It's often not whom you play, but when you play.
That's the key item to consider when evaluating an NFL schedule release. Ranking schedules based on prior-year records, as some media outlets did this week in proclaiming an "easy" slate for the Texans, can be misleading.
For example, Denver -- scheduled to host the Texans in Week 3 -- is judged by that metric as an 8-8 team, based on their record with Tim Tebow. They're likely a much more difficult opponent, however, with a healthy Peyton Manning.
The same could be said of the Chicago Bears, whom the Texans visit in Week 10 on Sunday Night Football. The Bears finished 8-8, but that's not a predictive record considering the fluke injury to quarterback Jay Cutler. They were 7-3 before Cutler went down.
On the other hand, there is something to be said for timing. For example, a late bye week (Nov. 20) in 2011 proved very helpful to a Texan group that was slammed with injuries in the middle part of the season.
And in 2009, it helped the Texans greatly to play New England in Week 17 when the Patriots had already clinched their division, allowing them to rest Tom Brady for large parts of the game.
Here are five things I took away from the Texans' schedule release on Tuesday night.
5) No luck with Luck With rookie quarterbacks, it can pay to play them early -- before they adjust to the speed of the NFL game. Assuming the Colts draft Andrew Luck and start him immediately, the Texans won't have that luxury, facing Luck in Week 15 (December 16) and Week 17 (December 30). The Texans, of course, should have the talent to beat the rebuilding Colts regardless. But they'll have to wait until the last week of the year to have their shot at a first-ever win in Indianapolis.
4) Primetime darlings The league seems to believe the Texans have staying power among the elite, scheduling them for the maximum of five nationally televised games. That includes a Thanksgiving Day (November 22) matchup at Detroit. Unfortunately for the Texans, only one of those five games is in Houston. Marquee games tend to bring out the best in home crowds, so the Texans will face intimidating atmospheres in at least four of their eight road contests.
3.) Meat in the middle The strength of the Texans' schedule comes from Week 3 through Week 14. In those 11 games, the Texans will face only two teams that had losing records in 2011 -- Buffalo on November 4 and Jacksonville on November 18. Everyone else was at .500 or better last season. Moreover, the stretch culminates with a nasty three-game road trip, starting with the Lions on Thanksgiving, moving on to Tennessee and finishing with a December 10 Monday Night Football tilt in New England. 2.) Start fast, finish strong These clichés could come true for the Texans in 2012, courtesy of a soft departure and landing to the year. The schedule starts with Miami at home and Jacksonville on the road, while finishing with the Colts (twice) and Vikings. The latter two teams went a combined 7-41 in 2011 and are in the midst of major rebuilding projects. Perhaps one hiccup can be excused, but the Texans should be 4-1 at worst in those games, possibly picking up postseason momentum in the final three.
1.) Two bye weeks Well, kind of. The Texans were fortunate to have a late bye week in 2011 considering the slew of injuries that hit them in October and November. Several on the team said it helped immensely to have two weeks to prepare Matt Leinart and T.J. Yates following the season-ending injury to Matt Schaub.
Their technical bye week for 2012 comes near the midpoint of the year in Week 8 (October 28). That's not as late as 2011, but it's a much better draw than those teams with byes in Weeks 4 and 5, who then face 12 or more consecutive weeks of action without time to recuperate injuries.
Moreover, an added boost could be the early Thanksgiving Day game, which gives the Texans 10 full days before resuming action on December 2 in Tennessee. It's not quite a second bye week, but any extra rest should be beneficial heading into crucial AFC road games against the Titans and Patriots.
Early, early season prediction: 11-5, 1st in AFC South
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