The Houston Texans proved on Sunday afternoon that they are indeed the team to beat in the AFC. But even more so, with a 43-13 rout of the Ravens, the Texans firmly asserted themselves as the best team in the NFL.
Okay, so the Atlanta Falcons are still undefeated and playing about as well as any team in football. But even a perfect record can't strip the Texans of their title as Super Bowl favorites, and there are a multitude of reasons why.
First and foremost, they possess the best running back in football. Arian Foster grasped that title two seasons ago when he unexpectedly led the NFL with more than 1,600 yards rushing. This season, after a down year where he finished with just over 1,200 yards on the ground, Foster looks primed to reclaim his place atop the league's rushing leaders.
Foster currently leads the NFL with 659 yards on the ground and nine rushing touchdowns, three more than any other tailback, and is on pace to break the 1,500-yard barrier once again this season. His ability to control the clock and the line of scrimmage has taken enormous amounts of pressure off of Matt Schaub and provided Houston with one of the most balanced offenses in football.
Schaub has steadied a resurgent passing attack and found a way to distribute the ball around to all his receivers, allowing the talents of Andre Johnson, Kevin Walter and even tight end Owen Daniels to flourish. The unprecedented balance has seen the Texans became one of the most lethal offensive units in the NFL, ranking second in scoring with 216 points on the season, just one point behind the New England Patriots.
That offensive stability is something the Texans lacked during the 2011 playoffs, as the injured Schaub was replaced by rookie quarterback T.J. Yates. With Schaub back under center and Foster running as well as any back in the league, though, this Texans offense looks ready to take that next step into elite territory -- a place their defense has been for a few years now.
The Texans finished in the top five in nearly every defensive category in the 2011 season. The leadership of guys like linebacker Brian Cushing, cornerback Johnathan Joseph and safety Glover Quin helped turn Houston into a defensive powerhouse.
The loss of DeMeco Ryans definitely hurt the strength of the defense, or so it seemed. But the additions of Bradie James and Quintin Demps as well as the emergence of youngsters Connor Barwin, Brooks Reed and J.J. Watt have only helped make the defense even stronger.
James has been a key cog in the middle of the defense, taking on an even more expanded role since Cushing suffered a season-ending ACL tear. Watt, still in just his second NFL season, has made the largest impact for the Texans, though.
Watt currently leads the NFL in sacks with 9 1/2 and extraordinarily ranks second in passes defended, a rarity -- and that might be being modest -- for a defensive lineman in any era. His big frame, elusive quickness and terrific instincts have turned Watt into a ball-swatting machine and one of the best defenders in all of football. If he continues on the torrid path he's been on, we're talking about a unanimous pick for Defensive Player of the Year and maybe even the recipient of some MVP votes.
Unlike 2011, Houston's defense may not be second in yards per game this season -- they're actually third. They may not have the league's third best pass defense -- they currently rank fifth. And they might even be giving up more points than the 17.4 per game of 2011 -- now, they're allowing a whopping 18.3. But I swear this Texans defensive unit is just as, if not more, talented than they were last season.
So, with arguably the most balanced offense in the NFL and one of the five best defenses, on paper the Texans would appear to be on the short list of Super Bowl contenders. But the statistics just don't do this Houston team any justice, because they're even better than that out on the gridiron.
Sure, there are still some great teams out there that will challenge Houston for that top stop. Baltimore is still a threat, even after a 30-point whooping this past weekend. The Patriots have the offensive fire power to compete with any team in football. The Falcons are perfect on paper, and damn close to it on the field. The Giants and Bears are both defensive juggernauts. And, we're not overlooking the Packers as a threat, especially after they laid their own beatdown on the Texans last week. But, hey, every team gets at least one off week, right?
The reality is that the Texans are the leaders of the pack in the NFL, right now. A number of other teams are certainly close (see above for that list), but no one is quite as complete as Houston at this point in the season. No one.
