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Texans get chance to prove they're not just average

Michael Silver
Yahoo Sports

If I'd told you back in August that the Houston Texans would be playing for first place in the AFC South in late October, chances are you'd have been impressed, and they'd have been elated. Seeking the first playoff berth in their 10-year history, the Texans – a.k.a. The NFL's Biggest Tease – would savor a division title as much as any team in major professional sports.

And if I'd told you the Texans would be 3-3 after six games, with a pair of road defeats to first-place teams? You'd have rolled your eyes and said, "Some things never change."

Despite their apparently unshakable allegiance to mediocrity, the Texans have a realistic path to salvation. When Houston takes on the 3-2 Tennessee Titans in Nashville on Sunday, it will have an opportunity to seize control of a division that is shaping up as this season's slightly less atrocious version of the 2010 NFC West.

With the Colts (0-6) experiencing the harshness of life without Peyton Manning(notes) and the Jaguars (1-5) reeling from coach Jack Del Rio's disastrous decision to cut starting quarterback David Garrard(notes) five days before the start of the regular season, this is basically a two-team race.

The Titans, an early-season surprise under rookie coach Mike Munchak, would be among the least likely division winners in recent memory. The Texans, conversely, are a team perpetually on the verge, and some of us predicted that this would be their breakthrough season.

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Yahoo! Sports Radio: Arian Foster on moving past loss to Baltimore]

If it's going to happen under sixth-year head coach Gary Kubiak, it would seem that getting out of LP Field with a victory on Sunday is essential – or, at least, as essential as winning an NFL game before Halloween can be.

"We've got an excellent opportunity this Sunday in terms of getting things done that need to get done and moving to where we want to go – because there's a whole lot out there on the horizon for us," Texans general manager Rick Smith said earlier this week. "We've got to find a way to beat a good team on the road."

A lot of GMs might make such a comment cavalierly. Trust me, Smith is painfully aware of how poorly the Texans tend to perform in such circumstances. Over the last six seasons, they have just one victory away from home against a team that finished with at least a .500 record: A 28-17 victory over the Bengals almost exactly two years ago that improved the visitors, coming off a pair of 8-8 campaigns, to – wait for it – 3-3.

Are this year’s Texans destined to be similarly average? So far, it’s tough to draw conclusions. The hiring of Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator has noticeably improved that struggling unit, though a season-ending chest injury to star pass rusher Mario Williams was an obvious blow. The Texans rank ninth in the NFL in scoring defense and 10th in fewest yards allowed.

Offensively, hamstring injuries to a pair of Pro Bowl performers, halfback Arian Foster(notes) (who missed two of the first three games) and wideout Andre Johnson(notes) (who will likely miss his third consecutive game on Sunday) have messed with the flow, but Houston still ranks eighth in yards and 14th in points per game.

Based on those numbers, they should be better than average. Yes, as always, it's tough to get a handle on this team. That's the Texans: When you think they're good, they inevitably disappoint. And when you give up on them and can't stand to watch, they rise up and surprise you.

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In 2011 they've been at times impressive (a 34-7 thrashing of the Colts in the season opener, a 17-10 triumph over the Steelers in Week 4); depressing (last week's 29-14 thrashing by the Ravens in Baltimore); and heartbreaking (the previous week's 25-20 defeat to the Raiders, a loss that ended with quarterback Matt Schaub(notes) being intercepted in the end zone on the game's final play – when, it turned out, Oakland had only 10 men on the field).

Yes, even an 11-on-10 advantage backfired on Kubiak's team. If you're a Texans fan, how can that not make you sick?

"There are a lot of reasons why I was sick," Smith said.

A loss to the Titans might make him sicker. Like virtually everyone else, Smith figured Tennessee was in for a choppy year after the departure of longtime head coach Jeff Fisher and the challenges the lockout posed to new coaches like Munchak.

"I don't think anybody who looked at them in the preseason thought they'd have a chance to be sitting in the position they are now," Smith said. "With a rookie coach, a new quarterback and Chris Johnson holding out, it seemed like they'd have challenges. But they've met them. I've got a lot of respect for that organization, and you certainly understand why they've had success this year."

Though Johnson has been stunningly ineffective since signing a lucrative contract extension and Tennessee lost star wideout Kenny Britt(notes) for the season with an ACL tear, the Titans have thrived behind the leadership of former longtime Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck(notes), a punishing offensive line and a revived, aggressive defense.

So yes, the Texans have every reason to respect the Titans. But they should respect the magnitude of this opportunity even more. A victory would be significant: The schedule softens for Houston after Sunday's showdown, beginning with consecutive home games against the Jags and Browns. Their rematch with Tennessee at Reliant Stadium will be played on the final day of the regular season.

