Madonna Shines Ray of Light on Texans

We could have used a different picture, but why bother?

I’m a big believer in signs. I can’t help it, really. Though the logical part of my brain screams that these so-called “signs” are nothing more than mere coincidences better left ignored, my inner

Shyamalan

simply won’t let go of the notion that everything happens for a reason. So why am I telling you this? Because I think I just witnessed the first legitimate sign of the 2007 NFL season.

My morning began like any other. I dragged my lazy ass out of bed, showered and made my way to work. But life threw me a wicked curveball the second I left the safety of my car and started walking toward the office. Out of nowhere, an otherwise inconspicuous automobile rumbled by, blasting Madonna’s “Erotica” loud enough for everyone within a five mile radius to bust out their favorite S&M outfit and party like it was 1992. After I got over my initial shock and horror – Really??? You’re rockin’ to “Erotica” at 7 o’clock in the morning??? Really??? – I realized the universe was trying to tell me something, so I did my best Paulo Coelho impersonation and started connecting the dots.

At first I thought the correlation might have something to do with the slutty image Madonna graced us with during the early 90’s. But I soon remembered that pretty much every one of the Material Girl’s incarnations has been steeped in sluttiness, so I figured that wasn’t it and changed directions. It was then that I began concentrating on the date. 1992. That was the season everything changed for fans of Houston football.

You’re no doubt familiar with the gory details so I won’t spend much time on a refresher. All you really need to know is that the Oilers ended the year with a 10-6 record and reason for optimism. But when the calendar flipped to 1993, that optimism morphed into utter despair and embarrassment. Buffalo pulled off the greatest comeback in NFL playoff history and Houston became synonymous with the word “choke.” Sure, the Oilers bounced back and enjoyed one more quality regular season, but the psychic damage had already been done. The fans and franchise were seemingly scarred forever.

Fast forward to the present day and not much has changed. There’s a new team in town, but persistent losing and questionable personnel decisions have left the Houston fan base dejected and disenchanted. But, believe it or not, I think this morning’s rendition of “Erotica” signals a new hope. However crappy that song may be, the fates have decided to use it as an omen; one that foretells the horror of the 1992 season can be undone and that a brighter future is on its way.

Bear in mind, this transformation won’t be taking place overnight. While a 10-6 record and a postseason appearance would be perfect symmetry, I’m not ready to label the Texans playoff ready just yet.

Here’s what I like: The additions of Matt Schaub, Ahman Green and Jacoby Jones. It’s already obvious Schaub is a major upgrade at the QB position and Green should give the Texans their best running attack since Domanick Williams was healthy and going by the last name of Davis. As for Jones, the rookie provides a playmaking presence opposite Andre Johnson that the team hasn’t seen since… well, ever.

Something else that can’t be overlooked: Houston’s schedule is extremely favorable. Look closely and you’ll see the Texans play a whopping six games against teams who are almost certain to finish among the league’s lower half (Kansas City, Atlanta, Miami, Oakland, Cleveland and Tampa Bay). That’s huge when you consider at least one club sneaks into the playoffs every year thanks more to a cream puff schedule than actual ability.

What I don’t like: The Texans’ defensive line still appears utterly incapable of pressuring the quarterback. Not only does this limit their ability to force turnovers and get stops, it also means more time for opposing quarterbacks to pick apart a below average secondary (Dunta Robinson being the lone exception). And offensively, I still worry that the O-line is far too susceptible to pressure from the edge. Schaub’s quick release will help lower the sack number, but at some point Houston simply has to find some anchors at the tackle position (hopefully, Charles Spencer will make a full recovery and eventually fill that void).

So my final forecast calls for partly sunny skies (my glass is half-full today, what can I say?) and the Texans’ first ever .500 record. And considering the abhorrent ineptitude we’ve witnessed the last five years, don’t you think 8-8 is a “Ray of Light” at the end of a very dark tunnel? So do I.

On to the week 1 picks (home team in caps):

HOUSTON (-3) over Kansas City

If a week one match-up can ever be described as “make-or-break,” this is it. The Texans CANNOT afford to lose this game. The Chiefs look like a 5-win team (at best) and their workhorse, Larry Johnson, figures to see slightly limited action due to his extended training camp hold-out. There’s no way Houston loses this game. Right?