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Chris Johnson, RB, Titans
After five essentially mediocre weeks, Chris Johnson has finally reemerged on the national football scene. I don't know where he was hiding, or if the Titans for some reason exiled him to Elba to spend some considering his inconsistencies, but he's back. Johnson looked like the same speedster who rushed for 2,006 yards just three seasons ago and has run for better than 1,000 yards in each of his first four seasons in the NFL. He carried the ball just 18 times on Sunday, but managed 195 yards and two touchdowns -- his first and second of the season -- and finally seemed to hit the holes and make the cuts that made him so dangerous in the past. Granted he did all this against an absentee Bills defense -- I'm pretty sure they'd hire anyone to play defensive back right now -- but the outburst was an encouraging sign nonetheless.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
In his newest State Farm commercials a pudgy elementary school kid shouts "Rodgers!" from just beyond a classroom door. Well, now he's undoubtedly got defenses screaming as well, but it's not for their admiration but rather their trepidation. Rodgers followed up his six touchdown torching of the Texans defense with another trio of scores against the Rams on Sunday. He was about as efficient as any quarterback's been this season, too, completing 30 of 37 passes and managing another perfect QB Rating to boot. If there were even rumblings about Rodgers ability at the start of the season -- murmurs I thought were insane -- there's no doubt now. We'll be talking about an MVP repeat, if this keeps up.
Joe Flacco, QB, Ravens
With how good Rodgers was on Sunday, Joe Flacco might have been equally as bad. For a quarterback, who is constantly arguing he belongs among the "elite," Flacco did one hell of a job proving his critics right against the Texans. Flacco completed less than 50 percent of his passes (21 of 43) for just 147 yards and a touchdown against the same secondary Rodgers lit up for six touchdowns not even a week earlier. Flacco also assisted in the 43-13 rout, throwing a pair of interceptions, including one that was returned by Jonathan Joseph to the house. If you want to be elite, then stop talking about and start looking like it. This may be the exception and not the rule for Flacco this season but that sort of letdown is unacceptable, especially when your defense is in dire straits.
Houston Texans Defense
We've done a lot of talking about the Texans defense, both good and bad, but they deserve some serious praise after ravaging the Ravens on Sunday. Houston intercepted Flacco, who looked awful (see: above), twice and held the Ravens to a season-worst 176 total yards on the day. Ray Rice managed just 42 rushing yards, an anomaly for the versatile back. And the meeting of the AFC's "two best teams" was an utter embarrassment for Baltimore. J.J. Watt and Connor Barwin applied the pressure, per usual, Glover Quin batted down the passes and ever the opportunist, Jonathan Joseph returned an interception 52 yards for a touchdown. Houston has the best record in the AFC, and with the talent on this defense may be the best team in the NFL. Everyone gets one off week, right, they just took their against Green Bay.
Cam Newton, QB, Panthers
Killa Cam is no more. Now, Newton is more like Cam the killer. After an underwhelming 1-5 start to the season, in which Newton's disappointing performance has played a big role, the second-year quarterback decided to call for "change" after Sunday's 19-14 letdown against the Cowboys. That change came in the form of longtime GM Matt Hurney being shown the door on Monday afternoon, a fact that doesn't seem to be all that important for the on-field performance. So, not only is Newton not doing his job well this year, but he's also costing other people their jobs because of it. Get it together, Cam, Carolina needs you to play quarterback not drama queen.
Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jaguars
MJD held out at the start of the season in hopes of a new contract and in fear of a debilitating injury. He never got the contract, but on Sunday the injury paid in full. Jones-Drew, who was having a quietly productive season in Jacksonville, suffered a foot injury during the first quarter of the Jags loss on Sunday and it could cost him the season. The fear is that the pain is actually a Lisfranc injury, which would keep MoJo out for at least a few months while recovering. He's already been ruled out of next Sunday's game with the Packers and the reports are not looking good. For one of the most talented and upstanding players in the league, it's devastating to hear and you can only hope he'll be able to rebound.