Gone are the days of being called “the best team never to make the postseason.”
The 2011 campaign was particularly special for the Houston Texans franchise in more ways than one. Most memorably, the team finished in first place in the AFC South division for the first time in history. Having accomplished such a task meant Reliant Stadium would host its first ever playoff contest, which ultimately ended with a Texans victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
Houston, behind the direction of third-string rookie quarterback T.J. Yates, proved its first ever postseason berth was not a fluke, having advanced to the divisional round. If not for Ed Reed’s outstanding play, who knows if the Texans could have played at Gillette Field for the AFC Championship in 2011.
With all that in the past, the 2012 team features a roster that has stayed mostly intact and now includes playoff-seasoned players. Add in the confidence of having won the division before and another year under tenured head coach Gary Kubiak’s direction, and the Texans look to return to the postseason once more and fight for the NFL’s ultimate prize: the Lombardi Trophy.
Numerous factors are stacked in the favor for the Texans this upcoming season. With all these key ingredients on the side of Houston, there’s really no reason not to expect a sensational followup to a 10-6 record from a year ago.
The cards are so well dealt to the Texans that, in fact, there should really be no excuse as to why the Texans can’t improve on the success that 2011 saw. When the regular season ends on Dec. 30 of this year, there should be no reason for the Texans to not have at least another 10-6 season.
Who will win the AFC South in 2012?
Think I’m crazy? Am I expecting too much from a team that just made it to the playoffs for the first time?
Not even close.
The 2012 schedule
The NFL schedule is constructed annually in such a way that it is competitively balanced for each individual team based on its finish the prior season.
In this case, the Texans should be looking at a challenging list of opponents on paper.
The key word here being “should.”
With the way the schedule was predetermined, the overall opponent winning percentage for the Texans based off 2011 records is 121-135 (.473). For a division champion to have a favorable schedule, the Texans should consider themselves to be fortunate.
Arguably, two of the toughest matchups for the Texans this year will be the games against the Green Bay Packers (Oct. 14) and Baltimore Ravens (Oct. 21). Thankfully for Houston, both of those contests will be played at Reliant Stadium.
The difficulty of the other six home games—Miami, Buffalo, Minnesota, Tennessee, Jacksonville and Indianapolis—dwindle in comparison to the Green Bay and Baltimore bouts. As a matter of fact, only three of the eight home opponents had winning records a season ago.
A soft home schedule such as this can, and should, easily net six wins.
Assuming the Texans can defend their home turf against non-threatening foes, a .500 road record (4-4) would be all the Texans need to rack up 10 victories and—for all intents and purposes—another playoff berth.
Houston will make road trips this season to New England, New York (Jets), Chicago, Detroit, Denver, Indianapolis, Tennessee and Jacksonville. Just like the home opponents, the road schedule only features three winning teams from a season ago.
While the schedule does feature four reigning division champions, the timing of those games really works in the favor of Houston.
It’s not about whom you play, but rather when you play them.
The month of September features home games against the Dolphins and Titans with trips to Jacksonville and Denver. This non-challenging first quarter of the season could provide a fast start the Texans need to get the season off right.
October may be the most difficult month for Houston opponent-wise, but the three October games feature only a trip to play the Jets followed by three consecutive homes games. After tackling the Packers and Ravens back-to-back, the Texans will take their bye week before hosting another opponent—the Bills—to begin November.
The next page on the calendar features the aforementioned Buffalo Bills at home. The Jaguars will also travel to Houston in this quarter of the season. Sandwiched around those games are clashes with two of the NFC North’s up-and-coming contenders, the Chicago Bears and the Detroit Lions (on Thanksgiving Day). Those games will be played at Soldier Field and Ford Field, respectively.
Last but not least, the season wraps up with five games in the month of December. In this period of 31 days, the Texans will see Tennessee, New England, Minnesota and the newly revamped Indianapolis Colts twice in a three-week span.
The recipe for success is simple. It all comes down to the schedule. Everything the Texans could ask for in favorable scheduling, they have. The foundation is set. All the team has to do now is carry through on the blueprint.
The strength of the AFC South
Entering its second decade of existence in the league, Houston is sitting in a prime position to repeat as division champions. As already explained, the schedule certainly favors the defending champions. However, a quick look at the Texans' divisional competition reveals exactly why it seems they are bound for greatness this season.
The competition, quite frankly, is not up to par.
