The Houston Texans are quite clearly the second-best team in the AFC South, which may be the weakest division in football.
Under first-year head coach Bill O'Brien in 2014, Houston went 9-7 and was in playoff contention despite unsteady quarterback play. O'Brien was a former assistant for the New England Patriots and has brought in two ex-Pats in Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer to compete for the 2015 starting job.
What's impressive about the turnaround O'Brien orchestrated in 2014 is that the Texans got nothing out of No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney. If Clowney comes back healthy to join J.J. Watt and another past Patriot in Vince Wilfork on the front seven, Houston's defense could be downright scary.
|2015 Houston Texans' Regular-Season Schedule|
|1||Sunday, Sept. 13||vs. Kansas City Chiefs||1 p.m.||CBS|
|2||Sunday, Sept. 20||at Carolina Panthers||1 p.m.||CBS|
|3||Sunday, Sept. 27||vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers||1 p.m.||Fox|
|4||Sunday, Oct. 4||at Atlanta Falcons||1 p.m.||CBS|
|5||Thursday, Oct. 8||vs. Indianapolis Colts||8:25 p.m.||CBS, NFL Network|
|6||Sunday, Oct. 18||at Jacksonville Jaguars||1 p.m.||CBS|
|7||Sunday, Oct. 25||at Miami Dolphins||1 p.m.||CBS|
|8||Sunday, Nov. 1||vs. Tennessee Titans||1 p.m.||CBS|
|10||Monday, Nov. 16||at Cincinnati Bengals||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|11||Sunday, Nov. 22||vs. New York Jets||1 p.m.||CBS|
|12||Sunday, Nov. 29||vs. New Orleans Saints||1 p.m.||Fox|
|13||Sunday, Dec. 6||at Buffalo Bills||1 p.m.||CBS|
|14||Sunday, Dec. 13||vs. New England Patriots||1 p.m.||CBS|
|15||Sunday, Dec. 20||at Indianapolis Colts||1 p.m.||CBS|
|16||Sunday, Dec. 27||at Tennessee Titans||1 p.m.||CBS|
|17||Sunday, Jan. 3||vs. Jacksonville Jaguars||1 p.m.||CBS|
What will make or break this team's success is quarterback play, which O'Brien is supposed to be an expert in. It will put his reputation to the test along with Watt's patience as the team's leader.
Houston's new-look offense will at least have a signal-caller who's familiar with O'Brien's system heading it up. Whether it ultimately results in an upgrade at the most important position remains to be seen.
Arian Foster's presence in the backfield will put whoever is under center at ease. O'Brien should focus on running the ball whenever possible, attempting to control time of possession and allowing what could be one of the better defenses in football to rest as long as possible.
Even with Houston's various struggles last season, pounding the rock with Foster worked well enough to post a winning record as the league's No. 5 rushing offense. Foster will continue to be the focal point, while second-year back Alfred Blue ought to continue progressing after a solid rookie campaign.
Re-signing cornerback Kareem Jackson was among the more underrated and necessary moves Houston general manager Rick Smith made in free agency. Smith also added former Denver Broncos safety Rahim Moore to the mix to replace departed starter Kendrick Lewis.
Clowney remains the X-factor and a fascinating one at that. With the inevitable attention Watt will garner, even if Clowney plays close to his potential, he has the makings of a huge bounce-back year.
With a running game spearheaded by Foster, two savvy QBs and a potentially elite defense, Houston is built for playoff football. It's a matter of getting through quite a gauntlet of a regular-season schedule, avoiding injuries to key players and getting enough out of the passing game to keep opponents honest.
A strong familiarity factor ought to be present when the Texans host the Patriots. Watt and Co. can get after Tom Brady, and perhaps either Hoyer or Mallett can exploit a New England secondary that lost starting cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner this offseason.
After finding out his role would be reduced in 2015, franchise cornerstone Andre Johnson fled for rival Indianapolis because of a perpetually unstable Texans QB depth chart and a lack of bottom-line winning. Mallett and Hoyer still have promising youngster DeAndre Hopkins along with newly acquired veterans Cecil Shorts and Nate Washington to throw to at least.
Johnson will likely be eager to show he can still perform with the Colts. Those two games will be significant from a divisional standpoint and on a personal note for Johnson and the Texans organization as a whole.
Road tests against the Buffalo Bills' formidable front seven and at Cincinnati, Miami and Carolina all promise to present challenges. The three AFC teams in that cluster figure to be in wild-card contention.
It doesn't appear to be the easiest of schedules for Houston, but if it gets above-average QB production, this team could easily win 10 games.
Forecasting a postseason appearance is still a bit bold for these Texans, though. The uncertainty at QB alone is cause for hesitation.
Indianapolis has won the AFC South the past two seasons more by default and having Andrew Luck than anything else. Now the Colts have their most talented roster since Luck took over, which means they won't have to lean on his individual efforts as much to win games.