Houston Texans: With Peyton Manning Out, Playoffs Are Inevitable

With the 2011 NFL Preseason well underway, I thought it would be fun to skip ahead a couple chapters and orchestrate an early comprehensive preview of the 2011 NFL regular season with record predictions for all 32 teams.  I’m going way beyond your typical predictions.

While most that cover this engaging and highly-debatable topic possess extensive knowledge and realistic expectations for the entire league, they don’t actually objectively gauge every single game on the schedule and come up with the correct win-loss ratio for the NFL—256-256.

Additional Ingredients: Game-By-Game predictions for all 32 teams, and it wouldn’t be complete without bold surprises.  Some might make you laugh, scream, perhaps throw up, or even cause you to high-five every person you see for the rest of the day.  You might not want to eat as you’re reading this, though.  I’d hate to be responsible for that third thing.

Here’s part 13 of the 32-part series (in alphabetical order) on the Houston Texans.

PK: Sports Illustrated NFL Senior Writer Peter King (one of my biggest inspirations) projects the Texans to finish 9-7 in his annual predictions released on August 30, 2011.  It should be noted that I broke down each game before knowing anything about PK’s predictions… because we have 15 teams with the same record.  It’s either a “great minds think alike scenario” or a very predictable season due to the lockout.  I’m going to guess it’s somewhere in between.  Nevertheless, that was before the updates on Manning.  Moreover, six NFL.com experts conducted their predictions for the 2011 NFL season on September 1.  All of them have Houston making the playoffs and four of them predict the team to win the division.    

Team Overview: Injuries, inadequate coaching, poor defense, an inexperienced secondary, the league’s most grueling schedule and a never-ending impediment with slow starts caught up with the Texans in 2010 and led to a deplorable 6-10 record.

But there’s reason to believe—for once and all—Houston has finally turned the corner.  The team made its first major step of the offseason back on January 5th, hiring Wade Phillips as the new defensive coordinator.  While “Mr. Fix It” is far from a great head coach, he has a strong reputation as one of the best defensive coordinators in the game.  Furthermore in his first year with every new organization he’s joined, he’s taken each team to the playoffs.

The Texans also conceivably had one of the best performances in the 2011 NFL Draft and followed it with a banner showing in the free agency frenzy.  Not to mention Peyton Manning will not only miss the season opener, but also is reported to miss several months of play.  The Colts are far from a playoff contender without their star signal-caller, who makes everyone on his team better and gives Indianapolis an insurmountable amount of confidence whenever the team encounters a stumbling block on the field.

Tennessee and Jacksonville also have plenty of questions and history proves if you have one of the top two quarterbacks in your division, you’re chances of making the playoffs are significantly greater than a team with a mediocre or below-average starting quarterback under center.

Offense: Heading into the season, Houston is equipped with arguably the best three-headed monster in the league with Matt Schaub, Arian Foster and Andre Johnson.  The backups at quarterback (Matt Leinart and T.J. Yates), in the backfield (Derrick Ward and Ben Tate) and other weapons in the receiving corps (Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones, veteran Bryant Johnson and young pups Terrence Toliver and Lestar Jean) are all solid as well.

Owen Daniels, a very lethal option (especially in fantasy leagues, when healthy) leads a terrific core of tight ends with Joel Dreessen, James Casey, who’s the favorite to start at fullback and Garrett Graham.  To top it all off, the offensive line is clearly one of the NFL’s best for the specific system that Houston’s high-powered offense runs.

Defense: The primary problem was not only the secondary last year but also the defense overall.  The new 3-4 system still has questions surrounding Mario Williams, but regardless of his play, which should gradually improve over the course of the regular season, the defensive unit has ascended to new heights.  Earl Mitchell isn’t your prototypical nose tackle, but he has a lot of promise.  He also has Shaun Cody and Damoine Lewis to help show him the ropes.  That’s if he doesn’t already take ground-breaking strides alongside the most consistent defensive player with the Texans last year in Antonio Smith, rotational players Tim Bulman and Tim Jamison and the rookie who’s already a fan favorite in Houston and has been labeled “unblockable” by many analysts and players alike—former Wisconsin Badger J.J. Watt.  Super Mario is a work-in progress, but he’s done better than people like to give him credit for.

