The opportunity to claim the AFC championship was there for the Houston Texans in 2012. Then they folded down the stretch. As a new team takes shape, fans are still grumbling about how the 12–2 Texans needed only one win to secure the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed but inexplicably lost at home, 23–6 to Minnesota, and then failed in the season finale, 28–16 at Indianapolis. A 41–28 playoff exit at New England in the second round reminded this franchise just how important postseason home-field advantage can be.
The Texans didn’t need to overhaul the roster, but they added some components, namely Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed and Pro Bowl punter Shane Lechler. The stars are still in place — running back Arian Foster, wide receiver Andre Johnson, defensive end J.J. Watt, quarterback Matt Schaub and inside linebacker Brian Cushing — but a prevailing question still stands: Is this team a bona fide Super Bowl contender or just another pretender?
Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 3rd
Offseason offensive needs were obvious: Find a wide receiver to go with Johnson, and resolve the right tackle position. The Texans drafted Clemson wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in the first round and selected North Carolina offensive tackle Brennan Williams in the third round. If right tackle Derek Newton is slow to return from patellar tendon surgery, look for Williams to get his shot immediately. The Texans aren’t deep at wide receiver, so Hopkins will have every opportunity to prove he’s worthy of a starting spot. Johnson gets so much attention on the other side that Hopkins will see man coverage and can expect to get his share of the workload if he proves himself in preseason.
The right guard position also should improve. Ben Jones is a second-year pro who was considered one of the NFL’s top center prospects when selected in the fourth round a year ago. He eventually won the job at right guard, starting 10 games. His progress and the right tackle resolution will be vital to how the team moves forward.
That’s because when talking Texans, this offense is built around Foster. The 2010 NFL rushing champ and three-time Pro Bowl star has been nothing short of phenomenal in his three years as a starter. The problem is, the Texans can’t always count on just handing off to him because defenses crowd the box. This is especially evident in the red zone, when too often the Texans have tried simply to run it in. Foster did have 15 rushing TDs in 2012, but conservative play-calling doesn’t always produce touchdowns. Too many times, ideal scoring chances resulted in field goals.
To that end, Schaub has to be more consistent in big games. He made his second Pro Bowl last season, passing for 4,008 yards with 22 TDs and just 12 interceptions, but he was seriously outplayed in losses to Green Bay and New England by quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. This season, Schaub will go up against Baltimore’s Joe Flacco and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick on the road as well as Brady and Denver’s Peyton Manning at home. Schaub has to show something in those games, or the questions will linger about whether he has the right stuff to get his team to the Super Bowl.
Schaub won't be able to do it alone, however, which was why Foster's late arrival to training camp generated a lot of attention in early August. Originally held out because of a lingering calf injury he sustained during OTAs in May, Foster was later hampered by a back issue. The good news is he returned to practice right before the team's third preseason game and there is no real concern regarding his Week 1 availability at this point. In the end, his prolonged absence could help him stay fresh during the regular season and, hopefully, the Texans' extended playoff run.
Watt couldn’t have been more dominant as NFL Defensive Player of the Year with a league-best 20.5 sacks and 16 passes defended. Every opponent has to game-plan for the disruptive defensive end. But the Texans have to shore up other areas around him.
The Texans dropped from No. 3 in pass defense to No. 16 and allowed 29 TD passes compared to 18 the year before. Rodgers burned them for six TD passes, Manning for two and Brady for a total of seven in two games. And it wasn’t only the big-name quarterbacks slicing them up. The Texans edged Detroit 34–31 in overtime on Thanksgiving Day, but the Lions had 525 total yards with Matthew Stafford passing for 441 yards and two scores.
That’s why the Texans went out and signed Reed and drafted safety D.J. Swearinger in the second round. Reed is known as one of the NFL’s greatest ball-hawks, and the Texans hope his presence will discourage teams from throwing deep as often. Reed's recovery from offseason hip surgery has taken longer than initially anticipated, so it's possible he will miss the first few games of the regular season. Swearinger will push Danieal Manning at safety, although Manning should keep his job as the rookie transitions to the league. The Texans are pretty much set defensively everywhere else.
The October loss of Cushing to a knee injury was a huge blow. The 3-4 scheme needs its anchor back healthy. They drafted outside linebackers Sam Montgomery and Trevardo Williams, which suggests sliding linebacker Brooks Reed inside. Wade Phillips’ defense ranked seventh in yards allowed (323.2 ypg) and tied for ninth in points allowed (20.7 ppg).
Randy Bullock takes over as placekicker for Shayne Graham. A fifth-round pick in 2012, Bullock has yet to attempt an NFL field goal because he suffered a groin tear in preseason and ended up on injured reserve. A lot of eyes will be on him. The former Lou Groza Award winner displayed a strong and accurate leg at Texas A&M, making 29-of-33 field goal attempts as a senior.
The Texans had to pay handsomely for Lechler, a seven-time Pro Bowl punter. Houston coughed up $5.5 million over three years with a $1 million signing bonus. But he’s worth it. And he’ll love punting in climate-controlled Reliant Stadium. Expect Lechler, who has a career 47.5-yard average in 13 seasons, to help the Texans earn an edge in field position.
Second-year wide receiver Keshawn Martin is a promising returner, averaging 23.9 yards on 31 kickoffs with a long of 54 yards and 12.1 yards on 22 punt returns with a long of 71.
Final Analysis: 1st in AFC South
The Texans must make the Super Bowl or many of their fans will be convinced that the window of opportunity is closing. That’s how high the bar has been raised in Houston. And the Texans realize this. They saw Baltimore win the championship last year, the same Ravens whom the Texans annihilated 43–13 at Reliant Stadium in October. It’s not a question of whether the Texans have the talent; it’s how they perform down the stretch and in the playoffs. The first objective has to be to secure what eluded them at the end of 2012, the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed and home-field advantage.
Schaub has to raise his game against the NFL’s elite, which means throwing the ball down the field more and taking some chances when they present themselves. Foster can’t carry the offense, although having him ensures that the team will win most weeks.
The playoffs are about which team can get hot at the right time. The Texans have won the AFC South title each of the last two years but weren’t at their best in the playoffs. If they don’t seize the moment this year, when will they?
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