The 2012 Season Preview: The Texans Will Be Super If...
Even the 1993 Oilers, whose brilliant 11-game win streak ended with a home loss to Joe Montana's Chiefs in the divisional round of the playoffs, lacked the expectations that these Texans have.
Take a look around at the national landscape of Super Bowl predictions. At ESPN and Sports Illustrated, eight of 16 "experts" are forecasting the Texans to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. That dwarfs expectations even for usual heavyweights like New England and Baltimore.
For the first time in club history, the Texans are no longer a team building its way up. They've arrived. They're one of the big boys.
But can the Texans hold up against the weight of those expectations? They need to, because the window won't be open forever. The salary-cap purges that inevitably occur with great teams already started with the offseason losses of offensive linemen Eric Winston and Mike Brisiel, as well as longtime defensive starters Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans.
Looking ahead, star linebacker Connor Barwin still isn't locked up beyond this season. Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson are each on the wrong side of 30. The division-rival Colts have a young franchise quarterback in Andrew Luck. The Texans aren't old by any means, but they're not the team of the future as they were for many years. They're the team of the present, and they know they must seize the opportunity.
Will they? That's another story. They're among the elite on paper, but this isn't the Miami Heat and the NBA. In the NFL, heavyweights regularly fall by the wayside. Eight months ago, the Texans' first playoff season ended in Baltimore, largely because of the fluke Schaub injury. Likewise, in the NFC, the mediocre 9-7 Giants routed the mighty 15-1 Packers at Lambeau Field and went on to win a Super Bowl.
Some X-factors for the Texans are obvious. For example, Schaub and Johnson need to stay healthy, along with other major players. Others, however, are a bit more under the radar. Here's our look at key non-injury variables that may determine whether the Texans are Super Bowl-bound come January.
5.) Can Antoine Caldwell and Derek Newton adequately replace Brisiel and Winston on the offensive line's right side?
The key to watch will be the yards-per-carry (YPC) averages of Arian Foster and Ben Tate. The Texans were second in the league in rushing in 2011 and seventh in YPC (4.5), with Foster at 4.4 and Tate at 5.4. Both, however, had their struggles in the preseason rushing against first-team defenses. If the Texans slip back to a 4.0 average or lower, that could be a sign of trouble.
The passing game is already humming, with Schaub putting together an outstanding camp and preseason (113.3 quarterback rating). There seem to be very few protection issues there. But what makes the Texans elite is balance. The playaction game won't work as well if Foster and Tate aren't running successfully. Schaub is a fine quarterback, but he's not a Tom Brady that alone makes a team a contender. On the flip side, the defense won't be as effective if they lack a strong ground game to eat up clock and allow them to rest.
The Texans should remain among the league leaders in rushing yards, if only because the defense and passing game will be good enough to put them in front and give them an extremely high volume of total carries. The question comes in the efficiency.
4.) Is Kareem Jackson ready to be a full-time player?
He wasn't last year, but he may need to be in 2012. With Jason Allen gone, the Texans won't be able to split reps at their No. 2 cornerback position based on matchups. They'll need Jackson to take firm hold of the spot. He made strides in 2011 and especially this preseason at making plays on the ball, but opposing quarterbacks still had a sky-high rating of 111.4 when throwing in his direction.
We probably won't learn much in the first two weeks against Ryan Tannehill and Blaine Gabbert. But September 23 in Denver against Peyton Manning will tell us a lot. As always, the AFC's road to the Super Bowl should involve Brady and his spread-happy Patriots, and the Texans will need multiple reliable corners to get through.