Every NFL teams plays 16 regular season games, the shortest schedule of any major American sport.
That makes every game important, but all of them are not created equal.
What makes some NFL contests more important than others is well understood—divisional opponents, historic rivalries and statement games that secure a team’s standing among the league’s elite.
The 2013 Houston Texans are looking to extend their reign as AFC South titleholders and finally break through the divisional round of the playoffs. Before reaching those goals, however, they will have to contend with a lineup of opponents that had an unimpressive won-loss percentage of 47.3 in 2012.
If forced to choose which games will matter the most for Houston, these eight stand out from the rest.
How can a game against a San Diego team that will be hard-pressed to match its 7-9 record from last season determine anything?
The Chargers have a new head coach in Mike McCoy, who has been handed a roster riddled with question marks.
Quarterbacks Phillip Rivers and Matt Schaub each find their careers at tipping points, though Rivers' status is more precarious than that of his Houston counterpart. Has Chargers GM Tom Telesco come close to giving Rivers the weapons he needs?
Meanwhile, is Ryan Mathews still the No. 1 running back for the Chargers? He went on injured reserve in Week 11 with a busted collarbone. But Mathews would rather blame former head coach Norv Turner rather than discuss what he will do to improve the situation.
Is there a No.1 receiver besides the aging tight end Antonio Gates? The San Diego wideouts do not seem to have a standout among them.
The offensive line lost its best player, right guard Louis Vasquez, to free agency. Will Chad Rinehart be an effective replacement?
The Chargers' top sack artist, Shaun Phillips, followed Vasquez to the Denver Broncos. Former first-round pick Melvin Ingram was expected to take Phillips’ place, but Ingram tore his ACL in OTAs. Does this mean Cory Liguet and the rest of the defensive line must supply the majority of the pass rush?
This is the first chance for the Texans to establish a new identity for the new season. They need to do it in a decisive and unequivocal fashion to erase the memories of their 2-4 finish in 2012.
The Texans cannot have Arian Foster gain just 79 yards and Matt Schaub throw one lonely touchdown as they did in last season's opener against the Dolphins. Anything short of domination against a Chargers team in rebuilding mode will start the questions all over again for Houston.
The Seahawks are the middle matchup in a three-pack of the Texans' toughest games since Gary Kubiak took over in 2006.
This game is preceded by a rematch with the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens and followed by a date with the Super Bowl XLVII runner-up San Francisco 49ers. There is nothing middling about this scheduling gauntlet.
Seattle's running game is the centerpiece of its offense, which is unusual considering only center Max Unger and left tackle Russell Okung are worth their paychecks. Running back Marshawn Lynch carries the ball with such ferocity that his approach to the game is rightfully nicknamed “Beast Mode.”
Both teams rely on ball control, as Houston ranked first and Seattle was fifth in time of possession last season. Obviously, both defenses will look to slow the other’s rushing attack. If that strategy works, both quarterbacks will be counted on to lead the way.
Seattle may have the best defense in the entire league. They definitely have the only two cornerbacks in the NFL who cannot be physically overwhelmed in 6’3” Richard Sherman and 6’4” Brandon Browner.
Defensive end Bruce Irvin will be out due to his four-game league suspension for PED use. The additions of free-agent defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett means the pass rush of the Seahawks is not going to suffer any dropoff.
Matt Schaub cannot rely on those slow-developing, play-action passes that don’t fool many teams anymore. First-round pick DeAndre Hopkins, Keshawn Martin and Lestar Jean will have to take the weight off Andre Johnson with sharp patterns and quick throws by Schaub.
Seattle has the only NFL quarterback that Texans defensive end J.J Watt (6' 5", 295 lbs.) could stick in his pocket and still have room for his wallet. Russell Wilson is barely 5’11” in his cleats, but manages to use his mobility to complete passes when needed. The “when needed” part is reflected in his 405 attempts in 2012, the fewest of any starting QB.
If the game is close, the edge may go to Wilson. He had five game-winning drives in his rookie year and almost brought his team back from a 20-point deficit against the Atlanta Falcons in the playoffs.
The Texans have to take full advantage of their home-field crowd and not let the score get that close. They will want to feel good about themselves before traveling west to face the 49ers.
The last time the Texans played in San Francisco, it was the final game of the 2005 season when they were in race to the bottom for the top pick in the upcoming draft.
