Before the 2012 season began, the Houston Texans were a popular Super Bowl pick and the New York Jets were considered to be a team on the way down. Heading into their matchup Monday night, both squads have more or less stuck to their expected paths. Houston is 4-0, while the Jets have beaten two mediocre teams (the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins) and lost to two better ones (the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers).
However, the Jets are at home, and the Texans have lost their last three Monday night contests. So there's a chance New York can pull it together for this nationally televised matchup and score one of those unexpected wins that make the NFL so much fun.
If not, there's always Tebow Watch -- the NFL equivalent of following auto sports for the crashes or hoping for a fight to break out at a hockey game.
Here are three things to look for Monday night:
1. Tebow or not Tebow?
The last time the Jets and Texans faced off, on Nov. 21, 2010, Mark Sanchez out-performed Matt Schaub in a 30-27 New York win, throwing for 315 yards and three scores while Schaub passed for just 254 yards and one touchdown. In 29 starts since (including the postseason), though, Sanchez has had a grand total of four 300-yard passing games, and his 38 touchdown passes have been offset by 30 interceptions and 13 lost fumbles. Considering that Sanchez had more total turnovers than touchdown passes during that stretch, it's no surprise that the team's record is 15-14.
Throw out everything else about The Legend of Tim Tebow. The fact is, the Jets decided to make him their backup quarterback. As happens with every team that is starting a struggling signal-caller, at some point, the guy on the sideline will get a chance to show he can win. Tebow hasn't amounted to much as a ground weapon as of yet (38 yards on nine rushes), and the word is out across the NFL regarding those plays. It's going to be difficult for Tebow to be a major factor in that role against better defenses, like the one the Texans have. Unless that changes, or Sanchez somehow becomes an efficient playmaker, the "Tebow question" will hang over the Jets. Maybe this is the week we see him running the offense instead of just running around.
In that 2010 matchup, Sanchez connected with Santonio Holmes seven times for 126 yards and two touchdowns, while Braylon Edwards added four catches for 86 yards and a score and LaDainian Tomlinson contributed 107 yards of total offense. Edwards and Tomlinson are gone, and Holmes was knocked out for the season by a Lisfranc injury in his left foot. Sanchez (or Tebow) has to press on without any of those offensive threats at his disposal. This Houston defense is considerably better than the 2010 installment, ranking first and third in the NFL in points and yardage allowed, respectively, thanks to the play of defensive lineman J.J. Watt (second in the NFL with 7.5 sacks) and linebackers Brooks Reed, Connor Barwin and Whitney Mercilus. They'll all be coming for whoever is taking snaps for the Jets.
Another important component of the Jets' home win over the Texans two years ago was cornerback Darrelle Revis' ability to hold receiver Andre Johnson to four catches for 32 yards. Revis Island is currently closed, however, due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the All-Pro's left knee. The San Francisco 49ers passed for just 143 yards against the Jets last week despite Revis' absence, but the Alex Smith-to-Michael Crabtree connection isn't nearly as dangerous as Schaub-to-Johnson. (Not to mention, the Niners racked up 245 rushing yards in the 34-0 win.) Antonio Cromartie has the talent to take on the five-time Pro Bowler outside, but you can bet he and Kyle Wilson will be tested early.
3. Ground and pound -- Texans style
Houston general manager Rick Smith signed Schaub to a big contract extension just after the start of the season, and Johnson is considered one of the top receivers in the game. But Houston is actually running opponents to death in 2012. The Texans rank just 19th in the league in passing yardage (234 yards per game), but are seventh in rushing (136.5 per game) behind the powerful running back combination of Arian Foster and Ben Tate and an underrated offensive line, led by left tackle Duane Brown and center Chris Myers. They're also holding on to the football for more than 35 minutes per contest, best in the league.
Jets coach Rex Ryan's "ground and pound" philosophy hasn't been very effective, as Shonn Greene has averaged just 2.8 yards per carry. The Jets are tied with the New Orleans Saints for dead last in run defense, giving up 173 yards per game. That's not encouraging as they prepare to take on a Texans team that is deadly when moving the line of scrimmage the hard way. Though Houston may be without Tate, who's dealing with a toe injury.
To pull this off, the Jets will need to win the turnover battle. But their minus-two turnover ratio does not compare favorably with Houston's plus-seven, which is tied for fourth-best in the NFL. Without Holmes to threaten the Texans' top-rated defense and Revis to limit Johnson's big-play ability, it's tough to have much confidence in New York.
Houston Texans 31, New York Jets 10
Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @ChadReuter.