Week 1 will be just the first of 16 games for the Houston Texans. However, it will be the first game in the Texans' history that they will enter as the division favorites for a playoff berth.
The Houston Texans have been on the cusp of success for many years now. From 2008's 8-8 record and 2009's first winning record at 9-7, the Texans have proved that they are serious contenders in the very difficult AFC South.
However, they must overcome the looming power that is the Indianapolis Colts. The fleet of experienced Colts have torched the Texans, going 16-2 against them over the past nine seasons. Without Peyton Manning, however, the Colts look very pedestrian coming into 2011.
The Texans beat the Colts in the first week of the 2010 season in what many thought would be a sign of changing tides. Unfortunately for the Texans, they stumbled to a 6-10 record overall last season, disappointing many of the Texan faithful who thought it was their time to shine.
With the hiring of Wade Phillips to shore up a very shoddy defensive unit, a very solid 2011 draft class with many refined defensive gems and the continuous development of All-Pro leaders Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson, the Texans became a team to watch as the NFL preseason hit its stride.
Now, the Texans open against the Colts in Week 1 at home in Reliant Stadium. Quickly, we are all going to find out quickly whether the Texans have what it will take to dethrone the divisional bullies at home in Houston.
Here are seven reasons that the Texans are going to overcome the Colts and make a powerful statement in the early going. With the momentum coming off of this win, the Texans will dominate the Colts not just once, but twice this season.
Let's check out the key changes and the key players they are going to use in their run to the AFC South title.
The best news the Texans have gotten in the past few hours is that Colts quarterback Peyton Manning will not be suited-up on Sunday. Now that Manning has undergone more neck surgery and will be out for a couple more months, the Texans now have the best quarterback in the division by far.
The biggest question is how their defense will be able to respond.
The biggest offseason pickup for the Texans was a 64 year-old gentleman who most would consider out of shape. Previously, he was like millions of other Americans: unemployed. Yes, Wade Phillips might appear to be an everyday type of guy, but his mastery of defensive tactics separates him from any other coach who switched teams this summer.
Wade Phillips has transformed the Texans' traditional 4-3 defense to a 3-4 split that will try to embody more of the athleticism and versatility of the team's young bucks. From moving Mario Williams to linebacker to dealing with Brian Cushing's injury, the Texans are in the middle of a major face-lift.
However, it seems the changes have already made an impact. The defense, and especially the secondary led by new coach Vance Joseph from San Francisco, played significantly better in the first preseason game against the New York Jets. The defensive squad allowed just 16 points and, although they allowed 310 total yards, they recorded seven sacks.
The Texans were burned in the pass game against Peyton Manning. Not only did the Texans allow 267.5 yards passing per game and 33 touchdown passes last season, but Manning torched them for almost 700 yards and five touchdowns in only two games.
Without that threat, and with Kerry Collins under center now, the Texans are poised to stifle the Colts offense with a strong athletic defense.
With young talent emerging in the Texans' defensive rotation, they should be able to make a huge impact in the battle this Sunday.
The Texans got defensive in their 2011 draft, selecting six defensive position players in their eight overall selections. J.J. Watt, pictured here, was the 11th overall selection and the Texans' first-round pick. Watt, out of Wisconsin, is an electrifying defensive end who has a quick move off the line.
Watt has played tremendously on the defensive line this preseason, recording three sacks in the four preseason games, and looks to be a major contributor to Wade Phillips' new defensive scheme.
The Texans' second pick was outside linebacker Brooks Reed out of Arizona. Reed was a solid performer for the Wildcats, but not a standout by any means. Reed had a great performance at the Senior Bowl, which significantly boosted his stock because of his performance against the best competition.
Expecting Reed to be a standout immediately is a stretch. He has the potential to be an excellent complement in a talented group of linebackers, but Connor Barwin will continue to be the starter on the strong outside.
In the middle part of the draft, the Texans nabbed cornerbacks Brandon Harris out of Miami and Roc Carmichael from Virginia Tech. Harris, the Texans' second-round pick, was a three-year award winner at Miami and was a 2009 first-team and 2010 second-team All-ACC pick. Carmichael was a fourth-round selection and a favorite of head coach and defensive whiz Frank Beamer.
The Texans will still have to stop the Colts' aerial attack on the outside. They still have Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie and Dallas Clark to reel in Kerry Collins' passes, and the Texans' secondary must show large signs of improvement in order to gain some positive momentum for the rest of the year.
Andre Johnson is working on his resume of becoming the best wide receiver in the NFL and perhaps the best athlete in the league. He has led the NFL in receiving twice, in 2008 and 2009, when he had 1,575 and 1,569 receiving yards, respectively.
With an improved Texans defense under Wade Phillips and a revamped offensive line following the pickup of highly-touted rookie Darius Morris from Temple, Johnson could have the help he needs coming back from an injury-plagued season last year.
Johnson only played in 13 games last season and still had 1,200-plus yards receiving—and he was banged up for a fair amount of the year. With 50 touchdown receptions in his eight-year career, it is a safe bet that Johnson will be good for at least six or seven touchdown grabs this season.
Johnson had 106 yards and a touchdown grab against the Colts in the Texans' Week 7 loss to Indianapolis, and has taken advantage of the Colts' secondary for years now. He has recorded over 100 receiving yards against the Colts four times in the past few seasons, and has scored at least once every season against the Colts since 2005.
