This would be a dream matchup if only it weren't a preseason game.
The San Francisco 49ers and Houston Texans represent the two most complete teams in the NFL.
The similarities between them stretch from their solid run game, to their effective-yet-underrated quarterbacks, to two of the best run defenses in the league.
This would be a dream Super Bow for many - especially in this "era of the passing game" - as both teams play to run and also stop the run.
Between Arian Foster and Ben Tate in Houston, or Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs (if healthy) and LaMichael James in San Francisco - one would be hard pressed to find a more talented backfield in the league.
If these two teams play this year when it matters, it will have to be for the Super Bowl, as they are not scheduled to meet in the regular season. But while most pundits still tout the pass-heavy teams of Green Bay and New England as early favorites in their respective conferences, the strong, solid, complete squads in Houston and San Francisco represent the dark horse opposites of that.
After both reaching the playoffs last year - the Texans for the first time in franchise history; the 49ers for the first time in almost a decade - expectations are high while the outside media continues to doubt.
Expect both teams to be contenders this year. And if they make it into the postseason, they are not teams anyone will want to play.
On Saturday, the two took to the field for their annual preseason game. Here are some of the more pertinent notes.
Houston's passing game was effective.
With the 49ers missing their starting outside linebackers for the contest, Texans quarterback Matt Schaub enjoyed plenty of time in the pocket as the 49ers could not manufacture any kind of pass rush. He had success throwing against the 49ers' first and second-string defenses, including one big play to Andre Johnson, who lept up and caught the underthrown ball, despite facing double coverage.
Texans fans will be happy to note that Johnson is healthy and playing well. Given his history of lower-body injuries, however, I might suggest they keep him sidelined for the next two weeks.
That might give those behind him on the depth chart a chance to shine. Lestar Jean, for example, had a strong performance, netting four receptions for 42 yads and a touchdown. Jean went undrafted in 2011, but was picked up by the Texans. He made no appearances for them last year, but will look to make an impact in 2012. Though his strong showing came against the 49ers' backup defense, he did manage the only offensive touchdown of the day.
49ers' passing game - not so much.
Alex Smith played only the first two drives and in an outing reminiscent of the 49ers' preseason bout against New Orleans last year, he faced a fierce pass rush. The 49ers ran very vanilla schemes on both offense and defense, likely wanting to hold their cards close to their chest before the season begins.
The Texans did the opposite and came out swinging on both fronts. With their starting defense under year two of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, they created consistent pressure with exotic zone blitzes, and the 49ers' offensive line that struggled last year against such pressure continued their ineptitude, allowing a couple of sacks and generally making life difficult for Smith.
The 49ers will want to fix this problem - and fast - as they face a murderer's row of pass rushes to start the season.
Bend, but don't break
For the second week in a row, the 49ers’ defense gave up yards through the air on their first wo drives, but then clamped down to force two Texans field goals. This was a common theme for the 49ers last year, who had the league’s best “bend-but-don’t-break” defense, as measured by Cold Hard Football Facts' Bendability Index.
49ers win rushing war
Arian Foster and Ben Tate were ineffective in limited touches against the first-string defense, but Foster did manage one superb 24-yard run against the Niners' backups. Meanwhile, the 49ers' committee backfield got the job done for the most part with LaMichael James gaining 19 yards on four attempts, Frank Gore netting 12 yards on two attempts, and Brandon Jacobs netting 8 yards on his one run of the game.
In particular, Kendall Hunter was superb with 46 yards on six carries against the Texans' starting front seven. Hunter looked really quick coming through the holes, and surprisingly strong.
The scare for San Francisco fans, however, came when both Jacobs and James went down with leg injuries. Both were potentially big, but ended up being nothing too serious, and James even tweeted that he would be back to practice on Monday.
If the 49ers' running backs can stay healthy, and if their first two preseason games are any indication, they will prove to be one of the more dangerous backfields in the league - perhaps even rivaling what is without doubt the most elite running back duo currently in the NFL: Foster and Tate.
Keeping it simple
As noted above, the 49ers kept their schemes very, very bland on both sides of the ball. While it does make things very tough for Green Bay, who the 49ers face in Week 1 - as they will have to deal with an unknown attack - it also makes it difficult to judge performances. San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh is keeping his cards close to his chest, and we will all have to wait to see just how Alex Smith's many new toys on the outside, such as Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, will be used.
On the other end, Phillips ran what looked like his full scheme on defense; and though the team was missing star defensive end, J.J. Watt, Texans head coach Gary Kubiak kept his starters in on both sides of the ball much longer than San Francisco did theirs.
Their defense looked stout throughout, only allowing three field goals; and their offensive production was acceptable. Between Schaub, Foster, Tate, and Johnson, this team will put up points this year once again if they can stay healthy. And their defensive woes from two years ago have been solved by Phillips.
Super Bowl or Bust
Last year, the Texans made it into the playoffs and even won a game despite missing Johnson in parts and having to start rookie quarterback, T.J. Yates, when Schaub went down for the season. They would have been favored to win the whole thing, had they stayed healthy, and I will echo that sentiment for the squad this season.
Similarly, the Niners were a couple fumbles away from the Super Bowl during their miracle run of last year. Though some regression is to be expected, this team has not rested on their laurels, and have been aggressively dealing with the issues of last year and building depth everywhere.
No matter what the pass-happy, yardage-junkie pundits in the mainstream believe, Houston and San Francisco should be viewed as solid favorites to make the playoffs and be a threat deep into January.
Then, who knows, maybe we'll revisit this game come February, with a Lombardi Trophy on the line.