We are through nine games, and the Houston Texans are right where most optimists predicted that they would be: in first place in the lackluster AFC South.
The casual NFL fan is still saying that the only reason Houston is on top is simply because Peyton Manning is out for the season, but I beg to differ. This team isn't just the best of a mediocre division. They're one of the best in the American Football Conference.
With seven games left and only two of them against teams with a winning record, Houston is no longer just thinking about making the playoffs, but getting a favorable seed in the dance.
A first-round bye is something even the biggest dreamer couldn't have predicted for the Texans this year. But there are a few reasons why it can happen, and I'm going to list those here.
It seems kind of silly now how much a large portion of the Texans fan base complained about the J.J. Watt pick.
I was guilty of this myself, as I was a big believer in Robert Quinn and thought he would never make it to the Texans at that pick. But, Watt certainly seems to have been the correct pick for a Wade Phillips defensive scheme.
What's not uncommon though is for a rookie to come in and look terrific for a few games and then hit the "rookie wall." Their production drops as teams get some film on them and it takes a few games for adjustments to be made, and it appears that Watt has reached that point.
Brooks Reed, on the other hand, seems to have just skipped past the whole rookie wall thing. In just four and a half games as a rookie, learning a new position and filling in for a two-time Pro Bowler, Reed has compiled 25 tackles and four sacks while being terrific against the run.
Has he yet to hit said wall? That remains to be seen. But after looking a little lost in the preseason and in early snaps this season, Brooks looks to be another solid draft pick.
The duo of Brooks Reed and J.J. Watt look like the most complete first- and second-round picks the Texans have had since Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans in 2006.
Just like I said a few weeks ago, no one should be scared of the Tennessee Titans. They have an aging quarterback who was undoubtedly playing over his head the first few weeks of the season and a questionable rookie behind him.
They have a defense that can be scored on rather easily by top offenses and a star player who looks like he is simply disinterested since getting his big payday. In fact, things are getting so ugly with Chris Johnson that according to ProFootballTalk, there are rumors of the Titans looking for a way to get out of his contract.
The Jaguars are young and quite far away from putting up an offensive game plan that doesn't include just giving the ball to Maurice Jones-Drew and getting out of the way. Their defense is on the right track and that's something to build off, but that's all they're doing this season; rebuilding.
The Colts probably don't need an explanation here. These guys look like they're focused more on what destination vacation they're going to take in the spring instead of actually playing football. No one thought that they would be good without Peyton Manning, but I don't think anyone thought they would be this bad.
This is a division that the Texans could easily go 6-0 against in 2011. They've outscored all three teams 99-28 so far this season. To think that any of these three could beat this Texans team would require some serious collapsing by Houston.
Raise your hand if you thought the Texans defense would improve over the 2010 version after the hiring of Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator.
Okay, now raise your hand if you thought they'd be a top 10 defense. If you've still got that hand raised, good for you. But go ahead and put them down for the next question.
Who thought the Texans would have the No. 1 ranked defense in all of the NFL through nine games? I didn't think you'd have your hand raised. Hell, not even Bum Phillips thought that this defense could be turned around quite the way his son has done it.
The scary thing is, they seem to get better every week. I already mentioned the solid play by Reed and Watt, but those two pale in comparison to the way Brian Cushing has been playing this season. Same could be said for Johnathan Joseph, who is having an All-Pro season at cornerback.
But let's give the love to the man calling the shots and that is Wade Phillips. If it were possible for a defensive coordinator to receive the coach of the year honors, this one would be a slam dunk.
For all of the talk about the Houston defense, let us not forget the fact that the Houston offense is currently ranked eighth in the league. It helps when you have two guys running the ball that could take it to the house on any play whilst averaging close to 100 yards apiece per game.
It also speaks volumes when people are calling this season a down year for Matt Schaub, yet he's on pace to have another 4,000-yard passing season.
But when you put into consideration that this team is doing that with arguably the best wide receiver in the league watching from the sidelines, it's even more remarkable.
When Andre Johnson went down with his hamstring injury, there were a lot of doubters about Houston staying competitive without him. Yet they've transformed their offense to be more run-heavy and have won four of six without him.
When you have a guy like Andre Johnson coming back to a team that is playing so well right now, it's like making a big trade for a star player. That kind of shot in the arm can take this team from really good to great. Having him fresh for the playoff run will be huge.
I mentioned in the opening about the light schedule the rest of the way, and it's hard not to bring it up again. Cincinnati and Atlanta are the only two teams left on it with a winning record, and of the seven games remaining, they face a rookie quarterback three times.
It could be four if Jake Locker supplants Matt Hasselbeck in Tennessee.
Andy Dalton is playing terrific for the first-place Bengals and they're tough at home, but he hasn't faced a pass rush like Houston's yet. In fact, he has yet to face Baltimore and Pittsburgh and he has both of them twice before the end of the season.
Cam Newton has exceeded everyone's expectations as a passer in his rookie year, but the team still has little to show for it. He still makes rookie mistakes and they're losing close games. Of all the rookie quarterbacks left on the schedule, this one concerns me the most.
As for Blaine Gabbert, we've already seen him once and he showed little to make me think that he's going to evolve into a guy who can pick this defense apart within two and a half weeks from now.
In the games where Houston doesn't face a rookie quarterback, you've got Josh Freeman, Matt Ryan, Curtis Painter and maybe Matt Hasselbeck. Other than Matt Ryan, none of those guys scare me. And that is more because of the receiving talent in Atlanta than a testament to Ryan.
In short, the worst of this season is behind them both in injuries and competition. Houston is venturing into uncharted territory with this whole expectations thing and most of the city is enjoying the ride. I'll be honest...it's refreshing.