Running Back Arian Foster (23) breaks a would-be tackle by Cincinnati's Nate Clements (22).
The Houston Texans were labeled underachievers after last season’s early playoff defeat, but with 2013 in the rearview mirror, there are five big reasons why a Houston Super Bowl appearance is imminent.
Knocks against the Texans include predictable play-calling, a knack for losing when it counts and a quarterback who's good but not good enough.
If 2012 were the subject of discussion, those critiques would be valid points; however, a new season brings with it new justifications to believe the Texans are finally ready to take their spot atop the AFC.
Linebacker Ray Lewis (52) is one of many star players the Ravens will do without in 2013.
For Baltimore and New England—the teams that battled it out in the AFC Championship last season—this past offseason hasn’t been friendly.
That list includes a retired Ray Lewis, crossover Texan Ed Reed and Joe Flacco’s two favorite targets from 2012—Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta. Circus-like Boldin, who made key plays throughout the playoffs en route to a championship, was traded to Super Bowl rival San Francisco. Pitta recently dislocated his hip during preseason practice.
Together, Boldin and Pitta accounted for 1,590 receiving yards last season.
Welker, Lloyd and Hernandez combined for 447 yards in their two appearances against the Texans. They’ll all be gone this season.
J.J. Watt leads one of the youngest defensive units in the league.
Texan football is predicated on defense.
It’s an old-school strategy that’s built for ball control. Stop ‘em on D, and work down the clock by running the football.
It might have been a tedious process, but it seems Wade Phillips and Co. have finally built one of the league’s most talented young units. Just to name a few talents: D.J. Swearinger, 21; Whitney Mercilus, 23; Brian Cushing, 26; Brooks Reed, 26.
Swearinger might be new, but word around training camp is that he’ll be a heavy contributor in 2013. Playing for head coach Steve Spurrier with South Carolina, D.J. recorded 244 tackles, six interceptions and three touchdowns.
Oh yeah, and then there's 24-year-old J.J. Watt. After 81 tackles and 20.5 sacks, Watt was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2012. His sack total ties Lawrence Taylor for sixth most in a single season.
The big problem for Houston’s D in 2012 was the loss of Cushing after a torn ACL. When Cushing left, the defense lost an emotional leader, as well as an incredible athlete.
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is known for his simple schemes designed to get the most out of a player's talent. When any of those players are gone, the defense seems to struggle against elite offensive firepower, as it did against Green Bay and New England.
The Jaguars and Titans were among the league's worst last season.
Aside from the Texans and the Colts, the AFC South is about as bland as you can get.
Outside of Maurice Jones-Drew, it’s tough to think of a whole lot the Jacksonville Jaguars have going for them. They ranked 29th in total offense, third in yards allowed and went 5-11 in 2012.
Former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley is implementing a new defensive scheme, but that will require some time to take hold. With Blaine Gabbert struggling at quarterback, and an offensive line that has yet to show much prowess, it could take a while for the offense to improve as well.
The Tennessee Titans have problems of their own to address.
At 29.4, the Titans allowed on average more points per game than any other team. They’ve added players like Sammie Hill and Bernard Pollard to help remedy that, but it’s going to take more than just a few guys to improve.
The Titans ranked 26th in total offense, as Jake Locker, another rookie QB, found himself in need of better weapons and better blocking. Of course, they still have Chris Johnson, but he can only do so much.
Indy will continue to compete for years to come, but as of now, the AFC South is the Texans’ division to lose.
Andre Johnson (80) runs for a touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
There’s been lots of talk about a shrinking window for the Texans due to aging key players.
That’s one way to look at it.
Or you could argue that these guys are in the prime of their careers. For all that’s been made of 32-year-old Andre Johnson, 2012 was one of his best years yet. In terms of yards, Johnson went for 1,598, which is the most he’s ever had in a season.
They’re also perfect mentors to the young crop of rookies coming up. Who better to show the ropes to DeAndre Hopkins than a future Hall of Famer in Johnson?
And what Johnson will be to Hopkins, Ed Reed could be to rookies like Swearinger.
Speaking of Reed, he’s gotten his fair share of age profiling as well. Nevertheless, Reed still has the talent and football knowledge to be one of the bests in the league. While he’s not as well-known for making tackles as he is interceptions, his total of 49 last year was his highest since 2006, defending 15 passes with four interceptions and a touchdown to boot.
Another thing Reed has going for him is experience beating Tom Brady and the Patriots—something Houston seems to struggle with lately.
Center Chris Myers (31) and left guard Wade Smith (32) are also getting up there in years. There's no reason to worry about them at all, however. Both made the Pro Bowl in 2013, and both have been integral in the development of Brandon Brooks and Derek Newton. The chemistry these players have with Arian Foster in Houston’s zone-running scheme is unparalleled, too.
Matt Schaub—another guy the O-line blocks for—lately has been labeled as a guy who’s incapable of winning the big one. I can remember a time when a lot of folks viewed Joe Flacco the same way. It’s funny how easy a ring can change people’s minds.
Bob McNair has brought the Texans from a struggling expansion team to a perennial playoff contender.
Along with Gary Kubiak, owner Bob McNair has done his best to build a winner that will last.
Unlike, say, another team in Dallas, McNair has implemented his conservative approach that builds through the draft and supplements veterans when needed.
Doing this, Houston has been able to avoid getting tied up in big contracts with players like Nnamdi Asomugha. It’s also how the team ended up with players like J.J. Watt and Andre Johnson.
Now that a solid foundation is in place, the Texans will continue to improve and compete within the AFC.
If you don't believe me, just ask Slim Thug, Paul Wall and Z-Ro.