Coming off of the franchise’s first playoff berth since the team joined the NFL in 2002, the Houston Texans have several reasons to believe that last year’s success was the start of something special.
The naysayers said they would never reach the postseason, the critics insisted last season was over once Matt Schaub went down in Week 10, and the analysts had lost hope due to a horrific defense from the 2010 season.
Those were opinions, however, and the only thing that matters in the NFL is results -- winning results. The Texans did just that, winning 10 games despite losing their starting Pro Bowl quarterback and the unquestioned leader of their team; they went 3-3 with rookie quarterback T.J. Yates.
In addition, they also continued to win without two of the NFL’s finest players, Andre Johnson and Mario Williams. Both suffered season-ending injuries and both are consistently top-five prospects at their respective positions, with Johnson always being a top-three.
Yes, the league's clichés are “no excuses” and “good teams find a way to win,” but this is simply different.
Consider last year’s Super Bowl champion Giants making the playoffs without Eli Manning, Victor Cruz and Jason Pierre-Paul, which was overtly unrealistic when you consider the facts: New York slipped into the playoffs on the final day of the season with a Week 17 win.
The Texans, on the other hand, overcame more adversity than any other team and still got to play January football in front of an ecstatic home crowd at Reliant Stadium. Then, their playoff debut was a success as they easily defeated the Cincinnati Bengals, 31-10.
Sadly, this is where the fairy tale ended as Houston lost in the second round to an overmatched Ravens team, but the Texans went off feeling confident and experienced for another run. And why shouldn’t they have?
Under first-year defensive coordinator Wade Philips, Houston finished the season as the second ranked defense in the league as opposed to 30th in 2010. They were aggressive, tenacious, ball-hawking and even nasty on that side of the ball, causing opposing quarterbacks and running backs to lose sleep.
It has been said over the years that defense wins championships, and with valid reasoning, but the new style of play with the passing game in the NFL also requires a quarterback who can steal the show.
Matt Schaub is capable of doing just that. Often semi-forgotten, the Virginia product has gone about his business while putting up impressive numbers the last three years, including back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons and a good touchdown to interception ratio.
On top of his consistent accuracy with the short, intermediate, and deep passes, Schaub possesses all the intangibles to take a team to the Super Bowl. He has a high football IQ, he can lead his team down the field for a quick score at the end of the game, and he is decisive with his reads and check downs.
Along with having a top-10 quarterback and stout defense, the Texans have a weapon in Andre Johnson that most teams will never have. The first player since Jerry Rice to lead the league in receiving yards two years in a row, Johnson is what you call a rare breed.
At 6’3” and 226 pounds, No. 80 uses his large frame to regularly take on and defeat double teams. Also, his speed, reliable hands, and precise route running have resulted in him accomplishing a feat that no other player in NFL history has done -- back-to-back campaigns of at least 1,500 yards receiving.
Putting up records that Jerry Rice didn’t accomplish is literally like seeing a pig fly.
Even though the NFL has transformed into a passing league, the running back position is one of the most valuable for the majority of teams. Most offensive coordinators do not have a Drew Brees where they can call passing plays 70 percent of the time.
This is where the team’s workhorse comes into play, and for the Texans his name is Arian Foster. Recently voted by his peers as the 25th best player on NFL Network's Top 100 Players of 2012, the All-Pro back is a top-five player at his position. Power, speed, quickness, vision -- you name it, he’s got it.
To go with his superior skill set as a runner, Foster separates himself in the passing game as he has eclipsed the 600-yard mark as a receiver the past two years.
When you take into account that Foster runs behind one of the best offensive lines in the league along with the fact that Owen Daniels is a respectable tight end, it becomes clear that this team does not have many weak spots.
One area of concern, however, is getting more production out of the other wide receivers in order to take some of the load off of Johnson, and in turn causing defenses to be more honest. Also, Houston lost right tackle Eric Winston who was cut in the offseason so it will be interesting to see how that void is filled.
If the Texans can address the wide receiver problem, maintain a solid offensive line, and remain a top-five defense despite losing Mario Williams in free agency (of course they did it without him last year when he was injured), the AFC better watch out.
Unfortunately for Houston, they also lost another one of their defensive leaders in DeMeco Ryans when he left for Philadelphia, although an Achilles injury during the season had foreclosed him from being the same player he was in years past.
The good news, though, is that the new and remarkably improved defense under Philips returns for a second year of experience together. And more importantly, Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson are healthy and looking to return as one of the best quarterback-receiver tandems in the league.
It is not a dream for Texan fans anymore. The NFL has an upcoming and dangerous Super Bowl contender.
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