The AFC South was at the center of the NFL offseason, but not because of the Texans. The Indianapolis Colts were one of the most talked-about franchises this offseason, and not for particularly positive reasons. The health of quarterback Peyton Manning and his contract situation forced Jim Irsay to release the only man to ever lead the city of Indianapolis to Super Bowl glory.
Now under the direction of No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Luck, the Colts will be looking to rebuild the winning empire they are so accustomed to in recent memory. It will take time for Luck to adjust to the NFL game, much like all rookie quarterbacks. As if that weren’t challenging enough, Indy also has a brand new coaching staff and a roster that saw their talents disappear like a wet towel rung out to dry. Only wide receiver Reggie Wayne and defensive end Dwight Freeney remain as impactful, franchise playmakers.
It’s no doubt a rebuilding phase in Indianapolis. These things take time. At least for the 2012 season, high expectations cannot be placed on the Colts.
Much like the Colts, the Tennessee Titans are a team that appears to be in a phase of transitioning. Sooner rather than later, quarterback Jake Locker will take the reins from veteran Matt Hasselbeck on offense. A disappointing 2011 season has Chris Johnson fans wondering if he can return to his 2,000-yard form. And the offensive weapons Locker and/or Hasselbeck have to work with aren’t quite something to brag about.
The biggest offseason move for the Titans came on the defensive side of the ball, when cornerback Cortland Finnegan took a big money deal in free agency to become a member of the St. Louis Rams. While the loss of one player doesn’t necessarily mean a whole season is lost, this move is significant for the Texans.
The physical, aggressive, smash-mouth history of Texans wideout Andre Johnson and Finnegan has been well documented. The feuds have become so intense they have even led to on-the-field fighting and ejections. Without Finnegan, the Titans lack that shutdown corner who could challenge Johnson, making him a home-run weapon each time the two teams face off. This could lead to serious passing defense issues for Tennessee.
And last but not least (perhaps not), there’s the Jacksonville Jaguars. There’s not much positivity to mention when speaking of the Jags. Much like the Colts, there is a new coaching staff in place for Jacksonville.
New head coach Mike Mularkey will usher in a new era for Jacksonville, a city that fails to fill EverBank Field on Sundays. The former Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator hopes to mold second-year player Blaine Gabbert into a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback, much like Mularkey did with Falcons QB Matt Ryan.
All in all, the changes for the Jaguars will take time and no positive outcome is guaranteed. It may be quite some time before Jacksonville becomes a legitimate threat to capture the South crown.
The AFC South as a division does not stack up well to the impressive roster the Texans have in talent and in explosiveness. With six of the team’s 16 games coming against these three opponents (one at home and one on the road), Houston has a great chance to pick up easy victories against these teams.
When all is said and done, the Texans should finish the 2012 season with a 5-1 division record.
The returning roster
The third and perhaps most important factor that aids the Texans in their quest for a divisional championship repeat is the returning roster Houston will have on the field.
Two key defensive pieces—linebackers Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans—were lost during the offseason. Williams took a massive deal to join the Bills in free agency and Ryans is now a member of the Philadelphia Eagles via a trade that returned two middle-round draft picks.
There’s no doubt the loss of both players will be felt by defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and company. However, there’s plenty of reason for optimism with emerging stars like defensive end J.J. Watt, linebacker Brian Cushing and 2012 first-round draft pick Whitney Mercilus; the defense believes it can rebuild itself with the star power it once had up front.
On the offensive side of the ball, not many moves had to be made during the down months of the season. The Texans released wide receiver Jacoby Jones, who failed to become the versatile weapon the team was wishing for. Tight end Joel Dreessen is also in a new area code, as are right tackle Eric Winston and fullback Lawrence Vickers, a key part of the Texans' blocking scheme.
Not many big names were brought in to improve an already-explosive offensive unit. In fact, center Chris Myers was the only Texan offensive player who was up for free agency and returned to Houston. The two sides worked to a long-term deal back in March.
All the pieces offensively look to be set in stone. Signal-caller Matt Schaub should return from his season-ending foot injury. Running back Arian Foster has new paper and is ready to continue his dominance in the backfield. And then there’s the franchise’s best player, receiver Andre Johnson. The offensive line returns nearly every starter, and tight end Owen Daniels looks to follow up a nearly 700-yard receiving season.
The brickwork has been laid for a repeat season for the Houston Texans. The schedule proves favorable. The division seems vulnerable. The roster returns experienced.
With all these arrows pointing in the direction of the Texans, there shouldn’t a single reason why a healthy Texans team can’t win the AFC South—and do so in convincing fashion.