The Texans divisional record will undoubtedly be the single biggest factor in determining their playoff chances in 2009.
Since 2002, the AFC South has been the NFL’s toughest division outside of the NFC East, with the Texans bearing the brunt of that toughness. Since their inception the Texans have never finished higher than third overall in the division.
In fact the Jaguars are the only team within the AFC South that the Texans have been able to beat on a consistent basis, recording an 8-6 record against them. However their record against the Titans and Colts has been nothing short of abysmal at a combined four wins and twenty-four losses, with just one of those wins against the Colts.
This inability to beat divisional rivals has been the paramount failure of their brief history and biggest reason they have yet to see the playoffs. Last year was a microcosm of their historic divisional woes as the Texans had a 6-3 record outside of their division while posting a 2-4 record within.
On the bright side, the Texans have begun to show signs of improvement by playing the Colts close, in what used to be a twice a year guaranteed drubbing. In their last four losses to the Colts, three of them have been by six points or less.
Moreover we can’t forget the week five loss that was largely due to Sage Rosencopter's anti-heroics by snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Largely aided by Sage’s three turnovers on the Texans last four possessions, the Colts delivered a crushing 17-point comeback victory in a mere 2:10.
Although the AFC South will remain a tough conference, there are some promising signs of opportunity for Texans fans.
First and foremost, the Texans continue to improve steadily in all areas of the game. Under Gary Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith the Texans have built a solid, youthful, foundation for the future on both sides of the ball.
The most important position on the field, QB, seems to be in very good hands with Matt Schaub. Probably the most asked question by Texan fans is—can the defense start to perform closer to the high standards set last year by the offense?
Secondly, and, equally important to the progress of the Texans, is the fact that the Titans and Colts have begun to show signs of weakness. What signs you might ask?
You'd be a fool to underestimate the impact Albert Haynesworth’s departure to the Redskins will have on the Titans defense. When Big’Al is healthy and willing, he is an unblockable force in the middle, freeing up those around him to make plays.
Take the case of Kyle Vanden Bosch. Prior to his tenure in Tennessee, Vanden Bosch compiled a measly 3.5 total sacks in four years with the Cardinals. Yet, in four years playing alongside Haynesworth, he racked up 35.5 sacks and two trips to the Pro Bowl.
If I were a gambling man I’d bet the under for Kyle’s sack total in 2009.
Matt Schaub is undoubtedly wishing Al nothing but the best in a new uniform, as 2009, will be the first time the Texan QB will not have to face the author of two of his worst injuries. Haynesworth had a nasty habit of crushing Schaub between the turf and massive three-hundred pound frame.
Furthermore, Tennessee’s quarterback situation is in trouble with the continued absence of Vince Young. Sure, Kerry Collins is a serviceable veteran, but one has to wonder how much longer his cannon arm can hold up on his 36 year old body. Plus, everyone but Kerry Collins knows he isn’t the answer at quarterback if the Titans hope to win a SuperBowl.
However, one can never count the Titans out of it, so long as Jeff Fisher is still leading the charge. The well-seasoned coach has made a career off over-achieving and getting the most out of his players.
In addition, Fisher and the Titans will still have a great rushing attack along with their ball-hawking secondary in 2009. Nevertheless, look for the Titans to slide a bit from their 13-3 record of last year.
We’ve also seen the first chinks in the Colts seemingly immortal armor, with the loss of Head Coach Tony Dungy. Dungy is a special type of coach and person, and it will be difficult to replace all the ways in which he affected his players. There will be a leadership void in the Colt’s organization until someone else commands the respect that he had earned and deserved.
Additionally, one cannot fully calculate the direct role that Dungy had in turning a perennial cupcake defense into one of playoff caliber.
Few coaches or general managers have been as adept as Dungy at drafting defensive talents outside of the first round, highlighted by the acquisitions of Robert Mathis (fifth round), Bob Sanders (second round), Antoine Bethea (sixth round), and Gary Brackett (undrafted free agent).
In fact, only twice in his seven years with the Colts did Dungy take a defensive player in the first round, snagging pass-rushing terror, Dwight Freeney and a solid starting cornerback in Marlin Jackson. Similarly, Dungy knew how to pick up experienced players, sometimes under-priced, who were good fits in his cover two scheme.
Peyton Manning will still be a top level QB, and he will have the myriad of weapons he's used too—Anthony Gonzalez, Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai, Reggie Wayne, and newly added running back, Donald Brown.
Even though future Hall Of Fame receiver Marvin Harrison is gone, don’t expect it to have a big impact on the Colts offense. Although he was Mannings favorite target from the start, he's no longer at the top of his game and Peyton did just fine without him contributing much last year.
Another question the Colts must answer is how Peyton adjust to the challenge of not having offensive coordinator Rob Moore and quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell—both of whom had been there since Manning was a rookie.
From Dungy on down—there is lots of turmoil and change for the QB to assimilate and manage.
So, if the big boys of the AFC South are ready to be challenged, where does this all lead? Fans can look forward to the “Crucible.” From November 8 to December 6 (weeks 9-13) the Texans play four consecutive games against their division rivals. This run culminates with the conclusion of their divisional schedule against the Jaguars in week thirteen.
Aside from an unexpectedly terrible start that derails their season from the onset, a 3-1 result would set them up nicely for the four remaining games of the schedule. Even going 2-2 would likely leave them in contention as their remaining schedule looks favorable with games against the Seahawks, Rams, and the Dolphins.
Moreover, the final game of the regular season will be against a Patriots team that will likely have their playoff spot locked up. But, if the Texans take care of business during the “crucible” they shouldn’t have to hope for a late Christmas gift come week 17.
Fortunately, during this difficult stretch, the Texans have a well-placed bye during week ten. This should allow them to get focused and healthy for the huge Monday Night home game against the Titans in week eleven as well as the ensuing divisional games.
Thus, the Texans mid-season “Crucible” of four consecutive divisional games will likely determine the fate of their playoff chances in 2009. If they do well, this test may vault a young team to their first playoff appearance, and set a standard that they can aspire to for years to come.