OTAs have wrapped for the summer, and as players, coaches and staff scatter for a much needed break before training camps start, we have the opportunity to assess where each team in the AFC South stands relative to their ultimate goal: winning the Super Bowl.
Because of the volatile nature of the NFL playoffs, I've never been a 'championship or bust' guy. I think teams can have successful seasons without hoisting Lombardi in February. The 2011 Texans are a perfect example. No one would label their season a wash just because they lost their last game. It was a success by any reasonable measure.
Houston, more so than any other team in the South, has their eyes firmly fixed on winning it all in 2012. Here's what needs to happen to make that a reality.
1. Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson must be healthy come playoff time.
I don't claim this to be any great feat of insight. Schaub's health problems are well documented, and his inability to stay on the field has kept him from elevating his game to that of the top five quarterbacks in the league. Health is obviously important for any team, but the Texans have more 'red light' injury risks at key spots than most.
I've noted before how thin the receiving corps is behind Andre Johnson, but I think the Texans will compensate as long as Johnson can stay on the field. When he's 100%, Johnson is arguably the best wideout in the game, and he covers other flaws in everyone else. Without him, I can't see the Texans' offense producing at the same rate.
As long as both men are upright late in the season, the Texans have a formidable offense capable of hanging 35 points on any defense in the league.
Passing wins in the NFL, and if Houston can pass in January, there are few teams that will be able to match them.
2. The defense must continue to lead.
In listening to the Texans' offseason comments, you get the sense that their young, talented defense has become the dominant unit in the locker room. Of course, much of this effect may be owed to the fact that Schaub and Johnson haven't been practicing.
The Texans were top-heavy offensively for so long that it's jarring to hear the defense get all the attention, but that's how it needs to be. The Texans lost a lot of players this offseason, but the losses that really hurt (Eric Winston and Joel Dreessen) were offensive losses. I don't expect the defense to miss Mario Williams or DeMeco Ryans.
I've expressed my concern about the Texans' defense before. It's difficult for a unit that made an abrupt turnaround to sustain that production in consecutive years. I also don't like their depth in the secondary or age at safety. I hate to make everything come back to injuries, but Houston has a major concern at safety with Danieal Manning.
The Texans' defense gives them an identity. It's full of aggressive, young talent, but they'll need to avoid any backsliding at all to remain a top contender. That's a tougher task than many realize.
3. They need some breaks.
For some reason, people get offended when I talk about how much luck it takes to make the Super Bowl. I think the concept of randomness, luck, and chance deeply offends those who cling to the illusion that we control the events in our lives.
One needs only to look at last year's Patriots team to realize how much luck comes into play. If Lee Evans squeezes Joe Flacco's pass just a little longer, or for a half-second more, it's a touchdown and the Patriots stay home.
If Billy Cundiff doesn't choke a short kick, the AFC Championship goes to overtime, and it's possible the Ravens would have played in Indianapolis. The Patriots didn't make him miss the kick. He just missed it.
What about the champion Giants? They only made the Super Bowl because a ball took a funny bounce and glanced off the leg of a backup punt returner. They are worthy champions, but to pretend they didn't have copious amounts of luck on their side is absurd. Almost every NFL champion over the past decade had the breaks go their way.
The AFC began a down cycle a couple of years ago, and the balance of power now rests with the NFC. From 1997-2006, the AFC won eight of 10 Super Bowls. The NFC has now won four of the past five games. This ebb and flow between the two conferences has gone on since the 1960s, and has now swung back in favor of the NFC.
This favors the Texans greatly, as there is no dominant team in the conference right now with the Patriots, Ravens and Steelers all having significant flaws and concerns, just like Houston. There's absolutely no reason the Texans can't make it to New Orleans. They'll just need the same kind of breaks the Patriots and Giants got last year.
It's not hard to analyze the 2012 Texans. They are a good team, every bit on par with the other top sides in the AFC. They have the raw materials to be a championship-caliber club if everything goes their way.
That means good health, first and foremost. That means building on their successes and not resting on them. That means getting a few timely breaks.
This is the easiest case to make in the division for how a team can win the Super Bowl. It boils down to two simple words for the Texans: