Two days are left. After eight long months away, that's all that remains before the most anticipated season in Houston football history finally kicks off.
Even the 1993 Oilers, whose brilliant 11-game win streak ended with a home loss to Joe Montana's Chiefs in the divisional round of the playoffs, lacked the expectations that these Texans have.
Take a look around at the national landscape of Super Bowl predictions. At ESPN and Sports Illustrated, eight of 16 "experts" are forecasting the Texans to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. That dwarfs expectations even for usual heavyweights like New England and Baltimore.
For the first time in club history, the Texans are no longer a team building its way up. They've arrived. They're one of the big boys.
But can the Texans hold up against the weight of those expectations? They need to, because the window won't be open forever. The salary-cap purges that inevitably occur with great teams already started with the offseason losses of offensive linemen Eric Winston and Mike Brisiel, as well as longtime defensive starters Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans.
Looking ahead, star linebacker Connor Barwin still isn't locked up beyond this season. Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson are each on the wrong side of 30. The division-rival Colts have a young franchise quarterback in Andrew Luck. The Texans aren't old by any means, but they're not the team of the future as they were for many years. They're the team of the present, and they know they must seize the opportunity.
Will they? That's another story. They're among the elite on paper, but this isn't the Miami Heat and the NBA. In the NFL, heavyweights regularly fall by the wayside. Eight months ago, the Texans' first playoff season ended in Baltimore, largely because of the fluke Schaub injury. Likewise, in the NFC, the mediocre 9-7 Giants routed the mighty 15-1 Packers at Lambeau Field and went on to win a Super Bowl.
Some X-factors for the Texans are obvious. For example, Schaub and Johnson need to stay healthy, along with other major players. Others, however, are a bit more under the radar. Here's our look at key non-injury variables that may determine whether the Texans are Super Bowl-bound come January.
5.) Can Antoine Caldwell and Derek Newton adequately replace Brisiel and Winston on the offensive line's right side? The key to watch will be the yards-per-carry (YPC) averages of Arian Foster and Ben Tate. The Texans were second in the league in rushing in 2011 and seventh in YPC (4.5), with Foster at 4.4 and Tate at 5.4. Both, however, had their struggles in the preseason rushing against first-team defenses. If the Texans slip back to a 4.0 average or lower, that could be a sign of trouble.
The passing game is already humming, with Schaub putting together an outstanding camp and preseason (113.3 quarterback rating). There seem to be very few protection issues there. But what makes the Texans elite is balance. The playaction game won't work as well if Foster and Tate aren't running successfully. Schaub is a fine quarterback, but he's not a Tom Brady that alone makes a team a contender. On the flip side, the defense won't be as effective if they lack a strong ground game to eat up clock and allow them to rest.
The Texans should remain among the league leaders in rushing yards, if only because the defense and passing game will be good enough to put them in front and give them an extremely high volume of total carries. The question comes in the efficiency.
4.) Is Kareem Jackson ready to be a full-time player? He wasn't last year, but he may need to be in 2012. With Jason Allen gone, the Texans won't be able to split reps at their No. 2 cornerback position based on matchups. They'll need Jackson to take firm hold of the spot. He made strides in 2011 and especially this preseason at making plays on the ball, but opposing quarterbacks still had a sky-high rating of 111.4 when throwing in his direction.
We probably won't learn much in the first two weeks against Ryan Tannehill and Blaine Gabbert. But September 23 in Denver against Peyton Manning will tell us a lot. As always, the AFC's road to the Super Bowl should involve Brady and his spread-happy Patriots, and the Texans will need multiple reliable corners to get through. 3.) How does the New England defense look? Among conference rivals, the only team that potentially holds a trump card (on paper) over the Texans is New England. That's because they have arguably the greatest quarterback of all time under center in Brady, which can mask a lot of other flaws.
One thing it may not overcome, though, is a terrible defense. The Patriots were dead last in the AFC a year ago in yards allowed. If not for a shanked field goal from Billy Cundiff and a dropped touchdown by Lee Evans, they likely would have suffered the humiliation of an AFC title loss at home to Joe Flacco.
In evaluating AFC contenders, the Texans are built like a more-talented version of the Ravens and Steelers. They were more physical than the Ravens in the postseason and were a non-rookie quarterback away from cruising to a win in Baltimore. On paper, those dynamics shouldn't change.
The contrast comes with New England, a team built very differently than the Texans. Last year's Texans, if healthy, had a good (if hypothetical) shot at beating the Patriots because of their balance on offense and ability to control the clock against a weak defense. If the Patriots young defense can make the jump from awful to simply mediocre, they're by far the biggest threat to Houston.
2.) Which of the young receivers/tight ends makes the leap? Even when Johnson was healthy, the Texans had a clear lack of other downfield playmakers. Kevin Walter remains as the No. 2 receiver in title, but that's largely due to his superb run-blocking skills.
In reality, the Houston group had a bit of a facelift this offseason. Out are Joel Dreessen at tight end and the revolving door of veteran No. 3/4 wideouts -- most recently, Bryant Johnson, Jacoby Jones and Derrick Mason. In are Garrett Graham, rookie receivers Keshawn Martin and DeVier Posey and second-year wideout Lestar Jean.
Martin, a slot man from Michigan State, looked the most promising for much of camp and preseason. But he fumbled twice in the virtual finale in New Orleans, and it remains to be seen how quickly he will regain Gary Kubiak's trust. On the other hand, Graham had his breakout performance in the Superdome, catching four passes for 97 yards. Posey showed the least, but in theory, he may have the most potential since he was the highest-drafted player (third round) of the four.
The Texans will give playing time to all four early in the season as they try and find their footing. But come January, the Texans need at least one -- and hopefully, two -- to be ready for primetime. To be a contender, Schaub needs confidence in guys beyond Johnson and starting tight end Owen Daniels.
1.) Can Shayne Graham be trusted in January? The margin between good and elite in the NFL can be as narrow as the width of an upright. Just ask the Ravens after Cundiff's AFC title choke in New England. Neil Rackers was an adventure all year for the Texans beyond 40 yards, and it cost the team dearly in Baltimore when a 50-yard kick came up short in the second half. The Texans thought they had the answer when they drafted Texas A&M's Randy Bullock, but a groin injury sidelined him for the year.
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It's now up to Shayne Graham, a 34-year-old veteran who hasn't had a full-time job since 2008. He ended that year with two misses in a Cincinnati playoff loss, including a 28-yarder that would have cut the score to 24-17 late in the fourth quarter. Graham did find some redemption in 2010, when he took over the New England placekicking job midseason (after an injury to Stephen Gostkowski) and was a perfect 14-for-14 on field goals, including 2-of-2 in the playoffs.
For the first time in four years, Graham is being told he's the guy. For one of the only times in his career, he's kicking on a legitimate Super Bowl contender. He needs to step up. The Texans are good enough to win a Super Bowl, but their talent isn't enough to overwhelm. They're going to have to win close games, and somewhere along the way, it'll hinge on whether the veteran Graham can deliver.
Sunday's prediction: Texans 30, Dolphins 10 Season prediction: 11-5, division and eventual AFC champions. Loss to New Orleans in Super Bowl 47.