The season remains nearly five months away, but with Tuesday night's much-celebrated release of the 2010 NFL schedule, the gameplanning for Peyton Manning among the Texans' brain trust can and should officially begin.
Sure, this week's draft is the more pressing matter. Yes, there are still those little things called mini-camp, training camp and the preseason. But in a defintively playoffs-or-bust type season, it's the real games that count. When you're in the AFC South, like the Texans, it's specifically the games against Manning and the Colts that really matter.
In that sense, NFL schedule makers did Houston an enormous favor by giving it the most time possible, on two occasions, to prepare for Manning. The Texans face the Colts in Houston to open the season on Sept. 12, then pay a return visit to Indianapolis on Nov. 1 for Monday Night Football. That comes after a bye week for the Texans, giving them 15 days between games.
Moreover, the Texans won't have traveled outside of Houston since an Oct. 3 game in Oakland, and should have a relatively easy home tilt with the Chiefs on Oct. 17.
In other words, there are no excuses. The team will have every opportunity to be prepared. Can head coach Gary Kubiak and defensive coordinator Frank Bush take advantage?
Much as been made, historically, of the advantage of having additional time to prepare for Manning. Teams can prepare unique schemes, accustom their players to Manning's hurry-up routine, and have scout teams simulate his style for the extra practice week.
Anecdotal evidence points to that routine having some success. The most notable Manning bye weeks have occurred before Super Bowls, when he has been ordinary - with equal interceptions to touchdowns and a quarterback rating in the 80s, as opposed to his regular of around 100.
But Kubiak and the Texans haven't been known for using their time wisely. The team lost a home heartbreaker on Monday Night Football to Tennessee after its 2009 bye, otherwise known as "Kris Brown: Part 2". They were also clobbered by the Titans in 2008 after the Hurricane Ike-given bye.
Speaking of Tennessee, if the Texans make it through the Manning part of the schedule still in contention, they face Vince Young's group twice in the season's final six weeks (home Nov. 28, road Dec. 19) before closing at home on Jan. 2 against Jacksonville.
Those are all particularly problematic for a Texans team that went 1-5 against the AFC South in 2009. Sure, they were an eyelash from the playoffs as it was, but that was with the benefit of the weak NFC West to beat up on.
This year, the NFC West is replaced by the NFC East on the Texans' schedule. That means Washington and Donovan McNabb (road, Sept. 19), Dallas (home, Sept. 26), the New York Giants (home, Oct. 10) and Philadelphia (road, Thursday night, Dec. 2) instead of Arizona, San Francisco, Seattle and St. Louis. That's in large part why the Texans are tied for the league's toughest schedule, based on 2009 records.
I'd guess the Texans would be pleased to go 2-2 in those games. Truth be told, there are only five games on the entire schedule in which they have a clear talent advantage: Oakland, Kansas City, Denver (road, Dec. 26) and the two against Jacksonville - a team they were 0-2 against in 2009.
The rest are relative toss-ups, and to contend in 2010, Kubiak and the Texans are going to have to win some of those 50-50 battles that they so often find a way to lose. It starts with Manning, the Colts and the rest of the AFC South.
Unfortunately for them, the remainder of the AFC slate appears almost equally challenging, including the Chargers (home, Nov. 7), Jets (away, Nov. 21) and Ravens at home on Dec. 13. The Texans also don't have the benefit of facing a contender in the season's final week (Jacksonville) that might be resting starters, as New England did for brief parts of last season's final game.
Even so, one positive is that the Texans should have a good chance to finish the season strong, as they did in 2009 with a 4-0 closing mark that nearly pushed them into the postseason. Kubiak noted that the 11 days between the Philadelphia game on Dec. 2 and the Monday Night matchup with Baltimore would be like having another bye week - just before that final four-game stretch.
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The league guessed the Texans were ready for primetime, with the team's three night matchups (Baltimore, Philadelphia, Indianapolis) more than ever before. In reality, we'll likely have a good indication by the time mid-term elections roll around on Nov. 2.
The Texans have every incentive to beat the Colts, coming off two heartbreaking losses to them a year ago. They'll have a raucous crowd at Reliant for the season opener, and 15 days to prepare for Manning in Indianapolis.
Those advantages still weren't enough for Kubiak in the showdown against Young and the Titans last November. And over his four-year Houston career, Kubiak still has just one win against Indianapolis.
With the tougher overall schedule, that needs to change very soon for the Texans to contend. Say around Sept. 12.