The Houston Texans have as strong a case as any for being the NFL's best team through 13 weeks. But if there's any weak link in Houston's potential Super Bowl chain, it still might be Wade Phillips' defense.
On Sunday against the Tennessee Titans, Houston's struggling unit got healthy quick. The Texans sacked Titans quarterback Jake Locker six times, forced six turnovers and allowed just 10 points. The Titans converted just four of 15 third downs and were held on both fourth-down tries.
After being exposed in wins against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions, Houston needed that performance on Sunday. But is it enough to think this same unit can handle offenses such as New England, Denver or Baltimore, each an AFC Super Bowl contender?
The Texans won't have to worry about the quality of offense or quarterback in Week 14.
Houston travels to New England Monday night for what could be an AFC Championship Game preview. A win puts the Texans on the fast track to the conference's No. 1 seed. Maybe more importantly, however, Houston gets the opportunity to see its defense in action against the game's best quarterback and offense.
In watching the last handful of games, here are some of the obvious things that still need fixing before the Texans can consider a Super Bowl run.
Consistent Pass Rush
Far too often in games against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions, defensive end J.J. Watt was the only player providing consistent pressure. While Watt is possibly the most dominant player in the NFL this season, he needs help for the Texans defense to stop good offenses.
Here we see the Lions facing a 3rd-and-12 situation on their first drive of Week 12. Good defenses need to get off the field in this situation, especially when the Lions empty their backfield and provide an opportunity to get to the quarterback.
The Texans bring four-man pressure, but the Lions stonewall the front and create a solid pocket for Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. Three seconds into the play, Stafford has easily stepped up into the pocket and found his man. Slot receiver Ryan Broyles has disengaged on a 15-yard out against man-to-man coverage for an easy pitch-and-catch. First down. Detroit went on to score a touchdown.
On 3rd-and-long plays like this one, the Texans need to provide enough pressure so that these kind of routes can't develop downfield. Even the best secondaries can't stay locked into man coverage for long periods, and the Texans aren't close to a top coverage unit. Pressure is a must to compensate.
Part of that fix must come from the outside linebackers, who haven't been consistent enough in complementing Watt and the defensive line. There's too much talent not to be better. Maybe rookie Whitney Mercilus is part of the solution.
Getting Johnathan Joseph Healthy
There's no doubt this defense isn't the same without Joseph, the Texans' best cover man. Games against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers and Stafford and the Lions either had Joseph as limited or out, and the Texans really struggled in coverage. His injury issues have been a big problem.
Here against the Packers, Joseph gives up a way-too-easy 41-yard touchdown to Jordy Nelson. Lining up in a press-look, Joseph doesn't trust his hands and allows a free release. From there, a still-hurting Joseph is done.
Nelson runs right by Joseph and makes a rather easy catch for the score. A healthy Joseph likely mixes it up with Nelson at the line, which doesn't give the receiver an ability to run past on a free release.
The same kind of problems have existed when the Texans have been without Joseph. Detroit's Calvin Johnson went wild in the first half on Thanksgiving. Maybe those numbers don't happen with Joseph at 100 percent.
Overall, the Texans are still a very good defense with a very high ceiling. But just a few limitations have hurt this unit to the point where it could become a liability against the game's best quarterbacks. In the playoffs, those meetings will happen.
Keep in mind, Houston has allowed 10 touchdowns without an interception against Manning, Rodgers and Stafford. The three represent the best quarterbacks the Texans have faced before Brady this week.
We'll learn a lot more about this defense Monday night in New England.
A strong showing on the road could be a huge confidence booster before the start of the postseason, a jumping-off point for a Super Bowl run.
But if these same kind of problems continue coming up—a lack of pressure outside Watt, the secondary struggling in man-to-man looks—the Texans are going to struggle to beat New England. That goes for both Monday night, and in the postseason, when Houston is likely to see either Brady or Manning.