The Houston Texans have matched the best start in franchise history thanks largely to a defense that's playing at a high level.
The Cleveland Browns have also been strong on that side of the ball, but that hasn't equated to many wins lately.
With star wide receiver Andre Johnson missing his fifth straight game, Houston will continue to rely heavily on its defense as it seeks a season-high third victory in a row Sunday against the visiting Browns.
Still looking for a first AFC South title - and playoff berth - since joining the league in 2002, the Texans (5-3) have defeated their three divisional opponents by a combined 99-28 following a 41-7 win at Tennessee on Oct. 23 and Sunday's 24-14 victory over Jacksonville.
"We can control our fate, and that's the way we want it," Houston owner Bob McNair said after his team improved to 3-0 in South play for the first time. "I think the guys understand where they are and I think they really stepped up today."
A 3-4 defense installed by new coordinator Wade Phillips has been at the forefront of a dramatic turnaround for a team that allowed 376.9 yards per game in 2010 - 30th in the NFL - when it finished 6-10.
At the midway point of 2011, Houston has the league's third-ranked defense at (286.8 ypg), is fifth in scoring defense (18.1 points) and against the pass (189.4 ypg) and tied for ninth with 20 sacks - 10 fewer than last season's total.
The Texans have allowed fewer than 200 yards in consecutive weeks for the first time in franchise history after limiting the Jaguars to 174.
"I do have a ton of confidence right now in the way we're playing defensively," coach Gary Kubiak said of his team, which also opened 5-3 in 2009 en route to a 9-7 finish. "I know there are some statistics as far as points and yards, the last two or three weeks, that are off the charts. We're playing very well."
First-year Browns coach Pat Shurmur has every reason to be pleased with his defense unit, which is allowing 20.0 points per game - eighth in the NFL - and 299.1 yards per contest, fifth best.
Cleveland (3-4), though, went just 1-3 in October despite holding opponents to an average of 19.5 points and 286.5 yards.
The Browns' offense can shoulder much of the blame for the team's rough month, totaling 46 points. A fourth-quarter 45-yard TD from Colt McCoy to Josh Cribbs in a 20-10 loss at San Francisco on Sunday marked the first time the team reached the end zone in eight quarters.
"Back home, I hope they don't go into a frenzy like the world is going to end," Cribbs said.
There might have been similar feelings in Houston when Johnson suffered a right hamstring injury Oct. 2 against Pittsburgh, but the Texans have totaled 876 yards in the last two contests - 373 from the backfield duo of Arian Foster and Ben Tate .
With the ground game excelling, there has been less urgency for Johnson to return to the lineup, and Kubiak decided to hold him out for at least one more week. Johnson went through a hard workout Monday and had soreness Tuesday that raised concern.
The Browns are in the same holding pattern with running back Peyton Hillis , who re-injured his hamstring in practice Friday and will miss a third straight game. That's particularly bad news considering backup Montario Hardesty is expected to miss multiple games with a calf tear suffered Sunday.
"It will take (Hardesty) a little time to heal up from this injury," Shurmur said. "I can't tell you how many (games)."
With Hillis also out, the Browns will likely give the majority of the carries to Chris Ogbonnaya , who was signed off Houston's practice squad on Oct. 18, and Thomas Clayton , who signed Tuesday following a workout at the team's practice facility.
Browns receiver Mohamed Massaquoi was not in pads for Wednesday's practice, and he could miss a second consecutive game after sustaining a concussion in a 6-3 win over Seattle two weeks ago.
Houston and Cleveland have split six all-time matchups. Johnson had 10 catches for 116 yards the last time these teams met, a Texans' 16-6 road win Nov. 23, 2008.
The Browns fell 14-6 in their last game in Houston on New Year's Eve 2006.