Ah the Texans. The team that always teases us into thinking they are ready to take the next step. In 2009, the Texans were 8-2 against the rest of the NFL, but only 1-5 against the AFC South. It's hard to predict ascendancy for a team that can't beat the teams in its own division. Of course, the Texans are a very young team, and that's not a good formula for winning tough divisional games.
There was a lot of good for the Texans last season. After all, they posted their first winning season, only missed the playoffs because of a tiebreaker with the Jets (who beat them in week 1, which shows how important EVERY game is in the NFL), and had a break through season from quarterback Matt Schaub. Schaub made the Texans scary all season. There's no question that the Texans have solved the most difficult part of the winning equation in the NFL: they have an elite quarterback.
Unfortunately for them, despite the heroics of Schaub and all world wideout Andre Johnson, the Texans still haven't solved the second half of the winning formula. They couldn't stop the pass in 2009. Their defensive passer rating was a mediocre 83.2 and they were 18th against the pass. In other words, they have an average passing defense, but play in a conference featuring some of the best quarterbacks in the history of the game. As we are all aware, the Texans have only beaten the Colts once in their history, so without an improvement to their pass defense, they are unlikely to topple them again.
The pressure has to start up front, but Mario Williams didn't have his best season last year. Despite two sacks against the Colts, he posted only 9 for the year. That's a respectable total, but as a team the Texans were 20th in Adjusted Sack rate and no one other than Williams had more than 5 sacks. The Texans addressed their secondary in the draft taking corner Kareem Jackson in the first round, a move that was questioned by many analysts.
A better run game could also benefit the Texans who had trouble closing out games. The Texans were tied or had the lead in the fourth quarter of four of their five divisional losses. However, the 31st run game in DVOA was unable to help the Texans pull out victories. Steve Slaton suffered through a miserable second year, forcing the Texans to take Ben Tate in the second round. None of the Texans three primary backs averaged more than 3.9 yards per carry and they combined for 11 fumbles.
Of course, defensive and running deficiencies aside, the Texans STILL should have made the playoff except for a terrible year by kicker Chris Brown. Brown hit just 65% of his kicks. He missed kicks by quantity and quality, blowing a game tying attempt in Indianapolis and missing two critical kicks a week later on Monday Night Football at home against the Titans. Brown's struggles led the Texans to bring in Neil Rackers to compete for a starting job.
The Texans were a playoff caliber team last year, but still seemed unready somehow. Their inability to run and stop the pass led them to surrender some big leads, and their lack of clutch kicking ultimately doomed them. The Texans don't have to improve dramatically to be a playoff team. If they get even marginally better in any of those three areas, they'll likely win 10 games.
There is one major caveat, however. Matt Schaub has to stay healthy. It was something he achieved in 2009, but hadn't managed to do in any of his previous seasons. A healthy Schaub paired with Andre Johnson will put fear in the heart of any team. I look for the Texans to go .500 in the division this year and win 11 games. They won't take the division from Indianapolis, but I think they'll improve just enough to finally make the playoffs.