HOUSTON -- The 49ers now enter the Texas Two-Step portion of their schedule: back-to-back games in the Lone Star State.

First comes their exhibition finale Thursday against the Houston Texans. Then things get real, with a return trip to open the regular season Sept. 7 at the Dallas Cowboys' AT&T Stadium.

The steaks, er, stakes differ greatly between the games.

In an NFL world where teams never admit they're overlooking an opponent, the 49ers quietly have spent time studying the Cowboys.

It's no coincidence they're 3-0 in season openers under coach Jim Harbaugh.

"We've been looking at them the past couple weeks, here or there," defensive tackle Ray McDonald said of Dallas.

Not being scrutinized, at least not yet, is the 49ers' last meeting with the Cowboys. That came Sept. 18, 2011, when the Cowboys rallied for a 27-24 overtime win at Candlestick Park, marking the first loss of Harbaugh's tenure.

"Nah, we didn't watch that one. It was three years ago," McDonald said. "They're a different team now, and they don't have the same personnel."

The 49ers-Cowboys matchup was announced four months ago, allowing Harbaugh and his staff ample time to conceive their game plan. But when will it be implemented?

"Right after the Houston Texans game," responded Harbaugh, unwilling to expand further on any Cowboys talk.


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"We've looked at them a little bit," Colin Kaepernick said of Dallas. "But for the most part, we're focusing on ourselves, making sure we're doing what we need to do to be ready for the regular season."

The exhibition finale provides Kaepernick and the starting offense the chance for a final momentum boost, and perhaps finally an exhibition season touchdown drive. Don't look for those starters to play beyond the first series, however.

The offensive line's right side remains in flux. Right tackle Anthony Davis isn't expected to test his surgically repaired biceps until the Cowboys game, so Jonathan Martin likely will start a fourth straight exhibition. Same goes for Joe Looney at right guard in place of Alex Boone, who remains in a contract dispute that shows no signs of ending.

Defensively, the 49ers' projected Week 1 lineup seems healthy and ready for Dallas quarterback Tony Romo. Of course, inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman will miss at least the first six weeks recovering from knee surgery, and there's lingering drama about the identity of his replacement.

Michael Wilhoite has lined up next to Patrick Willis on the first-team unit since spring practices. Rookie Chris Borland, however, has shown enough potential that defensive coordinator Vic Fangio isn't calling off the race, yet.

"We'll wait until after Thursday, give these younger guys a good, healthy dose of snaps and see if they can make progress," Fangio said of naming a starter.

Wilhoite isn't intimidated about joining a front seven that has keyed the 49ers' success since 2011.

"It makes me play that much better, because I know they're going to be all on point," Wilhoite said. "If one play breaks or something's not right, it's probably not going to be because of them."

Wilhoite's focus, thus, has remained on the Texans rather than the Cowboys, and he expects the same of other players fighting for jobs. "For a lot of these guys, this is their last audition, their last chance to put some film out there," Wilhoite said. "Then we'll move forward Friday."

Awaiting is the next chapter in the 49ers-Cowboys storied rivalry. No current 49ers player has tasted victory in that series. The Cowboys won the past three meetings, in 2005, 2008 and 2011.

Bad memories? Well, there's this: The 49ers last played an exhibition in Houston two years ago, when that season ended with a Super Bowl run.

Don't mess with Texas? The 49ers will try. Twice.

THURSDAY'S GAME

49ers (1-2) at Houston (2-1), 5 p.m. KPIX