There's an NFL team in Texas with as good a chance as any of reaching the Super Bowl this year.
We don't mean the one Jerry Jones owns.
We mean the Houston Texans.
"I think were going to have a good football team. But we want to be great," says the Texans' savvy seventh-year head coach Gary Kubiak.
There's really no reason they can't be.
Especially because their schedule is as accommodating as anybody's. The Texans play in this weak division, plus they draw the just-as-weak AFC East as their intra-conference divisional opponents. Yet there are enough strong challenges otherwise (vs. NFC North teams, and the Ravens) for the Texans to gauge themselves against for the playoffs.
The Tennessee Titans figure to take a step back. They're going with second-year newbie QB Jake Locker — instead of established veteran Matt Hasselbeck — against this mostly brutal opening-month schedule: vs. Pats, @ Chargers, vs Lions, @ Texans. An early crater looms.
The Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars will battle to avoid the division cellar.
LAST SEASON: 10-6, division champ
-- REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: Top to bottom, the Texans have the pieces. Solid, veteran QB? Check (Matt Shaub) ... Explosive RBs? Check (Arian Foster and Ben Tate) ... Good OL? Check ... Array of good receivers? Check (spectacular WR Andre Johnson, possession WR Kevin Walter, TE Owen Daniels and underrated rookie slot Keshawn Martin). What's more, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips (who, BTW, has an awesome Twitter handle: @sonofbum) has proven players everywhere for his stellar, attacking 3-4 hybrid: DE J.J. Watt, OLB Connor Barwin, ILBs Brian Cushing and free-agent pickup Bradie James, Ss Glover Quin and Troy Noland, and CB Johnathan Joseph.
-- REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: Probably the only thing Kubiak questions is whether Schaub is durable enough, or good enough, to take the Texans to the Super Bowl ... The team starts the year with replacement kickers.
-- SNARKY QUESTION: Did the Texans make it to Round 2 of the playoffs last year in spite of Schaub's injury absence, or because of it?
-- PREDICTION: 13-3. Expect a breakout year for the franchise.
LAST SEASON: 9-7, no playoffs
-- REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: The Titans probably weren't going to go far behind nearly 37-year-old Matt Hasselbeck. So what better time to join the league-wide youth movement at QB, than with the more mobile and creative Jake Locker? ... RB Chris Johnson resents implications he dogged it last year after signing a $30M-guaranteed contract extension. He is out to prove his NFL record of 2,509 total yards from scrimmage in '09 was no fluke ... Head coach Mike Munchak and offensive coordinator Chris Palmer want to spice up their plain attack, too.
-- REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: There are concerns Locker isn't up to the task, with his relatively weak arm and propensity to too often bail from the pocket to freelance ... The plain defence was decent against the pass (14th) but not against the run (24th), and doesn't figure to improve in either area.
-- SNARKY QUESTION: How soon into the season before Johnson starts tripping over his mopey bottom lip again?
-- PREDICTION: 6-10. Growing pains on offence set the Titans back.
LAST SEASON: 2-14, no playoffs
-- REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: Andrew Luck is the real deal. Billed by experts such as ex-Ravens head coach Brian Billick as the best QB to enter the NFL since John Elway in '83, the quintessential pocket thrower has impressed already ... Luck loves throwing to his TEs, and the team gave him two of the best rookies in the draft, in Luck's college teammate Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen.
-- REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: Aging Reggie Wayne might be the only serviceable WR, unless rookie smurf T.Y. Hilton steps up ... Luck needs a running game to help him out, but Donald Brown and Delone Carter behind an underwhelming OL won't provide it ... The D's only stars, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, must jam their square-peg skills into new defensive-minded head coach Chuck Pagano's round-hole 3-4 scheme.
-- SNARKY QUESTION: What future Hall of Famer will replace Luck in 15 years?
-- PREDICTION: 5-11. Too many rookies, too many holes, too many new schemes. Yet improvement.
LAST SEASON: 5-11, no playoffs
-- REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: RB Maurice Jones-Drew, the NFL's top rusher in '11, ended his holdout Sunday ... The defence in '11 was legitimately Top 10, even though the putrid Jags offence kept putting it back on the field without a proper breather ... Rookie Andre Branch might be ready already to give the D its much-needed edge-rushing threat ... QB Blaine Gabbert no longer looks like the way-over-his-head rookie he was last year, some say.
-- REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: Gabbert still has a questionable arm, and antsy feet. He stunk so badly in his debut — the Jags trailed the league in total offence and passing offence — that many experts have dismissed him from ever becoming a viable NFLer ... How bitter might Jones-Drew be when he finally starts practising again this week? Without a motivated MJD, forget it.
-- SNARKY QUESTION: How'd ya like to play new Jags owner Shahid Khan in poker? No thanks.
-- PREDICTION: 3-13. Hard to see anything but another clunker looming this year.