Not only are the Texans a budding Super Bowl contender, but they also have beaten the Dolphins in each of their six meetings. The first four meetings were decided by three points or less, but the last two games were decided by seven and 10 points, respectively.
This rise in point differential is indicative of the Texans' rise and the Dolphins' demise. It only will continue to grow unless the Phins execute perfectly and attack Houston's few weaknesses this Sunday.
Although Peter King of Sports Illustrated certainly doesn't see the Dolphins putting up a fight—"Of the 16 games on opening weekend, there's one I can't imagine the underdog winning"—they just might have a shot if they emphasize these five keys.
Brian Cushing, Brooks Reed, Connor Barwin and Bradie James give the Texans one of the NFL's finest linebacker corps.
Last season, the Texans linebackers anchored the league's fourth-best rushing defense and sixth-best pass rush. On average, the Texans yielded only 96 rushing yards per game and recorded nearly three sacks per game.
To even have a shot at winning this game, the Dolphins have to keep Houston's linebackers guessing. This is where Reggie Bush, Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller as well as Joe Philbin's funky formations come in. Bush and Miller can create mismatches in the passing game, and Thomas can catch passes as well.
By getting some combination of these running backs on the field at the same time, the Dolphins can force the Texans front seven to play conservatively.
Of course, it's up to Ryan Tannehill and his supporting cast to execute—something they struggled to do in the preseason.
Two of Miami's first-team offensive linemen, Jake Long and John Jerry, are listed on the team's injury report. Both were limited at practice on Thursday, but Ben Volin of The Palm Beach Post doesn't believe either will miss Sunday's game:
#Dolphins injury report is the same as yesterday: Long, Misi, Trusnik and Jerry are Limited, but should play
— Ben Volin (@BenVolinPBP) Sept. 6, 2012
If either player misses Sunday's game or suffers a setback, then the Dolphins will be in trouble. The next two linemen on the depth chart are Nate Garner, an inconsistent but versatile lineman, and Josh Samuda, an undersized UDFA who earned a roster spot in camp.
Tossing either player in against the Texans front seven could have disastrous results because the right side of the line is already a huge question mark.
Jonathan Martin is tasked with blocking seven-year veteran Antonio Smith and rookie sensation Brooks Reed in Martin's first NFL start. After a few embarrassing preseason games, there's no telling how Martin will fare.
Jerry is the epitome of inconsistency, so even if he was fully healthy, there's no telling how he would fare, either.
The Dolphins' chances of winning this game are slim. If the offensive line plays like it did in the preseason or loses somebody to injury, then their chances will be obsolete.
With so much attention dedicated to Ryan Tannehill and the front office's mishaps, the Dolphins defensive line has gone entirely overlooked.
Last season, the Dolphins had the league's third-best run defense, surrendering a total of just 1,530 yards. It held teams to 70 or fewer rushing yards in six games and even held Arian Foster to 33 yards on 11 carries in Week 2.
This week, the front seven is licking its lips as it prepares to face a Texans offensive line with two inexperienced starters. Ben Volin of The Palm Beach Post writes:
But of the two teams, the Dolphins may have the more stable offensive line. While the Texans only allowed 33 sacks last year, tied for 12th fewest in the league, their line has a lot of new pieces this year, including an entire new right side.
At right tackle, getting his first career NFL start is second-year pro Derek Newton, a seventh-round pick in 2011 out of Arkansas State. Next to him at right guard is fourth-year pro Antoine Caldwell, an Opening Day starter for the first time.
Newton is tasked with blocking Cam Wake and Jared Odrick, both of whom have an opportunity to single-handedly change the course of this game.
In five career games versus the Miami Dolphins, Houston's Andre Johnson has accrued 37 receptions for 519 yards and four touchdowns. So, his average game against the Dolphins looks something like this: seven catches for 104 yards and a touchdown.
Shutting down Johnson will be a top priority for the Dolphins on Sunday, but realistically, you can't shut him down—you can only try to limit his production.
With Vontae Davis gone, Johnson will be matched up with Richard Marshall on the right side of the field. Marshall's struggles against Julio Jones in the Dolphins' preseason tilt with the Falcons casts an unfavorable outlook for Sunday. Jones (6'3", 220 pounds) and Johnson (6'3", 228 pounds) have a nearly identical build, and both can beat defensive backs with speed.
Marshall isn't afraid to get physical, and he won't be intimidated by Johnson's aggressiveness. Last season, Marshall led all NFL cornerbacks in tackles in the run game and placed second in run-stop percentage, per ProFootballFocus.
Free safety Chris Clemons has to provide support over the top, but he didn't show anything in the preseason to instill much confidence.
From 2008 through 2010, the Texans passing attack was virtually unstoppable. Over that span, it ranked inside the top five each season thanks to the contributions of Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson, Owen Daniels, Kevin Walter, Jacoby Jones, Arian Foster and Steve Slaton.
But times have changed, and the Texans now boast one of the league's most dominant rushing attacks. Foster and Ben Tate give Houston a two-headed monster that can run between the tackles, bounce it outside and reliably catch passes.
There's no doubt the Texans are at their best when their running game thrives.
Last season, they averaged 153 rushing yards per game, good for second best in the NFL. In games when the Texans registered more than 153 yards rushing, they went 7-0. When they registered less than 153 yards, however, they went just 3-6.
The Texans passing attack isn't what it used to be. Remove Johnson, and its wide receiver corps is worse than the Dolphins'. So, the Phins should concentrate a majority of their efforts on limiting Foster and Tate.
Miami has the personnel up front to get the job done. After all, the Dolphins ranked third against the run last season—which is one reason why I think this game will be closer than people think.
Paul Soliai and Jared Odrick can use their size to disrupt Houston's zone-blocking scheme. Karlos Dansby, Koa Misi and Kevin Burnett have to finish the job by sealing the edge and meeting the ball-carrier at the line.