2012 Record: 12-4

2012 Downfall

Foster Locked Down
Arian Foster didn't find much use when the Texans played the Patriots on Monday, December 10. After New England mounted a 28-0 lead, the run was pretty much abandoned. May as well have, Foster was held to just 46 yards on 15 carries (3.07 YPA).

Eleven times during the regular season, the Patriots held an opponent to 110 rushing yards or less. The trend continued into the playoffs, where Foster was held to 90 yards on 22 carries, for what would appear to be a healthy 4.09 YPA average.

Foster managed just 3 yards on 4 carries in the first quarter. He bounced back with 54 in the second quarter; including back to back runs of 21 and 19 yards. Those, however, were his only carries over 7 yards. Averaging the remainder of his runs, excluding those 40 yards, and New England held him to just 2.5 YPA in the 41-28 loss.

Brady Overpowers Defense
Any hope that Houston's defense would avenge the 42-14 horsewhipping from one month prior would be but a pipe dream. Tom Brady threw four touchdown passes in that rout, all before the Texans could even put a dent in the scoreboard.

Brady kept the Texans defense (and their respectable 80.0 defensive passer rating) guessing, despite completing passes to just five different receivers. Shane Vereen made the linebackers look foolish, hauling in five passes for 83 yards and two scores.

Wes Welker showed why he'll be missed in New England, making eight catches for 131 yards. Aaron Hernandez added six hauls for 85 yards. On the day, Brady was 25 for 40, for 344 yards and three touchdowns with zero picks. His game passer rating: 115.0.

2013 Projected Wins: 11

Top 3 Rookies
-DeAndre Hopkins, WR (1/27): Sure-handed catcher has all the instincts of a big-play receiver; could seamlessly be the number one man if Andre Johnson's feet fail him.

-DJ Swearinger, S (2/57): Muscle-bound roughneck favors the knockout punch to lay out receivers, but not quick enough to cover speedy slot receivers.

-Brennan Williams, T (3/89): Long-armed and ideal for pass-protection, but is a risk for holding penalties due to his tendency to slide his hands outside.

Other Moves
In terms of name-value, Houston got themselves a future Hall of Famer in Ed Reed. Reed has made 15 of his 61 career interceptions over the past three seasons, and will step in at free safety for Glover Quin, who departed for Detroit.

Oft-injured tackle Ryan Harris was retained by the club, and could serve as insurance, despite starting only twelve games in the past three seasons. With right tackle Derek Newton coming off of knee surgery, Harris (or rookie Williams) could find themselves pressed into action.

Three Texans took off for Philadelphia: H-Back James Casey, P Donnie Jones, and LB Connor Barwin. The former pair were replaced by outside fixes; former Jaguar Greg Jones steps in at fullback, while longtime Raider Shane Lechler will now be the booming foot.

Potential Starting Lineup
QB - Matt Schaub
RB - Arian Foster
FB - Greg Jones
WR - Andre Johnson
WR - DeAndre Hopkins
TE - Owen Daniels
LT - Duane Brown
LG - Wade Smith
C - Chris Myers
RG - Brandon Brooks
RT - Derek Newton

DE - JJ Watt
NT - Earl Mitchell
DE - Antonio Smith
OLB - Brooks Reed
ILB - Brian Cushing
ILB - Darryl Sharpton
OLB - Whitney Mercilus
CB - Kareem Jackson
CB - Jonathan Joseph
FS - Ed Reed
SS - Danieal Manning

K - Randy Bullock
P - Shane Lechler
LS - Jonathan Weeks

2013 at a Glance
Just because Houston finished 12-4 doesn't mean the team didn't undergo a radical change after losing Cushing to injury.

Before the linebacker was downed by a torn ACL, the Texans run defense was only allowing 85.4 YPG. They even held four of their five opponents under 100 yards. Post-injury, that average ballooned to 102.7 YPG.

If Cushing were healthy, and the offensive-line also less snakebitten by injury, could the Texans have won the resistance war against New England in the Divisional Round?

The Texas have been no strangers to the injury bug. Reed had unexpected hip surgery in May. His timetable for return (or debut) with Houston is anywhere from 'early in preseason' to 'possibly not until September.'

Foster was carted out of an OTA practice with a calf strain. While the prognosis looked good for him, the sight surely sank a few hearts. Factor in Johnson's perpetual foot injuries, and you wonder what the Texans' roster would look like if they made a playoff run this year.

For the most part, Houston's able to adjust with the loss of their bigger names. As Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans, and Bernard Pollard have exited, the group has remained strong with the emergence of Barwin, Reed, and Watt, among others.

It's to the credit of Wade Phillips that his defense has remained so good with a plug-and-play setup, especially when injuries take their toll.

While the pass protection on offense remains among the league's best (Schaub was only sacked 27 times last year), the run blocking is cause for concern.

Foster's YPA average dropped to 4.1 last season, the lowest of his career, and far lower than the 4.9 YPA he had in 2010 as rushing champion.

Second-year guard Brooks seems to be working his way in, supplanting Ben Jones and Antoine Caldwell's spot last season. Newton and Smith are coming off knee surgery. Pro Bowlers Brown and Myers will be 28 and 32 respectively this season.

The key player to watch on offense will be Hopkins. A late first round pick, Hopkins' hands have a Reggie Wayne-like reliability, which is music to Schaub's ears. His 64.3 percent completion percentage stands to get even better with that sure of a target.

One player Schaub will miss is James Casey, whose versatility at H-Back/tight end is a huge loss. Jones runs more than Casey did, but is also three years older, and would be learning a new offense.

Verdict
The Texans are like the St. Louis Cardinals of football: no matter who they lose, they always find some stud or diamond-in-the-rough to fill the hole with. Their defense is living proof that coaching and design can take an overlooked player, and help him find his calling.

The rest of the AFC South struggles to keep up with the Texans on the defensive side of the ball, so despite the offensive inconsistency, they're still the class of the division. It's whatever shape they're in come playoff time that is their litmus test.

Prediction: 11-5