Moreover, the linebacker corps is jam-packed with depth from the amazingly athletic Connor Barwin to second-round-pick Brooks Reed (aka Goldilocks and Clay Matthews clone) to Tim Dobbins and Darryl Sharpton to DeMeco Ryans, Brian Cushing and Bryan Braman (who many say looks like Jack Lambert…just based on his build) and Mr. Irrelevant Cheta Ozougwu.

The secondary improved let alone with the upgrade at defensive coordinator, revamped front seven and another year under the belt of Kareem Jackson.  But the team also checked off the most important thing on the offseason to-do-list—fortify the back-end of the defense.  With the additions of Brandon Harris and Rashad Carmichael in the draft, transition of Glover Quin (aka “GQ”) to safety, more experience from K. Jackson, ballhawk Troy Nolan, Brice McCain, Dominique Barber, Jason Allen and the most pivotal moves of all in the free agency market with safety Danieal Manning and cornerback Johnathan Joseph—along with the aforementioned much-improved front seven and coaching—you can be certain this team will be no push-over.

Real Expectations: Now does this mean Houston is poised to finish the season with the best defense, a 16-0 record and end up to the Super Bowl? No, hold your horses.  But with the upcoming schedule and inevitable trouble that the other three teams in the division are stepping into, Houston is the clear favorite to win the AFC South and has a high ceiling ahead.

While Houston is projected to finish 9-7 in Peter King’s season predictions, the amazing analyst did say on last Thursday’s program of The Herd on ESPN Radio, “I think Houston is better than any team in the AFC West right now.”  He has San Diego winning the Super Bowl by the way.

Week 1 Indianapolis (Sun, Sept. 11 – 1:00pm) W

The Texans look to blow the doors down in the season opener in Reliant Stadium.  Arian Foster looks to start and Kerry Collins will line up under center.  The former retiree is operating in a brand new offense with an out-of-sync offensive line and facing a much-improved defense that will stack the box frequently and deliver non-stop pressure.  Furthermore, the Colts’ run defense probably couldn’t defend a 49-year-old Herschel Walker, much less Derrick Ward, Ben Tate (who chalked up over 200 yards in his first preseason action since the 2010 preseason) and possibly Arian Foster, last year’s NFL leading rusher.  The Texans try to make a huge statement.

Week 2 at Miami (Sun, Sept. 18 – 4:15pm) W

Miami tends to struggle early in the year and at home.  When you combine these two components to the fact that Houston is much better overall, it’s easy to see that you don’t have to be a rocket surgeon to realize the Texans take this one in comfortable fashion.

Week 3 at New Orleans (Sun, Sept. 25 – 1:00pm) L

New Orleans and Houston both had good showings in the preseason meeting, but certainly didn’t show everything in the exhibition.  I can easily envision this game going either way and firmly believe whichever game the Texans (2-0) lose in either the last week of September or the first week of October, they’ll win the other one.  Brees and the Saints edge this one out late.

Week 4 Pittsburgh (Sun, Oct. 2 – 1:00pm) W

It might be one of the bigger surprises of the first weekend in October, but it really shouldn’t.  Houston has shown it can fight with the best of ‘em, so it just boils down to closing out games.  Mission accomplished, as Houston rallies to stun the Steelers in a real crowd-pleaser.

Week 5 Oakland (Sun, Oct. 9 – 1:00pm) W

The Texans beat the Raiders last year in Oakland without Owen Daniels and Andre Johnson and Arian Foster on the bench for the first quarter.  Schaub and his healthy company put on a show this time around.

Week 6 at Baltimore (Sun, Oct. 16 – 4:05pm) L

Coming fresh off a bye week, the Baltimore Ravens (3-1) look to have the edge at home.  The last time these two teams faced off was last season in Week 14 on Monday Night Football.  It ended in a crowd-pleasing overtime thriller for Ravens fans and another heart-wrenching defeat for Texans fans, as cornerback Josh Wilson took it to the house on a 12-yard interception for the game-winning touchdown, 34-28.  The Texans will make this fun-to-watch again, but Baltimore gets the win with a few less points on the board due to Houston’s much-improved D.