The Colts have two solid corner backs in Jacob Lacey and Jerraud Powers, but Johnson demands double coverage and has created mismatches. At 6'3" and 220 pounds, Johnson creates mismatches against every team, but he has dominated the Colts.
Many times, Johnson's sheer presence draws Colts' safety Antoine Bethea over and leaves the middle of the field open for wide receiver Kevin Walter or tight end Owen Daniels. For Johnson's goal of becoming a 1,600-yard receiver is to be reached, he is going to have to go to work against the Colts' secondary in Week 1.
Matt Schaub, coming off another standout season in which he was fourth in the NFL in passing, is the key to the Texans' offensive hopes this season. For the Texans to overcome the Colts, they are going to need a quarterback performance that surpasses that of the injured rival Peyton Manning.
Schaub will need to torch the Colts in the way Manning has picked apart the Texans over the years. Now that Schaub is the premier quarterback in the division, Schaub must improve his production against their rivals.
Schaub has failed to dominate against the Colts defense. Schaub threw for 4,370 yards last season, but his completion percentage and overall passer rating actually declined. His touchdown numbers were down slightly, so this season Schaub is going to need to step up his game to unprecedented levels.
Schaub only threw for 107 yards in last year's surprise victory over the Colts, so luck was a major factor in Schaub's game that Sunday. Schaub has only gone for more than 300 yards against the Colts once in his career, so he has something to prove against the Colts' secondary.
Schaub has good career stats as the Texans quarterback, but the Houston faithful will need him to take his game to the next level in order to be the first quarterback in Texans' history to start a playoff game.
The Texans are lucky to be in the position they are. They have been very fortunate to find some tremendous running backs in the unlikeliest of places. With Arian Foster, the NFL's leading rusher last year, hobbled by a hamstring injury, Houston will have to look elsewhere for Sunday's match against the Colts.
Although Foster might be good for Sunday, the Texans and coach Gary Kubiak must limit his work significantly so he does not injure himself for the long season. Even though Foster broke out in his first full season, taking the ball and carrying the Texans' ground game to new levels, the Texans must use other backs to defeat the Colts.
The silver lining is that the Texans have wonderful depth at running back. After Foster, the Texans have Ben Tate, a talented back who did not play a game in 2010 after suffering a preseason injury. Now recovered from the broken ankle and ligament tear, Tate had an impressive preseason and along with Derrick Ward and Steve Slaton, would pose a threat to a medicore Colts defensive front.
Slaton made his hay with West Virginia in that wide-open option offense. Slaton is a shifty back that can come in and make his presence known in the backfield, but doesn't often. He is the primary kick returner, so he rarely sees hand-offs and draw plays. However, his talent is there and he can make a difference at any time.
Third-down running back Derrick Ward, a physical runner that can mow over defenders, will be able to use his force to gain some ground against the Colts line. Tate has more potential than Ward, but Ward's experience might lead him to get a bulk of the clutch carries. Ward is a short-yard back only, but is extremely useful in his role.
If Tate can come in and make an impact on the running back corps, the Texans might have the best backfield combinations in the NFL. They will need to prove it to themselves, the Colts, and the rest of football on Sunday afternoon though.
At the beginning of their existence the Texans were the running joke of the league, unable to protect their quarterback David Carr. Carr was battered around for multiple seasons, but finally the Texans have made the necessary changes with new quarterback Matt Schaub and have ushered in a new era of pass protection.
With Duane Brown, Wade Smith, Chris Myers, Mike Brisiel and Eric Winston all returning, the Texans also brought back key backups Rashad Butler and Antonie Caldwell. Their entire starting offensive line from 2010 comes back, along with their vast experience and they can build on their success last year.
Myers, Wade Smith and Winston started all 16 games for the Texans in 2010. Brown started 12 games, with Butler starting four when Brown served a four-game suspension. Brisiel started the majority of games at right guard before suffering a season-ending calf injury in Week 14, at which point he was replaced by Caldwell.
The linemen have been working together all summer to develop better chemistry, so they can better work to protect Schaub and open more holes for Arian Foster and the group of Texan running backs.
Hard work has seemingly paid off, as they looked very impressive during their reps in the preseason, and they will be able to start strong on Sunday against an uninspiring defensive front from Indianapolis.
The Colts front seven is aging or inexperienced, so look for Winston and Smith to open up some major holes for the running backs and give Schaub plenty of time to find his open receiver.
There is no team in the NFL with better skill-position players than the Houston Texans. Andre Johnson, Owen Daniels, Arian Foster and Matt Schaub are some of the best at their positions in the entire league.
With every other AFC South team struggling and looking pretty hapless coming into the season, this is the year that the Texans are the true favorites.
The only question is, can a team that has never been to the playoffs or been the team to beat learn how to dominate?
They have the swagger of knowing they can reel off a big play. They have the big-time defensive coordinator that will hopefully instruct them on how to stop any offense in the trenches. They know have the experience of a little bit of success, building off of mediocre seasons and quality victories.
Will they learn to win on the fly? Will they regress and struggle?
I think it will be the first of the two, as this Texans team is too talented, too deep and too hungry for success to let anything major stop them. They will have setbacks, and they will need to learn how to deal with setbacks without letting it get them too down.
We will see on Sunday afternoon, as the Texans enter as 8.5 point favorites over the Colts. Only time will tell if they are ready to live up to the hype.