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Matt Schaub leads undefeated Houston Texans with true grit

Nine questions into a phone interview, we ask Matt Schaub about his ear. The ear. The most famous ear since Mike Tyson took a bite out of Evander Holyfield's.

"I was wondering when you were going to get to that," the Houston Texans quarterback said. "I thought I might skate this time ..."

Schaub laughs. His ear was bloodied and gashed two Sundays ago on an illegal hit by Denver Broncos linebacker Joe Mays, who drew a one-game suspension, and he laughs. But he also considers the whole incident to have been "blown out of proportion." In other words, it's no van Gogh.

"It's almost as if people think I lost all of my ear," Schaub said. "Really, it was a bad cut, a little gash. A little piece out of my earlobe is missing, that's all."

Oh, sure. That's all.

We should provide this fairly important reminder here: The ear gash -- which initially appeared to be a serious injury as Schaub lay helmetless on the field, hands to the side of his head -- caused Schaub to miss just one play.

One single play.

"His toughness," wide receiver Andre Johnson said, "is not a question."

From afar, David Carr took note. Now a backup to Eli Manning with the New York Giants, Carr quarterbacked the Texans for their first five seasons, playing in 75 of 80 games and enduring a staggering 249 sacks. When Carr and the Texans parted ways following the 2006 season, Houston had won a total of 24 games. Yes, Carr relates well to tough hits.

"It might be just the jersey number eight in Houston," said a good-natured Carr.

In his sixth season since inheriting No. 8 from Carr, Schaub and the Texans are sending notice that they, finally, have arrived. New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott called the Texans "arguably the best team in the AFC," and his team will get an up-close view on Monday night, when the Texans visit MetLife Stadium. Houston has never defeated the Jets in five games and has never won on the road in primetime.

"I've never really thought about that," Schaub said, "but we're trying to accomplish a lot of 'firsts' around here this season."

Oh, yeah, the Texans are 4-0 for the first time in their history, and their record tells only part of the story. The defense has been dominant, allowing a league-low 56 points and quite simply punishing its opponents. Defensive end J.J. Watt has more sacks (7.5) than 11 teams, including the Jets (5).

And then there's Schaub, who is 8-0 with a 68.4 completion percentage in his last eight starts, logging 12 touchdowns and two interceptions. And he hasn't been winning on fluky final plays. The average margin of victory in those games: 20 points. As Jets coach Rex Ryan said, "That's not a good thing."

For the Texans, this season to date represents a complete breakthrough that seems forever in the making. Johnson, the Texans' longest-tenured player, has spent the past decade helping to build the franchise. Tough times? You bet.

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"I remember the year we went 2-14," he said. "We could hardly ever do a five-step drop back because David (Carr) was getting hit."

When current teammates ask about those days, Johnson tells them, "I've seen the worst of the worst."

He also believes those days are gone.

"For me, now it's like a relief to finally have a good football team and know you can compete with anybody," Johnson said, "and feel like you're going to win every time you step out on the field."

In his ninth season, Schaub has been sacked just three times, lowest for any starter in the league. For that, coach Gary Kubiak credits his quarterback's quick release as much as he does his offensive line. Whatever the case, keeping Schaub healthy is key. The Texans were 7-3 last November before Schaub sustained a Lisfranc injury that ended his season and required two surgeries -- one to repair, the second to "take the hardware out," as he put it. He watched from the sidelines as the Texans played in postseason for the first time. (They smoked the Cincinnati Bengals 31-10 before barely losing to the Baltimore Ravens, 20-13, in the divisional round.)

This season, Schaub and the Texans have grander designs.

The Super Bowl?

"That's definitely something that we believe could be in the cards for us," Schaub said. "We have the talent, and that's the ultimate goal."

Try to draw Schaub into another popular conversation -- the ever-asked quarterback query of whether he considers himself "elite" -- and he is less forthcoming.

"That's such a funny word that's used so much," he said. "I'll let others judge that."

Kubiak calls Schaub "very driven" and believes his missing the latter half of last season left a mark.

"He wants to be a part of this," Kubiak said. "He's finding a way not to take so many hits he's taken in the past."

Yet it was a big hit on Schaub that has drawn much attention and, for a few minutes, caused much anxiety.

In the instant after the Mays hit, Kubiak knew his starting quarterback's health was in jeopardy. That moment, the coach knew, would "jump-start you or send you the other way." It didn't take long for Schaub to provide the answer, as he returned to the game after just one play on the sideline.

"That's an emotional lift," Kubiak said. "It's what you're looking for from your leader in this league."

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Over the phone, we can almost feel Schaub shrug. Rarely, it seems, does he impress himself.

"If anything, it just demonstrates my commitment to what we're doing here," Schaub said. "Just to show my teammates, I'm going to be there for you guys."

Yes, it's early, but the Texans are undefeated. A Monday night date with the Jets awaits. And Matt Schaub doesn't want to miss a thing.

Can you blame him?

Follow Kimberly Jones on Twitter @KimJonesSports.

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