A defeat, conversely, would reinforce the notion that the Texans remain the NFL's version of a shiny sports car stuck in neutral. Owner Bob McNair has spent aggressively and demonstrated more patience than the majority of his peers in trying to build a winner. The looming lockout may have helped save Kubiak's job after last year's disappointing 6-10 finish; Smith, hired in 2006, could withstand a coaching change, or a disappointing season might doom him too.

To Smith's credit, he's not shying away from the notion that it's time for the Texans to stop being mediocre. The division opened up for them in 2011, and anything but a first-place finish will be a failure.

"I think everybody in our organization feels like the expectations are legitimate," Smith said. "We want to be the type of team that makes the key plays that are the difference between winning and losing big games. I think we should look at ourselves that way."

It beats the hell out of average.

TAKE IT TO THE ATM

Sun Life Stadium will be Gator Heaven on Sunday as Tim Tebow(notes) leads the Broncos to a victory over the Dolphins. … Sanchize will rise again as the Jets defeat the Chargers to stay relevant in the AFC. … Jim Schwartz will have to suck it up and endure another handshake in defeat, this time from a much more sedate Mike Smith following the Falcons' upset of the Lions at Ford Field.

And remember, you can find all of my picks here – and receive the analysis behind them by registering for the Silver Insider at ridewithsilver.com. Oh, and behold the Locks of the Week, and for that matter check out my appearance on the Rich Eisen Podcast.

PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …

Oakland, where all eyes will be on the dude in the black No. 3 jersey, a.k.a. The Mad Bomber, Part Deux. Oh, and the Chiefs will be there, too.

LIES, LIES, LIES

1) Upon learning that former teammate Kris Jenkins(notes) said that the Jets have a "catty locker room," quarterback Mark Sanchez shot back, "Oh my God, Kris is such a hater. He's just jealous that they threw his big butt overboard. And trust me, it's a big butt. Um, paging Jenny Craig, hellooooooooo … "

2) Rex Ryan's comment that he'd have a "couple rings" had he been hired as Chargers coach in 2007 was "meant as a compliment … not as a slight" to Norv Turner.

3) Browns president Mike Holmgren "absolutely" intends to pursue Peyton Hillis(notes) aggressively once the halfback hits the open market, and Hillis would certainly prefer to stay in Cleveland under such a scenario.

FANTASY ANNOYANCE OF THE WEEK

Cal women's basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb's Bringin' It Back fell to 3-3 after an eight-point defeat to Debos Bucs, and trust me, she does not do mediocrity well. So a shakeup was inevitable heading into this week's matchup with Rhino, beginning with the insertion of Chiefs running back Jackie Battle(notes) into the lineup, ahead of Shonn Greene(notes) and Willis McGahee(notes). Since I'm banking on a big debut for Carson Palmer(notes), I suggested playing Jacoby Ford(notes) ahead of Julio Jones(notes), who's questionable for the Lions game with a hamstring injury; I also advised her to play Santonio Holmes(notes) ahead of Plaxico Burress(notes), who has been the lesser of the two underperforming Jets. Gottlieb is squatting on newly acquired John Beck(notes) in case he has a breakout game for the Redskins, and she replaced Stephen Gostkowski(notes), who has a bye, with Ryan Longwell(notes), "because we need a [Golden] Bear." Finally, she's holding onto the Bengals' defense, which also has a bye, and using Cleveland (vs. Seattle) as a one-week rental.

Meanwhile, a few hundred miles to the south, the "feel-good story of the season" continues. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath improved to 4-2 with a 15-point victory over Varmint 'Tang and now must survive the bye weeks of several starters (DeSean Jackson(notes), Cedric Benson(notes), Vernon Davis(notes)) against the similarly shorthanded Divers. Thus, my buddy Malibu is hoping for big games from, among others, Torrey Smith(notes), Devin Hester(notes) and Brandon Pettigrew(notes). The psychotic Chargers fan is also running uncomfortably Raider-heavy this week, with Oakland's defense, Ford and newly acquired Kevin Boss(notes) all in the lineup. And if he can pick up Denarius Moore(notes) between now and gametime, I'm all for it. As I told Malibu, "You think Hue Jackson made such a bold move to let him hand off all game?" Finally, I advised Malibu's son, A-Man, to play newly acquired Tim Tebow over Matt Schaub. Remember: Gator Heaven. LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …

