sunday night at Candlestick Park. Both teams come in with 2-2 records, and a third loss will complicate one team's quest for a return to the postseason. The Texans have dropped two straight, while the 49ers come in off a convincing victory over the St. Louis Rams.
Here's the breakdown in our betting tale of the tape:
The Texans are one of the few teams in the NFL ranked in the top 10 in both passing yardage (ninth, 276 per game) and rushing offense (seventh, 134.3). While several teams have trouble dressing one top-flight running back each week, Houston is blessed with two in Arian Foster and Ben Tate. The two combined for 216 total yards and a touchdown in last weekend's 23-20 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Quarterback Matt Schaub is eighth in the league in passing yardage but just 16th in quarterback rating, having thrown six interceptions to date.
Coming off back-to-back duds in which they scored a combined 10 points, the 49ers let loose against St. Louis to the tune of 370 total yards and five touchdowns. The 49ers have been one of the top running teams in the league - ranked right behind the Texans at 131 yards per game - but are averaging just 200 yards through the air, the sixth-worst mark in the NFL. Third-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick is 24th in QB rating through four games, and were it not for the exploits of veteran running back Frank Gore (295 rush yards, two TDs), the 49ers might be even worse off.
No team in the NFL has defended the pass as well as the Texans, who are holding opposing offenses to an average of 141 yards through the air per game. The Texans made life miserable for Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson a week ago, limiting him to 123 passing yards while picking him off once and sacking him five times. Houston isn't nearly as stingy against the run, ranking 23rd in yards allowed at 113.3. The Texans have kept the rushing scores to a minimum, however, allowing just two through the first month of the season.
The Texans may be the class of the league when it comes to pass defense, but the 49ers aren't far behind. San Francisco is surrendering the third-fewest passing yards in the league to date (190.5), and held Sam Bradford to 19-of-41 passing while sacking him five times in last Sunday's rout. Opposing QBs are completing just 52.8 percent of their passes against the 49ers, the second-lowest mark in the league. San Francisco is near the middle of the pack in run defense, sitting 19th in yards allowed per game at 109.3.
Edge: San Francisco
Houston is one of only three teams to have allowed a punt-return touchdown so far in 2013, as Tandon Doss ran one back 82 yards in the second quarter of the Texans' 30-9 loss to Baltimore in Week 3. That return plays a major part in Houston boasting the third-highest punt-return average against in the league (16 ypa). The Texans are sixth in kickoff return average (27.3) and 25th in punt return average (4.5). Placekicker Randy Bullock has struggled mightily so far, missing four of his 10 field-goal attempts - including all three from 50 yards or longer.
San Francisco's return game is lacking, with the 49ers ranked 23rd in kick return average (21.1) and 27th in punt return average (4.4). They're more proficient on the defensive end, tied with Arizona for eighth in kick return average against (19.7) and 21st in punt return average against (7.6). Phil Dawson has the worst field-goal conversation rate so far this season, making just three of six attempts. He missed a 53-yarder wide right and a rare 71-yard free kick field goal wide and left in the 49ers' Week 4 win.
"They post guys up, so the backside guy can cut them. You watch tape, and there's a lot of guys on the ground. It's going to be important for us up front to stay on our blocks, keep our feet out of that stuff, sta up so there's no cut-back lanes, and tackle (Foster and Tate.)" - 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith
"I haven't been on (Twitter) since January. Why have something you don't even utilize? So (my account is) gone. It has nothing to do with (criticism). I'm not a big social media guy. (It) has no bearing on anything and doesn't affect me going forward." - Texans quarterback Matt Schaub