Analyzing a team's chances at a championship in any sport begins with the roster. Having the "Jimmys and the Joes," as great coaches like the legendary Lou Holtz like to say, is a must in order to compete, and make no mistake, the Houston Texans enter their 17th season in existence with the best set of Jimmys and Joes (and Deshauns and DeAndres) that they've had in franchise history.
However, more than any other sport, the SCHEDULE itself matters in football. In baseball, aside from some variable throw-in interleague games, teams play the same schedule of 162 games every year. In the NBA, same thing, virtually the same schedule. However, in the NFL, you only get 16 games, and aside from your division, the opponents change every year. Also, because of the scarcity of games, the road atmosphere is likely to be off the chain each Sunday....or Thursday....or Monday.
And that's the other thing — the NFL's schedule has so many nuances to WHEN certain games are played that not all games are created even close to equal. In the NBA, you might catch a tough opponent on the back end of a back to back, but in the NFL, you might catch the Patriots on the road on a Thursday night game, three days after playing Chiefs, as the Texans did in 2016.
This season, as a follow up, the Texans play the Patriots on the road in Week 1, with a ton of rest, fully healthy. So yeah, on the schedule both games are listed as "at New England," but very different circumstances. With that said, there are a lot of reasons to be excited about the Texans' schedule in 2018 aligning with the improved talent level across the board. First, here is that schedule:
WEEK 1: Sun 9/9, at New England, noon
WEEK 2: Sun 9/16, at Tennessee, noon
WEEK 3: Sun 9/23, vs NY Giants, noon
WEEK 4: Sun 9/30 at Indianapolis, noon
WEEK 5: Sun 10/7, vs Dallas, 7:20 p.m.
WEEK 6: Sun 10/14, vs Buffalo, noon
WEEK 7: Sun 10/21, at Jacksonville, noon
WEEK 8: Thur 10/25, vs Miami, 7:20 p.m.
WEEK 9: Sun 11/4, at Denver, 3:05 p.m.
WEEK 10: BYE
WEEK 11: Sun 11/18, at Washington, noon
WEEK 12: Mon 11/26, vs Tennessee, 7:15 p.m.
WEEK 13: Sun 12/2, vs Cleveland, noon
WEEK 14: Sun 12/9, vs Indianapolis, noon
WEEK 15: Sat 12/15, at NY Jets, 3:30 p.m.
WEEK 16: Sun 12/23, at Philadelphia, noon
WEEK 17: Sun 12/30, vs Jacksonville, noon
Here are five reasons this could be a regular season schedule that is a gateway to a Super Bowl appearance for the Texans in 2018:
5. The road division games are all done by Week 7
Last season was the exact opposite dynamic in play for the Texans — the division home games were all stacked in front part of the schedule, and done by Week 9. The Texans then had to play all three division road games in December, and by then, we know what this squad looked like. This is just a matter of personal preference, but I'd rather get the hard, filthy stuff out of the way early, when the team is theoretically healthier. (For the record, I run my life this way —- when eating a plate of food, I always get the green veggies out of the way early so I can enjoy the rest of the non-rabbit food portion of the plate.) If the Texans get through the early part of the schedule 4-3, very doable, the back end of the schedule, with ZERO division road games, looks like it's leading to double digit wins for the season.
4. The three prime time games, are all at home, and none versus a team better than 9-7 last year
Prime time games, especially on the road, have generally been a problem for this team, a phenomenon that predates the Bill O'Brien Era. I was surprised when the schedule came out that the Texans only have three primetime games, including the mandatory Thursday game, just because...well, because Deshaun Watson. Instead, the Texans have only three primetime games, and all three are at home — against Dallas, Miami, and Tennessee. None of them is a world beater. Hell, if Ryan Tannehill gets injured, an annual tradition, we may get the Brockster in Week 8!
3. The "variable" games are DEN, CLV
If you follow the NFL, you know how an NFL schedule is constructed — six division games (three home, three away), one full division crossover in the AFC and the NFC (all set in stone in perpetuity), and two variable games, based on the previous year's results. This season, the last-place Texans get the last-place teams from 2017 in the AFC North and AFC West. Those games are home against the Browns (Texans already favored by over a touchdown) and on the road against Denver (a PICK EM, but the Broncos have a chance to be terrible, even fully healthy). Conversely, the Jags, who are the Texans' main competition for the title in the AFC South, have to play the Steelers and the Chiefs. In a race that could come down to one game, this is material. (A silver lining for sucking and becoming a M*A*S*H unit in 2017! Who knew!)
2. The bye week is Week 10
Placement of the bye week is a big key to balancing out the schedule, as well. Bye weeks serve two purposes — rest for the banged up players, and a chance to make changes at key positions, mostly QB, with an extra week to prepare. Bye weeks begin in Week 4, which is way too son for a team with no quarterback issues. For the Texans, a Week 10 bye is perfect to recuperate as much as possible for the stretch run.
1. The QB slate is far from daunting
This, to me, is the biggest key, because it combines schedule with talent, the perfect storm of circumstance with "Jimmys and Joes." Barring injury, here is the list will likely starting QB's the Texans will face:
WEEK 1: Tom Brady
WEEK 2: Marcus Mariota
WEEK 3: Eli Manning
WEEK 4: Andrew Luck
WEEK 5: Dak Prescott
WEEK 6: Nathan Peterman or Josh Allen
WEEK 7: Blake Bortles
WEEK 8: Ryan Tannehill (but maybe BROCK!)
WEEK 9: Case Keenum
WEEK 10: BYE
WEEK 11: Alex Smith
WEEK 12: Marcus Mariota
WEEK 13: Baker Mayfield or Tyrod Taylor
WEEK 14: Andrew Luck
WEEK 15: Sam Darnold
WEEK 16: Carson Wentz
WEEK 17: Blake Bortles
This is about as good a QB dance card as one could expect, considering the following:
1. There are only two opposing quarterbacks I'd give the definitive edge to over Watson. One is Brady in the opener, and the other is Wentz in the penultimate game of the regular season. A few others are respectable — Prescott, Smith, and a healthy Luck — but overall, Watson will have a big edge over his counterpart.
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2. There is a decent chance that Andrew Luck won't be close to Peak Luck ever again due to his shoulder issues.
3. The Texans could face as many as three of the highly drafted rookies (Mayfield, Darnold, Allen), which has to have Romeo Crennel licking his chops.
My prediction for the season is 10-6, but if Deshaun Watson and the defense stay healthy, 11-5 or even 12-4 are possibilities.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.