It always seems to start out with a simple question. The NFL’s Twitter account asked, "Are the @houstontexans the team to beat in the AFC?" Their talking heads debated it in a short 1:46 minute video. I know there are a lot of high expectations here, but I started to wonder if the Texans actually are THE team to beat in the AFC.
To begin with, I have to forget about 2011 if I want to find that answer. It was a great season, but it's in the past. The 2011 experiences gave Houston something to build off of, but the 2012 roster is different. The 2012 schedule is different. The 2012 players are different. We need to look at the 2012 components to see if the Texans should be the team to beat.
After the jump, I take a look at the teams being thrown about as contenders, Baltimore, Houston, New England, and Pittsburgh (sorry, Jacksonville fan), and compare them to see who has the strongest set of qualities at this absurdly early point in time – starting with the offense today. Later on, we will look at the defense and X-factors (special teams, coaches, and schedules).
Quarterbacks – Can I say that anyone is better than Tom Brady? He’s Tommy Freakin’ Brady. He’s the guy who went from short screens to the wide-open spread with Randy Moss to a two tight end set. I don’t know any other quarterback who has changed schemes and still remained a consistent threat for the league’s Most Valuable Player award.
Matt Schaub has put up huge numbers in the past, but he’s coming off a Lisfranc injury that cut short what arguably could have been his best year. His durability is a significant question as we begin the 2012 season. If it is any consolation, the Texans may have the best back-up situation in T.J. Yates, but Yates doesn’t make the Texans THE team to beat.
Ben Roethlisberger has also put up some big numbers, but his own durability has cost the Steelers in recent years. He gets hit too often, which slows him down in the winter or puts Charlie Batch on the field, neither a situation any Pittsburgh fan wants. He’s going to have to cut down on the hits if Pittsburgh is going to contend this year.
Joe Flacco may think he belongs with the elite, but he hasn't shown that yet. He’s the weakest link here.
Running Backs – Arian Foster could win this category on his own, as he has been the NFL's best back over the past two seasons. However, Ben Tate lets the Texans take this category easily. Not even the brilliance of Ray Rice can match this duo, and Rice is quite the talent in his own right.
Rashard Mendenhall is a capable 1,000-yard rusher, but the Steelers haven’t been those Steelers in a while. They’ve shifted to a more pass-first offense, which keeps Mendenhall from being in that elite back pack.
The Patriots' rushing game, led by newly signed Joseph Addai and Stevan Ridley, doesn't appear capable of carrying the team, if they need it.
Wide Receivers & Tight Ends – With all due respect to All-Galaxy wide receiver Andre Johnson, Rob Gronkowski may be the most indefensible skill player on any of these teams. Gronk's size and speed make him almost impossible to consistently cover. Throwing Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker into the mix gives Brady an array of weapons hard to lock down on.
80 is still 80, even if some worry about his health. After that, the Texans only have Owen Daniels who strikes fear into the hearts of defenses. There is a lot of unproven talent in Houston, but they'll have opportunities to win one-on-one battles with Johnson and Daniels commanding coverage.
The Steelers have a guy who can make a defensive coordinator sweat in Mike Wallace, but he’s not contractually happy. Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are nice pieces, but if Wallace turns this into a Vincent Jackson-type situation, this corps takes a big dive.
Torrey Smith, Ed Dickson, and Dennis Pitta are developing into good players, but any team that actively signs Jacoby Jones isn’t doing themselves any favors. Everyone here knows how it will play out if Jones has to step up should Anquan Boldin miss any games because he balls too hard (what? I'm a fan of how Boldin plays even if he does get banged up).
Offensive Line – In recent years, the Texans would have taken this in a heartbeat. However, losing two starters should set the unit back initially. I still maintain that the media is overrating oft-hurt Mike Brisiel, but I digress. The unit’s still best among the contenders because they have the best left tackle (Duane Brown) and unit signal caller (center Chris Myers). If ankle sprains are a thing of the past, then Wade Smith and Antoine Caldwell should be fine at both guard spots. Right tackle is a question mark, but Rashad Butler has performed adequately in spot duty in the past.
The Patriots have a strong pass-blocking line led by Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer, but it all comes down to how Nate Solder progresses and anchors the left side. That line quietly helped New England average 110.2 yards per game last year somehow. I still like the Texans as a unit because they've demonstrated on multiple occasions the ability to impose their will on defenses.
The right side of Baltimore’s line, Marshal Yanda and Michael Oher, has quality players, but an older Matt Birk, who was abused in the playoffs, and the weight-battling Bryant McKinnie don’t inspire enough confidence to put this group at the top of the contenders.
Pittsburgh’s likely inserting rookies Mike Adams and David DeCastro into its starting offensive line. There are going to be some growing pains for a while, especially for Adams, but they should still play better than they have in recent years. Really, they still need depth because an injury could cause them to revert into a train wreck.
Conclusion: New England has the best passing offense, but the running game doesn't appear able to carry the team if the situation arises. Pittsburgh needs Big Ben to stay upright and has a young line that must gel together and overcome learning curves quickly. Baltimore needs Joe Flacco to live up to his words and avoid any situations where they depend on Jacoby Jones to step up.
In the end it comes down to a simple question: Is Matt Schaub ready to go for a full 16-game season? If you believe the answer is yes, as everyone in the organization is saying, then the Texans have the best offense of the contenders. There's no one who can match the balance of passing and rushing, especially at the level at which Houston can perform.
If Schaub isn't healthy, New England's offense reigns supreme, with Yates' progression determining where the Texans slide among Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
I'll be back next week with a look at the defenses.
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