There are plenty of teams dreaming big in 2012, but only a few have legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.
After almost a decade without a sniff of the playoffs, the Houston Texans have become one of those teams.
The talent is in place, the coaching is up to snuff, and all of the observers (fans and media personalities alike) would not at all be surprised by seeing the Texans in New Orleans this February.
There are definitely obstacles, both internal and external, but unlike their world before last season, there is no ceiling this season.
BEST-CASE SCENARIO – TEAM
The Texans open 2012 with a home game against the Dolphins and a trip to Jacksonville. They handily win both of those games to have a 2-0 record going into Denver to face their old nemesis, Peyton Manning, with his new franchise.
They use this opportunity to prove that times have indeed changed by blowing out the overrated Broncos, and follow that up with wins against the Titans and Jets to start 5-0.
The next two games are home dates against Green Bay and Baltimore. Asking for wins in both of those is a little much, but a split would still have them sitting pretty at 6-1.
Coming out of the bye, a win against their old star, Mario Williams, and his Bills is followed up by a loss at Soldier Field, which they make up for by winning their next three to make it to 10-2.
Going to New England in December, in prime time will drop them to 10-3, but closing out with two games against the Colts and one against the Vikings will give them a 13-3 record and a first-round bye (assuming either the Patriots or Ravens also go 13-3 and take the first seed).
They win their first playoff game to set up a rematch with either the Patriots or Ravens. This time, with the season on the line, they get things done on the road and head into New Orleans to face the NFC champions. Two weeks later, a hard-fought victory has them capping their ten-year anniversary with the Lombardi Trophy.
BEST-CASE SCENARIO – PERSONNEL
Matt Schaub has been a Texan for five seasons now, and he’s missed five or more games in three of those seasons. This season will be his third 16-game slate, and it will also be his third 4,000-yard season (as well as his first campaign with 30 touchdowns).
Arian Foster returns to the form that led him to the 2010 rushing title by playing every game and topping 1,550 yards. Andre Johnson shows little effect of the injury that cost him most of last season and tops 85 catches and 1,300 yards to go along with eight touchdowns, while Kevin Walter steps his game up just enough to take the heat off of his running mate.
The offensive line remains healthy (sensing a theme yet?) and keeps Schaub in the same state while continuing to excel in the run game.
Defensively, J.J. Watt continues to develop after a stellar rookie campaign and hits double-digit sacks for the first time. First-rounder Whitney Mercilus lives up to his name and gets to the quarterback at least seven times while shoring up his run supporting at a new position.
Brian Cushing continues to anchor the team from inside and stays healthy for another season, lending help to Mercilus, Connor Barwin, and newcomer Bradie James. Jonathan Joseph continues to lift the secondary above where it had been for the franchise’s history, and Quintin Demps improves to help out from the strong safety position.
Meanwhile, kicker Shayne Graham returns to the form of earlier in his career and provides the team with a serviceable kicking option.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO – TEAM
The worst case would begin to play out before the season began, with the major players spending most of their seasons on the bench due to various injuries.
The season opens with a loss to the Dolphins, they of the hapless quarterbacking trio. A loss in Jacksonville against the entirely hapless Jaguars would spell disaster, something that wouldn’t be remedied by a trip to Mile High, where Manning would remind them who rules that matchup. They finally stop the bleeding at home against the Titans, but Tim Tebow opens the wound in New York.
Four straight home losses against the Packers, Ravens, Bills, and Bears send the team to 1-9 and asking how this possibly could have happened. With nothing but pride to play for, they go on a three-game winning streak, including a win at Detroit.
They hit double-digit losses against the Pats, but still manage to close out the season on something of a high note with wins in the last two games, allowing them to end a 6-10 season on a 5-1 run.
Still, for a team with such high aspirations, this would be an unmitigated disaster for Gary Kubiak and whoever Bob McNair hired to replace him in the middle of the season.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO – PERSONNEL
Schaub, Foster, and Johnson combine to play 21 games in 2012. T.J. Yates plays admirably, but the combination of Ben Tate and Kevin Walter is not enough to hold his head above water. They stick with Yates, though, because the alternative is John Beck.
None of the remaining receivers (Bryant Johnson, rookies Keshawn Martin and DeVier Posey, etc.) have anything to offer in the way of help, and Tate does not remind people of the Foster-like runner who played very well in spot duty in 2011.
The offensive line has no history of major injury, but that doesn’t mean regression is impossible. Without talent on the outside, teams stack the box to stop Tate and sheer attrition overwhelms the five guys in front. The lack of depth also comes back to bite them when three rookies are on the line at different points during the season.
The defense makes the fans wish they could have spent nine figures to bring Mario Williams back in the fold, as the 3-4 alignment falls apart as it has elsewhere in the NFL). Watt proves to be a one-hit wonder, and undersized nose tackle Shaun Cody finally either breaks down or becomes wholly ineffective.
Cushing regresses (or, even worse, goes back on the juice) and James is not the player he was in Dallas. Mercilus is a bust, and Joseph plays well but gets no help from the team around him.
Graham is a broken-down kicker, and fifth-round pick Randy Bullock isn’t much better.