You know, to be honest, I hate these kinds of headlines saying someone or some team is the new last-year's-hot-team or the new former-one-hit-wonder-player. But for the Houston Texans, the worn-out moniker might fit for 2009. They could be the new Arizona Cardinals.
I know, I know. They are in the toughest division in the NFL. They've only won eight games the last couple of years. Their quarterback has a glass jaw, and glass knee, and... well, he's just made of glass. And yes, outside of Andre Johnson and Mario Williams, the star power on this team is pretty light.
But the Texans have had pretty good draft classes the last couple of years, including this year's selection of USC stud linebacker Brian Cushing. Add him with Pro Bowler Demeco Ryans, and Houston has a tough front seven that can put pressure on the quarterback.
That is one of the big keys that has the Texans as the chic pick to be the new breakout team in the AFC. Here's a couple more keys that could put Houston into the playoffs in 2009:
1. New zone-blocking scheme: Just call them Denver South, because the Texans will try to copy the same offensive system that Denver uses with Mike Shanahan as coach.
Gary Kubiak was the long-time offensive coordinator at Denver, and he has done a decent job in turning the rag-tag offensive line he inherited into a stronger unit that is very good at run-blocking.
With new zone-blocking schemes being taught and trained during the summer mini-camps, that could help improve the Texans' running attack that finally caught fire in the middle of last season.
2. Favorable schedule: Except for the opener against the Jets, the Texans start the season with four home games against teams with losing records last year (Jacksonville, Oakland and San Francisco).
If Houston can win those games as well as the Jets home opener and road wins at Cincinnati and Buffalo, the Texans could be 6-2 heading into a big showdown in Indy.
That could help put the Texans into position for at least a wild-card birth heading down the stretch of the season. Plus, they have the Colts and Titans at home in late November, and no sign of cold-weather games on the schedule.
3. Better pass rush: So far, Mario Williams has become a strong defensive end that the Texans envisioned when they took him as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 draft. But his pass-rushing skills haven't been featured yet.
Now with linebacker Brian Cushing in the fold, opposing offenses will have to key on either Cushing or Williams to block, freeing up either one to get to the quarterback.
While there's a optimistic feel to the Texans, there are a few obstacles that could creep up and make this team stay an average team.
1. Can Matt Schuab stay healthy? The Texans quarterback hasn't finished a season totally healthy, and Houston needs him to stay healthy for at least 14 of its 16 games to help this team be successful.
Of course, if there's a good veteran backup quarterback that can fall into the Texans' lap in the rest of the offseason, then maybe Schaub can afford to miss a few games.
2. Can Steve Slaton avoid a sophomore jinx? The running back had a great rookie campaign, and greatly contributed to the success of the offense. But defenses will now key on him and he will have to make adjustments because of the zone-blocking schemes.
This will either make him a better running back or could hurt his numbers. Also, the Texans need to find a suitable backup for Slaton. Chris Brown could be that backup, but it remains to be seen if he has recovered from his injury that caused him to miss most of last season.
3. How tough will the Colts and Titans be? Having two really good teams in the division will hurt the Texans to get a playoff spot. Indy will still be a good team as long as Peyton Manning is behind center, but the Titans might be a bit vunerable thanks to the loss of Albert Haynesworth going to the Redskins.
Plus, how effective will Kerry Collins be behind center? He had a great season last year, but he's another year older and it remains to be seen if he can still be a big-time QB. And you can say the same for his popular backup, Vince Young.
So far, I like the Texans' chances to win this year. But the AFC South is still full of tough teams and Houston must get two wins of the four games against Tennessee and Indianapolis this season to make the playoffs. So I feel the Texans will go 10-6 and sneak into the playoffs this year.