The 49ers cooperated by winning that game, which coincided with the end of the Dom Capers era in Houston.
Gary Kubiak ended up with the Houston head coaching job and has held it ever since. On this night, he might find himself at a crossroads in his tenure with the team.
Seeing as how their two prior games on the 2013 schedule against the Ravens and Seahawks could easily end up as losses, another setback could leave Houston with a losing record for the first time since 2010.
Pugnacious 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh isn’t looking to do Kubiak any favors. Three of his first four games will be against 2012 playoff teams.
The Colin Kaerpernick experiment was going great guns all the way to the Super Bowl last season, but the jury is out on whether the read option has a long-term future in this league.
The overall talent on this team is without question. From tackle to tackle, they have the top offensive line in the game. Their depth at wide receiver is good enough to withstand the loss of Michael Crabtree to an ACL tear.
Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis head the best linebacking corps in pro football, and San Francisco's defensive line is solid, if unspectacular. If they have any weakness, it is in the secondary. Joe Flacco made that clear in the first half of Super Bowl XLVII.
Free-agent strong safety Craig Dahl and first-round selection Eric Reid at free safety are not the solution for the 49ers. Nnamdi Asomugha was exposed as a one-dimensional cornerback during his brief stay as a Philadelphia Eagle and is now past his prime at 32.
If the Texans’ passing game is on the lookout for a get-well game, this could be it. Outside of outside linebacker Aldon Smith, the Niners are unable to muster much of a pass rush, and Smith seems to be dependent on defensive tackle Justin Smith to get his opportunities.
This assumes that Houston has managed some consistent play at right tackle. It remains the one area that causes the most concern going into mandatory minicamp. Ryan Harris needs to prove he can be the starter until Derek Newton is ready to resume regular duties.
The first Texans-Colts game of 2013 will be after the Texans’ bye in Week 8. Depending on its won-loss record, Houston may either be licking its chops or licking its wounds.
A 5-2 mark would have the Texans feeling pretty good about themselves due to that brutal three-game stretch of the Ravens, Seahawks and 49ers. If the effort was there, but the bounces did not go their way, a record of 4-3 would just mean there is work to be done in the second half of the season.
But 3-4 would translate to near panic. The balance of the schedule has two games against the hated Colts, another test of courage against the dreaded New England Patriots and the umpteenth encounter with their old nemesis, Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.
At 3-4, Houston would have to go 8-1 to have a shot at winning the division. Pulling off 7-2 might mean missing the playoffs on a tiebreaker. Fans and media alike would be calling for the heads of Kubiak and Schaub.
Whatever transpires in the run up to this game, it will be seen as a must-win situation. The Texans have the Colts at home, where they have beaten them the last three times.
Many pundits have Andrew Luck and his cohorts backsliding this season. The fact they made the playoffs last season is considered a fluke for statistical and personnel reasons.
A team with no consistent running game that could not protect its quarterback and allowed more points than they scored should not have an 11-5 record. The maestro who pulled off this stunner was Bruce Arians, and he used this success to land the head job with the Arizona Cardinals.
Head coach Chuck Pagano contributed what he could while undergoing treatment for leukemia and is back in control of the team. An infusion of talent via the draft and free agency could have kept this team on the same track.
Gosder Cherilus is an improvement at right tackle, but he can’t make up for the deficiencies of left tackle Anthony Castonzo. Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey looks better than Donnie Avery coming off the bus, but not when the ball bounces off his cast-iron hands. How is Erik Walden supposed to upgrade your pass rush when he was rated the worst 3-4 outside linebacker by Pro Football Focus (subscription required for Premium Stats) last year?
Houston should be able to retake control of its fortunes, even if its status is a bit shaky coming into this game. The main threat to every NFL team by this juncture is the injury bug. Should the starting lineups on offense and defense still be intact, the Texans will finish the first half of the 2013 season with a win.
In the collective dreams of the Texans, you have to wonder if Tom Brady assumes the form of some mythical monster.
When he takes the field across from the Houston defense, the Patriots’ QB might as well be the Gorgon Medusa. It seems as if the entire Texans' defensive unit turns to stone.
Wade Phillips has been a defensive coordinator for eight teams over his 31-year career, but when he comes up against Brady and his hurry-up, dink-and-dunk style, Phillips plays it as if it was any other offense in the NFL.
