Last year, I said that for the first time it was not ridiculous to put Texans and Super Bowl in the same sentence; this year, I think it's ridiculous not to put them in that conversation. For example, a recent listing of the odds for winning the Super Bowl slots the Texans behind only the Broncos, 49ers, Seahawks, Patriots and Packers. Is this the year we finally make it to the Super Bowl?
warned last year that the running game would suffer because of the changes on the right side of the line; it will be better this year. Brandon Brooks (RG) has a chance to be special; Newton (RT) will be better after surgery -- and with another year of experience. New fullback Greg Jones again gives us a dominating fullback along the lines of Vonta Leach.
2. An Improved Passing Game: The Texans now have a credible threat opposite Andre Johnson. Rookie DeAndre Hopkins has the talent to make opponents pay dearly for over-committing to AJ. In fact, this is the most talented group of wide receivers we've ever had. Not only that, it's arguably the most talented group of tight ends that we've had as well.
3. The Return of Cushing: I warned last year that Cush was a player that we could not afford to lose; we lost him. The defense gave up almost 7 points a game more after his injury than before; having him back is huge. And, in fact, with the addition of Joe Mays, the whole ILB core is improved.
4. Better Overall Talent: The team is deeper this year, and better able to withstand injuries. More talent, and a new punter and kicker should also help the special teams. One indication of the overall talent level is the number of Texans cuts that have been picked up by other teams -- not just for their practice squads, but for their 53-man rosters as well.
Biggest Concerns1. Outside Linebackers: By far, my biggest concern is at outside linebacker. Brooks Reed (SOLB) is solid, but not spectacular. Whitney Mercilus (WOLB) is a former first round pick, but a first year starter. Last year, I thought his defense against the run was lacking. Maybe worse, on every sack that I remember he was either uncovered or he sacked a QB flushed out of the pocket; I never saw him actually beat his man. Typically, in Wade Phillips' defenses, the weak OLB is the primary sack position; we need double digit sacks from Mercilus (and I'm not thinking 10!) -- or at least from the WOLBs in total. Finally, the depth here is the least experienced on the team.
2. Inexperienced Receivers: While there is abundant talent at wide receiver, there is a remarkable dearth of experience. Once you get past Andre Johnson, the remaining receivers have a grand total of something like 22 receptions in the NFL! If AJ goes down for an extended period of time again, and remember he's 32 years old now, ....
3. Defense vs Spread Offenses: In 2012, the defense vs. the elite QBs and offenses was horrific. To get where we want to go we need not only a significantly improved pass rush (see above), but Jonathan Joseph and Brice McCain playing at their 2011 levels.
4. The Schedule: While our overall strength of schedule, based upon last year's results, is relatively easy, our NFC divisional opponent is the NFC West -- the acknowledged toughest division in football. In total, we have to play four of the top five teams in the NFL (see paragraph two above) -- plus the reigning Super Bowl champions! Contrast this with the Broncos: they play in the AFC West, and their AFC divisional opponent is the AFC South -- two of the weakest divisions. They have arguably the easiest schedule in football -- certainly the easiest schedule of any contender. That could be critical.
Note: Matt Schaub did not make my list of biggest concerns. Obviously his play is critical. However, while I would love for our QB to magically morph into Tom Brady, my take is that all that we really need is for Schaub to be Schaub. I expect him to be just that.
Super Bowl or Bust?A very reasonable expectation is somewhere around eleven and a half wins and another division title. A reasonable worst-case scenario is for the Texans to "take the next step." That is, to get a first round bye and advance to the AFC conference title game -- both for the first time.
From that point on, it depends.... Especially on injuries, seeding, and matchups. If we can get home field throughout the playoffs, this team should go to the Super Bowl. On the other hand, if, for instance, we have to play Denver in Denver, it won't happen. In that regard, the week 16 matchup vs. the Broncos is likely to be critical.
In a perfect world, this team could dominate! A return to the 2011 level running game with the addition of an improved passing game, and the early 2012 defense with the addition of a reasonable facsimile of the old Ed Reed and the Texans could well end up with the Lombardi Trophy.
(9/12/13: Rephrasing the above. If the young players develop as the team expects (especially Mercilus & Newton), I expect us to get to the conference championship. If it's at Reliant, we'll win; if not, we won't. Unfortunately, I expect the Broncos to have a better record....)
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