As the Texans take the field Thursday night against the Carolina Panthers, they’ve thoroughly embraced their underdog status.
The 1-1 Texans strongly disagree with that opinion, though.
If anything, players say their confidence was boosted by how competitive they were during a 31-21 loss to the Cleveland Browns. The Texans were leading the Browns at halftime until starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor left the game and was placed on a hamstring injury that will sideline him for roughly a month and prompted the team to place him on injured reserve.
The Panthers have been installed as an eight-point favorite.
“It's always good to showcase our talents in front of everybody, because like we all see what's going on in the media,” Texans left offensive guard Tytus Howard said. “A lot of people don't think we're a good football team, but everyone inside this building knows that we're a great football team. We'll get a chance to showcase that Thursday night.”
Rookie quarterback Davis Mills, who threw one touchdown and one interception against the Browns and completed 8 of 18 passes in relief of Taylor, will start his first NFL game against the Panthers’ top-ranked defense that has 10 sacks and leads the league in quarterback hits.
The Texans were outscored 17-7 in the second half, but rank ninth in points per game and have five turnovers on defense through two games. An overhauled roster constructed by general manager Nick Caserio and coached by first-time head coach David Culley has been much more competitive than expected by most after staying close against a playoff team from last year.
“It's not a surprise to us,” Texans running back David Johnson said. “We've always said, ‘Don't worry about what they're saying outside this building. Rely on what we have here, talk to and lean on everyone that's in our building, everyone that's on the team.’ We knew we were going to surprise people. We're going to continue doing that and bring more respect to this team.
“As players, we felt like we let them get that win, because we were winning the first half. We were going battle-for-battle throughout the whole first half, and then injuries started happening. The biggest thing, I think, is we even got more confident, because we realized even more that we have a chance to compete with any team in this league.”
The Texans’ run defense wore down in the second half against Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, allowing a late touchdown run to Chubb as he iced the game in the fourth quarter. Even with Mills having some rookie moments that included turning the wrong way on handoffs twice, the Texans were in the game until the fourth quarter.
“Confidence got boosted, especially because we know we've got a solid team around us,” Texans defensive end Whitney Mercilus said. “ If we just do our job, take care of the football, take away the football, things like that, play complementary football, we've got a good chance as far as winning a lot of games if we just do that. I'm very confident in this team. I'm very confident in every player that we have. A lot of good guys who have seen a lot of football, played a lot of football in different places and seen a lot of things, experienced a lot of things, as well, too, that can really come together and create a ‘hellified’ culture here, and to go out there and win games on Sundays.”
This is currently the Texans’ only prime time game of the season, another reminder of how low expectations were surrounding this team following a 4-12 season a year ago and Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson’s standing trade request and legal problems.
It will be a challenging matchup considering the presence of star running back Christian McCaffrey, pass rushers Haason Reddick and Brian Burns, linebacker Shaq Thompson and safety Jeremy Chinn.
“We'll be the only game being played all across the board,” Mercilus said. “For what a lot of people were saying about us before this whole thing got started, it's a chance to showcase that and to back up what we say or what we believe, as far as that goes. We don't go out there to go lose. We want to get ‘dubs’, that's it. That's exactly where we're going to go out there and go do and go prove.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 seasons, including the Texans, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. He has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128