The Texans divisional record will undoubtedly be the single biggest factor in determining their playoff chances in 2009.
Since 2002, the AFC South has been the NFL’s toughest division outside of the AFC East with the Texans bearing the brunt of that toughness. Since their inception the Texans have never finished higher than third overall in the division.
In fact the Jaguars are the only team within the AFC South that the Texans have been able to beat on a consistent basis, recording an 8-6 record against them. However their record against the Titans and Colts has been nothing short of abysmal at a combined four wins and twenty-four losses, with just one of those wins against the Colts.
This inability to beat divisional rivals has been the paramount failure of their brief history and biggest reason they have yet to see the playoffs. Last year was a microcosm of their historic divisional woes as the Texans had a 6-3 record outside of their division while posting a 2-4 record within.
On the bright side, the Texans have begun to show signs of improvement by playing the Colts close, in what used to be a twice a year guaranteed drubbing. In their last four losses to the Colts, three of them have been by six points or less. Moreover we can’t forget the week five loss that was largely due to Sage Rosencopter’s (hyperlink to video) anti-heroics by snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Largely aided by Sage’s three turnovers on the Texans last four possessions, the Colts delivered a crushing 17-point comeback victory in a mere 2:10.
Although the AFC South will remain a tough conference, there are some promising signs of opportunity for Texans fans. First, the Texans continue to improve steadily in all areas of the game. Under Gary Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith the Texans have built a solid, youthful, foundation for the future on both sides of the ball. The most important position on the field, QB, seems to be in very good hands with Matt Schaub. Probably the most asked question by Texan fans is -- can the defense start to perform closer to the high standards set last year by the offense?
Secondly, and, equally important to the progress of the Texans, is the fact that the Titans and Colts have begun to show signs of weakness. What signs you might ask.
Do not underestimate the impact of Albert Haynesworth’s departure to the Redskins. When Big’Al is healthy and willing, he is an unblockable force in the middle, freeing up those around him to make plays. Take the case of Kyle Vanden Bosch. Prior to his tenure in Tennessee, Vanden Bosch compiled a measly 3.5 total sacks in four years with the Cardinals. Yet, in four years alongside Haynesworth, he racked up 35.5 sacks and two trips to the Pro Bowl. Bet the under for Kyle’s performance in 2009.
Matt Schaub is undoubtedly wishing Al nothing but the best in a new uniform, as, in 2009, the Texan QB will not have to face the author of two of his worst injuries.
Furthermore, Tennessee’s quarterback situation is in trouble with the continued absence of Vince Young. Sure, Kerry Collins is a serviceable veteran, but one has to wonder how much longer his cannon arm can hold up on his 36 year old body.
The Titan’s well-seasoned coach has often done much with little. And, Steve Fisher will still have a great rushing attack and a solid ball-hawking secondary again in 2009. But, look for the Titans to slide from their 13-3 record of last year. Can the Texans pick up a win from the Titan?
We’ve also seen the first chinks in the Colts armor in the loss of Head Coach Tony Dungy. Dungy is a special type of coach and person, and it would be difficult to replace all the ways in which he affected his players. There will be a leadership hole in the Colt’s organization until someone else commands the respect that he had earned.
Additionally, one cannot fully calculate the direct role that Dungy had in turning a perennial cupcake defense into one of playoff caliber. Few coaches or managers have been as adept as Dungy at drafting defensive talents outside of the first round, highlighted by the acquisitions of Robert Mathis (5th Round), Bob Sanders (2nd Round), Antoine Bethea (6th Round), and Gary Brackett (undrafted). In fact, only twice in his seven years with the Colts did Dungy take a defensive player in the first round, snagging pass-rushing terror, Dwight Freeney and a solid starting cornerback in Marlin Jackson. Similarly, Dungy knew how to pick up experienced players, sometimes under-priced, who were good fits in his cover two scheme.
Peyton Manning will still be a top level QB, and he will have a myriad of weapons -- Anthony Gonzalez, Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai, Reggie Wayne, and newly added running back, Donald Brown. While future Hall Of Fame receiver Marvin Harrison was no longer at the top of his game he was Peyton’s favorite target for many years. Will Peyton be as comfortable without him? How much more challenging will it be for Peyton without offensive coordinator Rob Moore and quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell -- both of whom had been there since Manning was a rookie. From Dungy on down – there is lots of turmoil for the QB to assimilate and manage.
So, if the big boys are ready to be challenged, where does this all lead? Fans can look forward to the “Crucible.” From November 8th to December 6th (weeks 9-13) the Texans play four consecutive games against their division rivals. This run culminates with the conclusion of their divisional schedule against the Jaguars in week thirteen.
Aside from an unexpectedly terrible start, a 3-1 result would set them up nicely for the four remaining games of the schedule. Even 2-2 would probably leave them in contention as their remaining schedule looks favorable with games against the Seahawks, Rams, and Dolphins. The final game of the regular season will be against a Patriots team that will likely have their playoff spot locked up. But, if the Texans take care of business they should not have to hope for a gift in the last week.
Fortunately, during this difficult stretch, the Texans have a well-placed bye during week ten that should allow them to get focused for the huge Monday Night home game against the Titans in week eleven.
Thus, the Texans mid-season "Crucible" of four consecutive divisional games will likely determine the fate of their playoff chances in 2009. If they do well, this test may vault a young team to their first playoff appearance, and set a standard that they can aspire to for years to come.