The Houston Texans have waited a long time for this moment. Since joining the league as the 32nd NFL team in 2002, Houston has been fighting an uphill battle. During the early years, times were lean, because Indianapolis, Tennessee and Jacksonville were all strong franchises. Their next problem was getting over the hump, finishing 8-8 three years in a row but never getting the momentum to propel them into the playoff race.
With a team building through the draft over the years, when Peyton Manning went down in 2011 and the Colts' stranglehold on the AFC South unclenched, the Texans took advantage of the opportunity. They broke through the 8-8 ceiling and finished 10-6 – good enough to win the division, but not to lock down home field. After beating Cincinnati in the wild card round, the Texans were sent on the road to Baltimore, where the Ravens knocked them off and ended their 2011 season.
Much like the Vikings in 2007-09, when they made incremental improvements each year to become a Super Bowl contender, the Texans have made the ascent from playoff contender to division champion to being one win away from making the road to the Super Bowl travel through Houston with Texans playing at home until they lose or win the AFC Championship.
The Texans' rise to the top has come on both sides of the ball. Houston currently ranks sixth in the league on offense and seventh on defense, and they have done it the old-fashioned way – by having a power running game and stopping the run on defense.
You can't talk about Houston without Arian Foster coming up. Foster leads the league with 325 carries for 1,313 yards and 14 touchdowns. But he isn't the full extent of the Texans running game. Backups Ben Tate and Justin Forsett have combined to carry 121 times for 626 yards and three touchdowns – an impressive 5.2-yard average. But the running game is only half the story of the Texans offense.
Matt Schaub is in his sixth year with the Texans and has had a passer rating of 92.0 or above in each of the last five. He has never thrown 30 touchdowns in a season and won't this year (he has 22 through 14 games), but he is efficient with the ball and has a go-to wide receiver in Andre Johnson (93 receptions, 1,360 yards) and a seam-stretching tight end in Owen Daniels (56 receptions, 662 yards). The Texans have six receivers with 25 or more receptions and Schaub finds a way to spread the ball around.
The success of the Houston offense is due in no small part to the work of their offensive line. They have allowed just 20 sacks in 14 games and have led the way to 472 rushing attempts and 40 touchdowns (22 passing, 18 rushing). An excellent mix of veterans on the left side and young players on the right side, the Texans found a formula that allows head coach Gary Kubiak's zone blocking scheme to work to near-perfection.
While many teams have strong offenses or strong defenses, most don't have a dominance that can match up on both sides of the ball. The Texans are one of those teams. It all starts up front in Houston's 3-4 defense, where J.J. Watt is almost a lock for Defensive Player of the Year honors with 19.5 sacks through 14 games (just three away from the all-time single-season record that narrowly eluded Jared Allen last year), and eight-year veterans Shaun Cody in the middle and Antonio Smith on the other side of Watt. They are able to both stop the run and rush the passer and open up the defense for success on the second two levels.
The biggest loss of the year for the Texans was the season-ending injury to inside linebacker Brian Cushing. But Houston has been able to make up for the loss with the help of youngsters Bradie James, Daryl Sharpton and rookie Whitney Mercilus, sending the clear message that the Texans have a youth movement in place at a time when they are riding as high as anyone. The secondary is also a mix of elite young talent and veteran leadership. Johnathan Joseph is a top-end cornerback and former Bears safety Danieal Manning is a seven-year veteran who provides knowledge and leadership to young secondary teammates Glove Quin and Kareem Jackson.
When you look at the Texans, you see a franchise that has been methodically built over the last five years to be a success and they have lived up to those expectations. The only cause for concern is the two losses Houston has absorbed this year – being gutted for six Aaron Rodgers touchdowns in a 42-24 loss to the Packers in October and getting grilled 42-14 by the Patriots. When Houston is overmatched in a game, things can get ugly quick. However, there are few teams in the NFL as complete as Houston, so, if the Vikings are going to keep their playoff hopes largely in their control, they are going to have to come up with as complete a game as they have played since their win over San Francisco in September.
While they still have a long way to get to get to the Super Bowl, Houston has set itself up nicely to make its deepest postseason run in franchise history and, quite possibly represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. If the Vikings can take out the Texans, they may well punch their own ticket into the playoffs.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Preview: Houston doesn't have many problems
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