With Peyton Manning out for Sunday's opener and potentially the entire year after undergoing a second surgery on his neck, the narrative for Houston changes from a statement game to one of trends.
That is, there should be no way to actually lose, or for the final score to even be within a possession. Yes, it's Gary Kubiak, and these are the Texans. But without Manning, Houston has the talent advantage at nearly every position, in addition to a home crowd at Reliant Stadium.
If Indianapolis pulls the stunner, the Kubiak-era death watch can officially begin. But even the most skeptical of Texan critics admit that's an unlikely scenario.
As a result, it's not so much if the Texans win, but how they win. After all, the Texans did beat the Colts with Manning in the 2010 opener -- but the 430+ passing yards allowed by the defense was an ominous sign that eventually became the undoing of their season.
Here's a rundown of five key areas to watch that could offer hints as to how the upcoming season may unfold.
5.) Can the defense consistently pressure Kerry Collins? Don't judge by the box score, because sack totals in one game can be fluky. The Colts value getting rid of the ball quickly, as does 39-year-old replacement QB Kerry Collins. Despite his statue-like mobility, 12 of the 13 sacks against Collins in 2010 came in under three seconds. So, the total number of sacks might not tell the tale.
The key will be whether the Colts have time to let downfield routes develop. They shouldn't. The Colts have a bad offensive line, and Collins's mobility is nonexistent. If Connor Barwin, Mario Williams and Brooks Reed are generating the pressure they should, you'll see most throws stay within 10-12 yards. Most expect new coordinator Wade Phillips to blitz frequently, and it should pay dividends.
On the other hand, if Collins has time to challenge Houston vertically, there could be eventual trouble. Despite the signings of cornerback Johnathan Joseph and safety Danieal Manning, the Texans still have question marks at the No. 2 corner slot (Kareem Jackson, Jason Allen) and with Glover Quin transitioning to safety. Against Collins, those areas aren't likely to be exposed, even in the absence of a pass rush. But without improvement up front, they could be in Weeks 3 and 4 against the Saints' Drew Brees and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger.
4.) Will Johnathan Joseph stay healthy? Somewhat lost amid the Arian Foster injury saga was that the team's prized defensive acquisition also missed most of camp and the preseason with an injury. Joseph pulled his groin early in camp, and has played just one half of football as a Texan (in San Francisco). The injury doesn't appear serious, but groin issues can sometimes linger, and Joseph has a history of nagging injuries. He was out four games for the Bengals in 2010 with a bum ankle, and missed eight in 2008.
Behind Joseph, the depth chart at corner is remarkably similar to the one in 2010 that produced one of the worst pass defenses in league history. Phillips is relying on Joseph as the foundation of his new-look secondary, and it would be a good sign to see him make it through the opener without a limp.
3.) Does right tackle Eric Winston hold up against Robert Mathis? Despite his local sports talk radio fame, most analysts thought Winston had one of his worst seasons in 2010, particularly in pass protection. He'll be tested early by Mathis, a veteran defensive end who has given the Texans fits throughout their existence. They won't need Winston at his best to beat the Colts, who can be run on with ease. But Winston's performance can be the difference between a good and great offensive line for the Texans, and they could use the latter in matchups with intimidating Pittsburgh and Baltimore defenses in weeks 4 and 6.
2.) Can the run defense hold the Colts under 4 yards per rush? The Colts were an abysmal running team in 2010 (3.8 yards per carry), and that was with Manning to make defenses respect the pass. Without Manning and with a similar offensive line, they could be even worse in 2011. But stopping the run is the trickiest part of the initial switch to a 3-4 from a 4-3. That could especially be the case for the Texans, who have mediocre and unproven commodities at defensive tackle in Shaun Cody and Earl Mitchell.
At times, the Jets and Saints -- two teams known for power running -- were able to gash the Texans on the ground in the preseason. With an additional month to transition to the Phillips scheme and facing the Colts, that shouldn't happen come Sunday. If it does, red flags abound.
1.) Is Arian Foster's hamstring okay after the game? This is THE question for the Texans come Sunday. It makes no sense to sit a healthy player, so if Foster is truly healed, he should go. But that doesn't appear to be the case, with Foster still missing practice as of Thursday. This is a game the Texans should win easily, regardless of whether Foster or Derrick Ward/Ben Tate lines up behind Matt Schaub. The Colts are that easy to run on. However, having Foster and his elite abilities could be the difference in whether the Texans can beat teams like the Saints, Steelers and Ravens in coming weeks.
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Foster wants to play, and most indications are that he will, albeit in a reduced role. But hamstring injuries can linger. For the Texans to truly become an AFC contender, they need Foster at 100 percent later this year. Where he stands after Sunday could go a long way to determining that likelihood.
Prediction: Texans 30, Colts 17