In 2012, New England ran the most plays, gained the most yards, had the most first downs per game, averaged the most first downs per play, converted the most third downs per game and so on and so forth. They also scored the most points per game by a wide margin. If that array of stats does not get the point across, nothing will.
To beat the Patriots, a defense is presented with two choices: either slow them down or speed yourselves up. The Texans did neither, and we all know the results.
To slow them down, defenses have to make the Patriots think and not just react. That means playing something other than man-to-man coverage, disguising your intentions, throwing five or six pass-rushers at Brady or pulling your safeties in and daring him to beat you over the top.
The New England defense is nothing special, except when it comes to generating turnovers. Their plus-25 differential led the league, but lost to the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game because they lost the turnover battle. That is the key to finally beating Bill Belichick.
Phillips will have to go out of his comfort zone and run something other than his base packages. Brady is vulnerable when he gets smacked in the mouth, just like any other quarterback. In their “46 defense” of the 1980s the Chicago Bears would rush as many as eight players. Time to get Buddy Ryan on the horn and pay him whatever he asks as a consulting fee.
The second Texans-Colts game of 2013 will be even bigger than the first. The time has come to do what has never been done before by the Texans: win a game in Indy.
Houston came close in 2011, losing 19-16. In 2012, the game was about to turn the Texans' way when Deji Karim returned a kickoff for a 101-yard touchdown in a 28-16 win for Indy.
This season, Karim is angling for the third running back slot on the Texans' roster. If Karim could make another game-changing play in this rivalry in 2013, it would represent some karma payback.
That would be a little too perfect, so the key this time is fairly straightforward: The Texans just need to play a complete game from beginning to end.
The last three contests on Houston's schedule make this list for one simple reason: This season has to end differently from the last two. In 2011, the Texans lost their last three games. In 2012, they dropped three of their last four.
To win the AFC South title this year will mean winning games down the stretch. No more stumbling into the playoffs, hoping the Cincinnati Bengals are waiting for them in the wild-card round.
If this organization is incapable of putting forth its best effort when the pressure is on, it will never make it to a Super Bowl. The 2012 Ravens may have been 1-4 when they slipped into the postseason, but the Texans have tried that approach and it has not worked for them.
This time, they need to go in as winners and this is the game where it starts.
One of Houston's high points of the 2012 season was its win over the Broncos in Denver. After three quarters, Matt Schaub had every Texans’ fan believing he was in the process of putting it all together.
Schuab threw deep passes and took a blast to the head from Joe Mays that answered many of the questions about his toughness. While Peyton Manning nearly turned the tables on Houston with his typical comeback magic, the Broncos ran out of gas and lost, 31-25.
Denver may have patched the sole weakness in its defense by bringing in cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The Broncos ranked among the top five defenses in yardage and points allowed last season, but were 17th in touchdown passes surrendered. When their secondary broke down, it resulted in scoring plays, not just completions.
On the other hand, Denver also signed Quentin Jammer, who was already on his way out of San Diego. Cornerback has been his only position, but Jammer appears to be headed to safety in Denver. When cornerbacks lose their edge, they get to play further back in the defense.
Teams that are ranked 19th in turnover margin are not destined for great things. Manning’s inexplicable interception in the Broncos' playoff loss to the Ravens was just the final example of that deadly tendency last season.
If history repeats itself, the Broncos could be ripe for another undressing by Houston’s quarterback. It is also another chance for the Texans to keep their momentum rolling towards the playoffs.
The Titans could be improved enough by season’s end to thwart the Texans’ playoff hopes.
Mike Munchak is in a do-or-die dilemma, trying to develop some cohesion on both sides of the ball while keeping aging and impatient owner Bud Adams off his back.
Their two biggest free-agent signings were on offense with left guard Andy Levitre and tight end Delanie Walker. They are desperate enough that rookie right guard Chance Warmack will be the starter for the season opener.
His fellow draftee wide receiver Justin Hunter will also be a member of a surprisingly deep group of wide receivers. Jake Locker will be asked to keep the passing to a minimum, concentrating instead on putting the ball in the hands of running backs Chris Johnson and Shonn Greene.
However, a Tennessee defense that allowed the most points in the NFL in 2012 needed even more help than the offense this offseason. It received little assistance worth noting, and will be forced to work with basically the same group of players from last season.
This game should be a laugher, but the Texans lost to the Titans in their final outing of 2011. For Houston's 2013 regular season to end on the proper note, there can be no doubt regarding the outcome.