This upcoming Sunday will be the first true test of the Texans' 2012 season. "Any given Sunday" blah blah blah.
The Texans squared off against two division bottom dwellers in the first two weeks of the season, and their two dominant victories were what was expected of them.
Now, however, the Texans will be going up against a very good football team. This is the time for the Texans to prove that they are, in fact, deserving of being called elite.
This is the time for them to prove to the critics that they are a team to beat, that they can have Super Bowl aspirations.
Here are the Texans' keys to victory in their critical Week 3 matchup.
Have to pressure the quarterback. Have to pressure the quarterback. Have to pressure the quarterback. Have to pressure the quarterback. Have to pressure the quarterback.
Did I get my point across?
The best way, and perhaps the only way, to beat elite quarterbacks like Peyton Manning is to get in their faces all game long.
Though it is unknown whether Manning is his former self yet, it is fairly easy to see that he still has an excellent control over the offense. He has been consistent on short-to-medium range throws and he still a dangerous threat for which every team should plan.
Fortunately for the Texans, they have the personnel on their defense to slow Manning down. J.J. Watt, Connor Barwin, Brooks Reed and Antonio Smith can all apply constant pressure on the quarterback, and the defense also has a solid secondary to boot.
If the Texans' front seven can make life a living hell for Manning, then the Texans' chances of coming away with a win in the altitude would be very high.
Peyton Manning will move the ball. Without a doubt.
The key for the Texans, then, would be to prevent Manning from finding the end zone.
As expected with a top defense, the Texans field one of the top "bend but don't break" defenses in the NFL. So far in 2012, the Texans rank No. 1 in bendability, a stat that measures the correlation between yards and points allowed.
While the Texans have faced easy competition so far this season, their defense clearly tightens up when the field becomes shorter. They start to pressure the ball more, they defend passes well and they manage to stuff the run efficiently.
In order for the Texans to win this game, they must continue the "bend but don't break" trend and ensure that a Manning touchdown pass or a McGahee rushing touchdown does not happen often.
One issue that comes with being a "bend but don't break" defense is that good field position might become a rarity.
If Manning is able to consistently drive the ball down to, say, the 50-yard-line, but then get stopped by the Texans' defense and be forced to punt, then it is unlikely that the Texans will end up with solid field position.
Against the Miami Dolphins, the Texans struggled to string together a long, time-consuming scoring drive. Whenever the offense was stuck with awful field position, they were barely able to move the ball.
This was not the case against the Jacksonville Jaguars, however, as the Texans efficiently moved the ball up and down the field no matter where they happened to start.
For the Texans to win this game, however, they must prove that the Jaguar game was the true indicator of their 2012 offense, and make sure that no remnants of the Dolphin game will linger over.
Unless the Texans manage to force several turnovers, it is highly probable that they will not start with excellent field position.
If that happens, they must be able to put together one of their patented time-killing extensive offensive drives.
As if it needs to be said any more times, I'll say it once again. Without the rush, the Texans' offense, and pretty much their entire team, will struggle heavily.
The Texans' passing game is a direct benefactor of the running game, as play action and boot-leg passes are utilized often. Without the threat of a dangerous run game, that aspect of the passing game will be completely lost.
Also, an indirect beneficiary of the run game is the Texans' stout defense. If the Texans are able to put together a long, run-filled drive, then a lot of time will be wasted off the clock.
The defense, therefore, will be able to relax and refresh themselves on the sideline. That way when they come onto the field again, they will certainly have sufficient energy to perform like the current No. 1 defense in the NFL.
Like in all games, the Texans must be able to establish the run if they want to heighten their chances of victory.
In the past two seasons, Kareem Jackson has been a centerpiece of attention for the Texans' secondary.
He was either forgetting to turn his head when the ball was in mid-air, struggling to stay close to his assignment or getting flagged for an unnecessary pass-interference penalty.
Yeah, those were the days.
Recently, however, Jackson has been flying under the radar. The reason for this is because he is actually playing quite well.
He has displayed drastically-improved coverage skills, and there are times when he actually can be mistaken for a very good cornerback.
Also, it appears that Jackson is surprisingly rotating his head when the ball is in mid-air, which highly contributes to the chances that he will not give up a huge pass play.
All in all, Jackson is playing with much more confidence than he has in the past two seasons.
This is very important, as he will have quite the test on Sunday.
Since there is no clear No. 1 receiver on Denver, it is quite likely that Jackson will see a lot of both Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas. He will have to, therefore, be able to show that his dramatic improvement over the course of the offseason will be enough for him to be able to cover two solid receivers.
The Texans must find ways to slow down Peyton Manning in this game, and Kareem Jackson's ability to effectively cover one of their receivers will be extremely important.