Texans 27 – Chiefs 10

New Orleans (+6) over INDIANAPOLIS

Wow. What a way to open the season. With so much firepower on the field and such a dearth of quality defenders, one has to wonder if we’ll see a single punt in this one. But the bigger question is this: Are the Saints ready to handle the increased expectations sure to follow after their storybook 2006? I think they are, it just won’t show in the win column Thursday night.

Colts 31 – Saints 28

BUFFALO (+3) over Denver

The first upset of the season comes courtesy of the better-than-expected Bills. And, yes, I realize I’m putting my faith in the hands of J.P. Losman. Does the J.P. still stand for “Just Pitiful?” We’ll soon find out.

Bills 17 – Broncos 13

Pittsburgh (-4 ½) over CLEVELAND

Let’s see, the Steelers are primed for a bounce-back year and the Browns still suck. I think I’ll go with Pitt.

Steelers 31 – Cleveland 10

Tennessee (+6 ½) over JACKSONVILLE

Man, doesn’t Vegas know that VY is God? How can they disrespect him to the tune of 6 ½ points without being struck down from above? The Jags should prevail, but this one’s going down to the wire.

Jaguars 20 – Titans 17

ST. LOUIS (-1) over Carolina

Well, I suppose since the Rams are my super sleeper I have to pick them in week one, don’t I?

Rams 27 – Carolina 20

GREEN BAY (+3) over Philadelphia

Tough game to call. In the end, I think it comes down to Green Bay’s much-improved defense and the fact I’m extremely wary of Donovan McNabb’s surgically-repaired knee.

Packers 21 – Eagles 17

MINNESOTA (-3) over Atlanta

This game might set NFL quarterbacking back to the days of leather helmets. And what does it say about Joey Harrington that I trust neophyte Tavaris Jackson more than him?

Vikings 24 – Falcons 6

WASHINGTON (-3) over Miami

Another game that has ugly written all over it. As much as I love football, I’d rather watch the WNBA Finals than this snoozefest. Okay, that’s a lie. But you know what I mean.

Redskins 13 – Miami 9

NEW YORK JETS (-6 ½) over New England

I really agonized over this contest. The Jets played New England very tough last year (at least they did during the regular season). But Chad Pennington is also prominently involved and that’s not a good thing. In the end, I’ll take the Pats to win, but New York to keep it close.

Patriots 24 – Jets 20

SEATTLE (-6) over Tampa Bay

I’m convinced the Buccaneers are conducting a philosophical experiment. They sold their soul to the devil by ditching Tony Dungy and trading for Jon Gruden. The move won them a Super Bowl, but they’ve been horrible ever since. Was it worth it? I assume it probably was. But 2003 may seem like ancient history in Tampa after the Bucs endure yet another dreadful season in ’07.

Seahawks 27 – Buccaneers 13

Chicago (+6) over SAN DIEGO

For awhile, I had a hard time figuring out why the defending NFC champs are six point underdogs in their season opener. Then I remembered that Sexy Rexy is still quarterbacking the Bears. Still, that’s no reason to completely dismiss Chicago’s chances; especially with famed choke artist Norv Turner now patrolling the Chargers’ sideline.

Chargers 21 – Bears 20

OAKLAND (-2) over Detroit

I suspect the entire gambling world loves Detroit in this game. That’s reason number one to stay away from the Lions. Reason #2: Oakland’s defense is really good. And if you’re still not convinced, I’ve got two words for you: Jon Kitna.

Raiders 20 – Lions 17

DALLAS (-6) over New York Giants

I’m not a gambling man (really, I’m not), but if one could wager on Tom Coughlin getting fired this season, I would bet the house on it. His Giants are in for a loooooooong season.

Cowboys 35 – Giants 10

Baltimore (+2 ½) over CINCINNATI

A couple years ago, it looked like the Bengals were destined for a long run of success. But until they do something about that dreadful defense, they’re going to stay stuck in the land of 8-8 or 9-7.

Ravens 23 – Bengals 20

SAN FRANCISCO (-3) over Arizona

Great game to conclude week one, I just wonder whether anyone outside the west coast will catch its photo finish (the game begins at 9:15 PM).

49ers 28 – Cardinals 24 --Jason Friedman

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