The Texans (1-10-1) travel north to Arlington this weekend for a Sunday matchup with the Cowboys (9-3). It's the sixth meeting between the two franchises, and 2018 was the last time they met. Houston won that contest in an overtime thriller. Here are five things to watch when they kick off at noon inside AT&T Stadium.
1) Return of Mills – The news of the week for the Texans was a quarterback switch. Davis Mills returns to the starting role after watching Kyle Allen from the sidelines the last two weeks at Miami and home against the Browns. Head coach Lovie Smith announced the move on Wednesday morning.
He pointed to Mills' performance at the end of last season as a parallel. As a rookie in 2021, he started six games between Week 3 and Week 8. Mills was then sidelined for a trio of contests, and brought back as the starter for the season's final six games. In that span, he tossed nine touchdowns and was picked off just twice, and completed 66.5 percent of his passes.
"When he came back the next time last year, the second time, he played a lot better," Smith said. "If you're a competitor, when you're not playing your best ball, I keep going back to the baseball comparison, sometimes you don't have it, and you need to just take a step back."
Mills is hoping for "similar results to last year" and explained what he did while he wasn't the starter.
"These past two weeks really allowed me to just sit back and continue to learn," Mills said. "Shaping my thoughts, pre-snap. Seeing what you need to see, mentally. Kind of have that pre-snap checklist every play, based on what play we're given on offense. Safety, slot defender, see the shell of the defense, and know what you need to see on any given play."
2) "Run what works" - After a pair of down weeks on the ground, Dameon Pierce and the Texans bounced back in the early part of the loss to Cleveland. The rookie running back picked up 57 of his 73 yards in the first half against the Browns. Smith said after the game that the Texans should've given him the ball more.
Keeping that early success going isn't too complicated, according to Pierce.
"Run what works with us," Pierce said. "What works well against their defense. They've got some disruptive guys up front, so we're going to have to have to account for them. Just keep it simple. Keep it north and south."
He has 861 rushing yards so far in 2022, and the Dallas run defense is 23rd-best in the NFL, giving up 4.6 yards per rushing attempt.
3) Powderkeg – They Cowboys offense is explosive. Only two teams in the NFL are scoring more points per game than Dallas' 27.8. In Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott, they have a pair of backs who've each rumbled for eight touchdowns through a dozen games. Pollard's averaged 5.8 yards per rushing attempt, and already has gained 852 yards in 2022.
CeeDee Lamb's caught 69 passes for 928 yards, and has six scoring grabs of his own. Those are just a few of the weapons at the disposal of quarterback Dak Prescott.
"They're just one of those teams where they're really good at everything," Safeties coach Joe Danna said. "But like any week, executing the defense, playing with good eyes, not trying to go chase the plays, letting them come to us, it's just disciplined football that you try to do every week. It's just a little bit heightened with the players they have."
Defensive back Desmond King agreed.
"They're electric," King said. "They're hitting on all cylinders. You got Dak Prescott, and they've got some really good receivers over there, so they're going to do what they've got to do win as well. They've got two great backs in Zeke (Elliott) and Pollard. It's definitely going to be a challenge for sure, just like any other team."
4) Doomsday D vs. the pass – While the Dallas run defense is in the lower third of the NFL in yards per attempt, the pass defense is excellent. Only one team in the league has given up fewer passing yards than the Cowboys, and no team has more than their 48 sacks as a defense.
Micah Parsons leads the way with 12 sacks, 13 tackles for loss and 22 quarterback hits. One of the game's great players at the moment, he has the full attention of the Texans' offense.
"They're great up front," Pierce said. "90 (DeMarcus Lawrence) and 11 (Parsons). They play 11 like a stand-up d-end. There are definitely some guys we've got to account for, and some guys we'll have to be wary of when we're running the ball."
5) A tale of 2 teams – One major gulf between these two clubs is in the turnover differential category. The Texans have sunk to the bottom of the NFL rankings, checking in at 29th with a minus-6. The Cowboys are second in the league at plus-9.
Houston continues to tumble in the statistic. When the Texans entered the bye week after five games played, they were tied for fourth in the NFL at plus-3. In the seven games since, they've won the turnover battle in just one contest, and have been minus-2 in each of the last four games.
In seven games this season, Houston's turned the ball over two or more times. Five of those seven games have been in each of the last quintet of games. Ball security is at a premium this week, according to Pierce.
"They've got a defense that chases the ball down," Pierce said. "They strip at the ball. So ball security's going to be emphasized this week. Especially in the running back room."