Houston Texans  

 

Texans on a roll, might be AFC's most consistent team

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It's time we starting paying a little more attention to the Houston Texans.

After years of late-season collapses and near-playoff misses, the Texans likely would prefer to be quietly on a roll. But in what seems to be the ultimate year of parity in what was already an "Any Given Sunday" league, the Texans just might be the best team in the AFC.

They're certainly the best team no one is paying attention to, and after another week of piling up the rushing yards and pushing around an inferior opponent, it's safe to say they're going to run away with the AFC South. Tennessee is the only team within shouting distance, but I don't think they'll pose a real threat.

If you examine the Texans more closely, you'll find that this bunch is very much for real. They could be a tough out in the postseason with their combination of power running, stout defense (Wade Phillips is coordinator of the year), and the ability to get explosive plays in the passing game (especially when Andre Johnson comes back after the bye). There's a lot to like here, including the fact that the Texans should be fresher than most teams in the holiday season coming off this Week 11 bye.

The surprising Monday news of quarterback Matt Schaub's right foot injury certainly is worth monitoring, especially since he'll miss at least one game, according to coach Gary Kubiak. But if Matt Leinart can hold the fort in Week 12 against Jacksonville and Schaub's injury doesn't linger, the Texans shouldn't miss a beat (if he does miss more time, that's a different story that I'll address below).

For now, let's take a closer look at how the 7-3 Texans got here and where they're going. They're the hottest team in their conference, with four straight wins (including Sunday's impressive 37-9 blowout of the Bucs), and their 6-2 record against the AFC is tops as well. They would be the top seed if the playoffs started today (though the Ravens have a head-to-head tiebreaker over them). Their scoring differential is plus-107, by far best in the NFL, with Green Bay (96 heading into Monday night's game) and San Francisco (95) the only teams that are close.

They have played good teams, and played them well. They had the Saints on the ropes in Week 3 in New Orleans and dominated stretches of that game -- without Arian Foster -- but lost, 40-33, based on red-zone issues on offense and settling for short field goals. They beat Pittsburgh the following week, showing they could thrive in a defensive struggle (17-10); lost to Oakland in Week 5 (25-20), facing another physical team at a time the Raiders and Darren McFadden were rolling; then lost in Baltimore, 29-14, on the road the next week. The Ravens are pretty dominant at home, that game was closer than the score and it also came during this six-week stretch in which stud receiver Andre Johnson has been out.

So that's it, three legit losses and no real slip-ups. They've done it without Johnson, their best offensive player, most of the season, and without Mario Williams, their best defensive player, virtually all year. They're no joke, folks. Since that Week 6 loss to Baltimore, Houston has pounded opponents 132-24 in four victories. Yeah, they were facing lesser teams, but that's what good teams do -- beat the snot out of them, cruise through the second half and rest a few guys.

They've destroyed the AFC South the first time through, beating Indy, Jacksonville and Tennessee by a combined score of 99-28. Yikes. Half of their final six games are against those same three teams, and they also get Atlanta, Cincinnati and Carolina.

Houston is fifth in the league in points. They're rushing for nearly 160 yards a game. With Foster and Ben Tate, they have a two-back attack that will be tough to stop in any conditions (and an offensive line that runs the zone-block scheme to near perfection). Schaub is plenty effective and has been in that system for ages. Johnson and Owen Daniels make things happen in the pass game.

And how about the defense? Phillips has made a masterful transition to the 3-4 and changed the culture there. The unit now dominates late in games, and no longer falter. The signing of Johnathan Joseph was brilliant and has lifted that secondary. That signing is looking much better than the Nnamdi Asomugha or Antonio Cromartie deals thus far.

Who could have imagined that in Week 11, the Texans would have the best pass defense in the NFL. They're holding opposing quarterbacks to a 63.1 rating, with just six yards per attempt, 14 interceptions, and 28 sacks. And they're holding opponents to 4.17 yards per carry. Guys like Brian Cushing and Connor Barwin are having exceptional seasons.

This team is going to have people worried come the postseason. Is it the most imposing home-field advantage in the NFL? No. Will they go straight to the Super Bowl in their first year ever making the playoffs? I tend to doubt it. If Leinart has to play out the string, then I don't see more than a one-and-done scenario come the postseason. But I don't put a long playoff run past them, certainly when you consider some of the issues AFC top dogs like New England, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and New York have had at times through the season this year.

Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @JasonLaCanfora

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