HOUSTON -- Don't freak out, Texans fans. Take the panic button and throw it in your trash compactor. Yes, the home loss to a grieving Raiders team hurt. And losing your stud linebacker for the season added injury to insult.
The Texans headline a trio of teams that faltered in Week 5 but will still have something to play for in Week 17. Just call me Jim Fassel, as I'm pushing my chips to the middle of the table on the Texans: Gary Kubiak's group is making the playoffs.
Mario Williams being out for the season changes things. So does Andre Johnson being nicked up. Yet, consider that Kenny Britt is out for the season in Tennessee, Peyton Manning hasn't taken a snap in Indy all season and the Jags are starting a rookie QB. This just in: the AFC South is weak.
I predict Houston's first division title will come courtesy of a less-than-sterling 9-7 record. Who cares? For a franchise that needs a playoff berth more than NASCAR needs a mullet militia, this is the year ... even if it doesn't come in the package we all expected.
Running Wade Philips' pressure-based 3-4 will be freaking tough without their freak of nature, Williams. The veteran defensive coordinator caters his scheme to the weak side 'backer, the lynchpin of the pass rush, which makes the position so tough to replace. Now, rookie Brooks Reed will have to step up and play lights out.
The key to the Texans is the quarterback-running back tandem of Matt Schaub and Arian Foster. Foster deep-sixed the Steelers' front seven in Week 4, a success that opened the passing game versus Oakland, allowing Schaub to hit them for more than 400 yards and two touchdowns.
The franchise quarterback is not the only reason to have some faith in a club that has historically produced few reasons to hang your hat on them. The Raiders debacle aside, the offensive line has only allowed Schaub to be sacked an average of 1.8 times per game since 2009. Considering he's had back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons, that's saying something. The passing game also will likely get Johnson back soon, which registers as cause for optimism.
Defensively, Johnathan Joseph has upgraded a secondary that sorely needed the boost, and overall, they've played far better than in 2010. They'll be tested more with Williams not providing pressure, but they are aided by a somewhat generous schedule that includes matchups against quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert (twice), Curtis Painter, Colt McCoy and Andy Dalton. That's not exactly Bird, Parrish and McHale walking though the door.
Of course, the Colts, Jaguars and Titans also have generally the same schedule. But of the four clubs in the AFC South, Houston has the most talent, and as mentioned, the Colts, Titans and Jags all have their problems too.
So pack away the panic button in Houston.
The flightless Falcons
Atlanta was playing so well in the first half last Sunday night, before the offense reverted to the same unproductive group from last year's divisional playoff loss. However, it's OK to have faith in the Falcons.
Once rookie receiver Julio Jones gets healthy, and gets smarter on the field, this offense is going to be potent. In fact, the biggest issue hasn't been Jones, but rather Matt Ryan's inability to consistently produce the big play and Michael Turner's slow start.
One begets the other. The past three years the Falcons have opened up the offense based on an effective ground attack, which is currently ranked 23rd in the league. Turner will get going, as I expect offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey to lean on him more down the back half of the schedule. That should make Ryan deadly on play-action and take full advantage of all the talent he has on the outside, especially Roddy White.
Also worth keeping in mind is that Sunday night's loss to Green Bay may have gone different with defensive end John Abraham on the field -- that's 104.5 sacks kickin' it on the sideline. The Falcons can get pressure, which will be key when they play Detroit and New Orleans.
Speaking of the Saints, they will win the NFC South, so the two NFC wild-cards should come down to the Lions, Falcons and Cowboys. I like Atlanta over Dallas, a team that's in every game but hasn't been clutch, and I think the Falcons are capable of beating Detroit straight up even if they don't catch them in the standings.
Jets fans are ticked off about their team. They're ticked off that Shonn Greene has looked less explosive than Bob Dole. They're ticked off Mark Sanchez hasn't taken the proverbial step forward in his his third year. And they're ticked off that Santonio Holmes has produced like he's been on Revis Island all season.
While Darrelle Revis himself continues to play at an All-Pro level, Rex Ryan's defense has been inconsistent.
That's the deal here. It can't get much worse, and still Gang Green has won two games and played the Pats tough on the road in Week 5. With that in mind, I believe this group can make the playoffs because they are capable of thwarting the Bills' attack with smart schemes, much like the Bengals did.
Let's be honest, the road to one of the AFC wild-card berths will go through Buffalo, and New York is fully capable of matching up with -- and catching -- the Bills. It will take a season sweep, and the offense getting back in gear. Revis and Antonio Cromartie can match up with the receivers.
As far as the 400-pound gorilla in the room, Sanchez will be more effective (to a point), as he's been when it's mattered most in his young career. Having Holmes, Plaxico Burress, Dustin Keller and third-down specialist LaDainian Tomlinson (sound weird, huh?) surely helps matters.