Week 7 at Tennessee (Sun, Oct. 23 – 1:00pm) W

A better game than expected, Matt Hasselbeck and the Titans fall just short in rockin’ hard-boiled AFC South showdown in Nashville.  Look out for more fights from these two rivals.

Week 8 Jacksonville (Sun, Oct. 30 – 1:00pm) W

In likely Luke McCown’s last start of the season (unless Gabbert is already in the lineup), the Texans unleash as much havoc as a pack of wild sled dogs on the opposing quarterback.

Week 9 Cleveland (Sun, Nov. 6 – 1:00pm) W

Colt McCoy and Cleveland (4-3) are on the rise, but Houston’s high-powered offense will be too much to contain for the Browns’ D.  Expect a very entertaining game, nonetheless.

Week 10 at Tampa Bay (Sun, Nov. 13 – 1:00pm) L

Houston is a better team than Tampa Bay, but home-field advantage, two weeks removed from a bye and in a must-win situation at 3-5 puts the Bucs over the top as Freeman and co. win one of the best contests of the week.

Week 11 Bye (Sun, Nov. 20)

Houston (7-3) takes a much-needed week off the same week as Indianapolis (3-7) with a slightly comfortable division lead on Tennessee (5-4).

Week 12 at Jacksonville (Sun, Nov. 27 – 1:00pm) W

Blaine Gabbert and the Jags will make things interesting, but a little experience, highly-contested history and home-field advantage won’t be enough to snag a stunning victory.

Week 13 Atlanta (Sun, Dec. 4 – 1:00pm) L

If the Atlanta Falcons were facing the 2010 version of the Texans defense with Matt Ryan having another year under his belt, Harry Douglas emerging and Julio Jones at his disposal, this would be a blowout.  But Houston has a better defensive coordinator, much more effective 3-4 system and a fortified secondary.  This thing will definitely go down to the wire in a thriller.  Houston could certainly take this one, especially since it’s at home, but Atlanta is a hair better.

Week 14 at Cincinnati (Sun, Dec. 11 – 1:00pm) W

Schaub and the Texans (8-4) aren’t about to lie down in front of the beleaguered Bengals (2-10) with the Colts and Titans in the rear view mirror.  Will the home fans even show with Houston’s new leader in the secondary (Johnathan Joseph) lining up and excelling for the opponent?

Week 15 Carolina (Sun, Dec. 18 – 1:00pm) W

Cam Newton and the Panthers (5-8) come in hungry and leave nourished with a mouth-full of disappointment.

Week 16 at Indianapolis (Thurs, Dec. 22 – 8:20pm) W

Houston has never swept Indianapolis.  The Colts also have never played a game without Peyton Manning since 1998.  Eventually trends end and history changes.  That happens here.

Week 17 Tennessee (Sun, Jan. 1 – 1:00pm) L

Mike Munchak and the Titans finish the year on a high-note and split with the Texans, finishing the season with an 8-8 record and second in the division.  Houston has long secured a playoff seed and could take a stab at earning a first-round bye, but takes the safe rout and rests the starters for the postseason.

2011 Houston Texans Record Prediction: 11-5 (1st in AFC South)

Head Coach Predictions: Gary Kubiak keeps his job with a must-needed trip to the postseason.  Jack Del Rio gets the axe in Jacksonville as the organization begins serious talks about moving the franchise elsewhere.  Jim Caldwell is actually on the hot seat, but he maintains his position because fans, players and the front office understand the reason for falling because of a fluke with Manning missing significant time away from the game.  And of course Munchak’s job security is as good as a college professor.  There looks to be a shortage of head coach firings around the league this year due to more lenient expectations from the lockout.

Verse of This Piece: “I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, fall into the sea.’  And if you have no doubts in your mind and believe that what you say will happen, God will do it for you.”—Mark 11:23

If you want to find out how all of the dust settles with the record predictions for every team, stay tuned and follow Michael’s prediction series, here.  You can also follow Michael and Gridiron Grit on Twitter!

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