Could we be looking at a Super Bowl preview on Saturday night at Reliant Stadium?
The idea is not nearly as far-fetched as it would have seemed at this time a year ago, when the 49ers were going on nearly a decade without a playoff berth, and the Texans had never even reached the postseason. But after both qualified easily for the playoffs, and each won a game after getting there, San Francisco and Houston rate as the two most prohibitive division favorites in all of the NFL this season.
Maybe the Super Bowl preview thing isn’t far-fetched after all.
Oddsmakers are certainly expecting a crackling battle in Houston, as the Don Best NFL odds screen notes the host Texans as 3-point favorites at most Las Vegas wagering outlets, with the ‘total’ mostly at 37 shaded to the ‘under’ at the majority of Nevada sportsbooks. Kickoff time on Saturday night will be 8:00 p.m. (ET).
Both sides are off handy wins in their preseason openers, with Houston particularly solid in its 26-13 win at Carolina. The Texans’ defense, expected to be good, was outstanding last week, holding the Panthers (who admittedly used QB Cam Newton sparingly) to a mere 137 yards of total offense while recording eight sacks. All the more impressive with star LB Brian Cushing out with a virus and DE J.J. Watt sidelined by a dislocated elbow.
Meanwhile, first-round draft pick OLB Whitney Mercilus (Illinois) came off the bench and harassed the Carolina QBs, registering 1 ½ sacks in an impressive debut. The only minor casualty was NT Shaun Cody, who suffered a minor back injury that likely keeps him out of the 49er game.
Coach Gary Kubiak will begin to dig deeper into his offensive playbook this week with starting QB Matt Schaub expected to work well into the second quarter and star WR Andre Johnson, who sat out the Carolina opener after suffering a mild groin strain in the early days of training camp, likely to make his preseason debut. RB Arian Foster, also used sparingly at Carolina, should get a heavier workload vs. the 49ers.
Speaking of Schaub, he was an interested observer to this week’s signing of LT Duane Brown to a multi-year, $53 million contract. Schaub’s contract, set to expire after this season (as was Brown’s before he inked the deal), is expected to be next on the Houston target list.
The Houston QB rotation on Saturday will see Schaub probably play the first 1 ½ quarters before giving way to U of Houston rookie Case Keenum, who will work with the second-team offense and perhaps with deeper backups in the second half. Backup T.J. Yates, who went most of the way in the opener, and John Beck likely get work in the final thirty minutes.
Kubiak has also been impressed this summer with his WR depth, which appeared to be a question mark when camp opened. Former Michigan State wideout Keshawn Martin has been particularly impressive, while ex-LSU star Trindon Holliday opened some eyes on special teams at Charlotte with a 90-yard kickoff return TD.
The O-line, however, was not pleased with its performance in the opener and will look for a sharper effort vs. the 49ers.
As for Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco squad, it was mostly low-key in a 17-6 win in the opener vs. Minnesota. In fact, the game slowed down so much in the second half that neither team scored in the final thirty minutes.
But Harbaugh can hardly complain, with (knock on wood) no serious maladies to report yet in camp after OLB Aldon Smith’s hip injury deemed minor in the wake of last week’s game. Harbaugh was also pleased with his power running game that accounted for 260 rushing yards vs. the Vikings in the opener, and that was with star RB Frank Gore being rested.
Starting QB Alex Smith likely gets more work vs. Houston after throwing just three passes in the opener, but Harbaugh is likely to take another good look at his other QBs to better determine the identity of Smith’s eventual backup. Second-year ex-Nevada QB Colin Kaepernick has a hold on the job at the moment, and didn’t hurt his candidacy with his highlight-reel 78-yard TD run in the second quarter, but former Wisconsin QB Scott Tolzien generated more buzz and appeared more comfy in the confines of the Harbaugh offense than Kaepernick when completing 10 of 13 throws. Ex-Bucs QB Josh Johnson (who played for Harbaugh at U of San Diego) also did enough to get another look.
The 49ers also flashed plenty of wide receiver depth in the opening week, although first-round draftee WR A.J. Jenkins (Illinois) continued in an inconsistent pattern, as he has done all summer at Santa Clara, dropping two passes after making one dandy 15-yard reception. Speaking of rookies, second-round RB LaMichael James (Oregon) flashed plenty of upside in spot duty and handled punts comfortably.
Aside from Gore, WR Mario Manningham, DE Justin Smith, and PK David Akers were late scratches for the Minnesota game, but all could see action this week.
Preseason trends worth noting include Kubiak’s Houston covering its 8th in the last 10 exhibition games last week at Carolina, while the 49ers’ preseason ‘under’ trend (which extends to the Mike Singletary era) continued vs. the Vikings; San Francisco is now ‘under’ 9-4 its last 13 preseason games.