Lions running back Jerome Harrison(notes), who was diagnosed with a brain tumor this week, and Ryan Leaf, the former Chargers quarterback who told the Seattle Times he'll soon undergo radiation treatments to help treat a benign brain tumor. Please join me in sending thoughts and prayers to both men. On a less scary note, I'm also lining up a shot for Saints coach Sean Payton in wake of his surgery to repair the broken leg and torn MCL he suffered during a sideline collision last Sunday. And Payton's quick return to work reminds me never to question the toughness of the men who play this game – or those who coach it. For example, last November Chiefs coach Todd Haley jumped into a run-and-catch drill near the start of a practice and caught a ball to make a point about proper technique to his players, only to land awkwardly and rip a tendon completely off his knee and quadriceps. Because he holds a position of authority over men who routinely play through insane amounts of pain, Haley chose to play it off and continued to preside over the practice. It was 20 degrees outside, and he undoubtedly felt like screaming his lungs out and popping some Vicodin. A few days later he had a four-hour surgery that left him in a brace that would keep his leg fully extended for the next three months. He never missed a day of work. ¡Salud!

THIS WEEK'S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

Continuing the remarkable renaissance of Cal baseball, former Golden Bears standout Allen Craig came through with a pinch-hit, game-winning RBI single to give the Cardinals a 3-2 victory over the Rangers in Game 1 of the World Series. I just wish Danny Fry had been in the booth. … On Friday afternoon Cal's defending national champion women's swimming team hosts Utah at Spieker Pool. Also, Cal's defending national champion men's swimming team hosts Utah at Spieker Pool. That is all – I just love writing defending national champion.

As for Cal football, which hosts Utah on Saturday at AT&T Park in San Francisco … I don't really want to talk about it. At all.

And as much as I hate asking this particular question, here goes: When does basketball season start?

YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK

Iowa couple holding hands

LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler(notes) was caught on microphone saying something naughty about offensive coordinator Mike Martz last Sunday, and a blustery wind in the Windy City ensued. It's no big deal – quarterbacks and coaches communicate this way in the heat of battle all the time, and it's generally understood that the passion isn't personal. Cutler, however, deserves to expound upon his thoughts, at least in a hypothetical sense. Picture the QB rocking the red plaid sports coat and, in a strictly censored sense, giving Martz a piece of his mind – to the tune of Cee Lo Green's "[Forget] You."

You see me getting pulled down
By a linebacker and I'm like
Forget you!
Oo, oo, ooo
I guess collapsing the pocket
Is what you love I'm like
Forget you!
And forget Tice too!
I said, if I was in Denver, I'd be protected
Ha, now ain't that some … (ain't that some …)
And although there's pain in my chest
You still won't max protect, and so …
Forget you!
Oo, oo, ooo

Yeah I'm sorry, but are you drinking Bacardi?
You think this line can keep me upright?
No I'm not Kurt Warner(notes), and you're such a smarty
But the way you're callin' plays just bites

I pity the fool that plays QB for you
(oh damn his name's Jay Cutler)
Well
(kick me like Kevin Butler)
Ooooooh
I've got some news for you
Yeah go run and tell your big boss Lovie

You see me getting pulled down
By a linebacker and I'm like
Forget you!
Oo, oo, ooo
I guess collapsing the pocket
Is what you love I'm like
Forget you!
And forget Tice too!
I said, if I was in Denver, I'd be protected
Ha, now ain't that some … (ain't that some … )
And although there's pain in my chest
You still won't max protect, and so …
Forget you!
Oo, oo, ooo

Now I know that my body language
Makes 'em think that I don't care
I might be grumpy, I sure am jumpy
Cause grinnin' ain't easy for this ol' Bear

I pity the fool that plays QB for you
(oh damn his name's Jay Cutler)
Well
(kick me like Kevin Butler)
Ooooooh
I've got some news for you
Ooooh – I want to throw one at your head

You see me getting pulled down
By a linebacker and I'm like
Forget you!
Oo, oo, ooo
I guess collapsing the pocket
Is what you love I'm like
Forget you!
And forget Tice too!
I said, if I was in Denver, I'd be protected
Ha, now ain't that some … (ain't that some …)
And although there's pain in my chest
You still won't max protect, and so …
Forget you!
Oo, oo, ooo

Now Mikey, Mikey, Mikey, why d'you wanna let 'em hurt me so bad?
(so bad, so bad, so bad)
I hated Josh McDaniels cause he told me
"Don't you know I'm the dad"
(your dad, your dad, your dad)
Yes he did
I'm like
Goodbye! Goodbye! Goodbye hater
Oh! I wonder
Oh! Could you be worse?
Oooh!

You see me getting pulled down
By a linebacker and I'm like
Forget you!
Oo, oo, ooo
I guess collapsing the pocket
Is what you love I'm like
Forget you!
And forget Tice too!
I said, if I was in Denver, I'd be protected
Ha, now ain't that some … (ain't that some … )
And although there's pain in my chest
You still won't max protect, and so …
Forget you!
Oo, oo, ooo

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