It's that bittersweet time of year again at 32 Questions Headquarters – or, as the beautiful people call it, 32QHQ.
Beginning Jan. 5, we'll restrict our top-to-bottom trip around the NFL to the postseason participants and, sadly, bid a sentimental farewell to 20 of our favorite franchises until next season.
There is, however, a silver lining: Depending upon what happens Sunday, there's a decent chance I won't have to hazard any more ill-fated guesses about where the Texans reside in the league's pecking order.
The Texans are the NFL's ultimate tease, a team capable of putting together brilliant stretches of football, which are inevitably followed by maddening bursts of incompetence.
Before this season – and not for the first time – I thought the Texans were good enough to qualify for the playoffs, something they have yet to do in their eight-year history.
When Houston lost three of its first five games, I figured I'd been duped again. After the Texans rallied to win three in a row, including an impressive 28-17 road victory over the Bengals, then lost a close battle on the road to the undefeated Colts, my optimism returned.
As the Indy defeat degenerated into a four-game losing streak that dropped the Texans to 5-7, I pretty much wanted to disown them. And last Sunday, when Houston jumped all over Miami and won its third straight game to keep its postseason dream alive, I was right back on the bandwagon.
In fairness, I wasn't the only person caught off guard by the way the Texans (8-7) turned it up on Sunday. The Dolphins (7-8), who fell behind 27-0 in the first half of a game they desperately needed to win, appeared pretty damned shell-shocked, too.
"I think we surprised them," Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson(notes) said. "We knew coming into this game it was life or death. If we didn't win, it would be over for us. And we played like it from the start."
The real question is, why did Robinson and his teammates wait until they were on the brink of mathematical elimination before mounting their charge? It's not an unfamiliar pattern, either: Last year the Texans started 0-4 and 3-7 before rallying to finish 8-8, which was enough to quiet talk about coach Gary Kubiak's job security.
After Sunday's triumph, Texans sources believe Kubiak (30-33 over four seasons) has likely saved his job again, rumors about the impending arrival of Bill Cowher or Mike Shanahan notwithstanding. Of course, Kubiak's return would be a slam dunk if the Texans can defeat the AFC East champion Patriots on Sunday and get the help they need to qualify for a wild-card berth.
If the Texans win, they'll need some help from the Jets, Broncos or Ravens, at least two of whom would have to lose on Sunday for Houston to sneak into the playoffs.
Amid so much uncertainty, the Texans are wisely focusing their energies on the one thing they can control – trying to clinch the first winning season in franchise history.
"Our attitude is just to come out and play more sound," middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans(notes) said Sunday. "We feel like we let a lot of games out of our hands that we should have had. If we can avoid mistakes, we can win games like that."
Echoed Robinson: "Most of the games we lost this season were due to self-inflicted wounds. As long as we can avoid doing that, we'll keep the faith. It's possible that things could work out in our favor, so we're just going to keep playing hard and see what happens."
In the meantime, I have the Texans right where they belong in our final list of queries featuring all 32 teams: In the middle.
2. San Diego Chargers: Even though Shawne Merriman(notes) has been a virtual nonentity this season, have you noticed how much better Shaun Phillips(notes) is when his bookend pass rusher is in the lineup?
5. Arizona Cardinals: After punter Ben Graham(notes) forced Rams returner Danny Amendola to fumble Sunday, did he receive a celebratory phone call and hearty cheer from former Chargers punter Darren Bennett?
8. Minnesota Vikings: Are the wheels coming off – or was Brett Favre's(notes) brilliant comeback in Monday night's overtime defeat to the Bears enough to shock the Vikes' offense back into formidable form?
11. Denver Broncos: If I'd predicted before Sunday's game that a Broncos receiver would be ejected for making contact with an official, how many of you would have guessed the culprit wouldn't be Brandon Marshall(notes)?
12. Baltimore Ravens: Yo, Troy Smith(notes) – is there any way you could have waited to make your urgent trade request until, you know, the Ravens had finished playing the game that will decide their postseason fate?
19. Tennessee Titans: Can Chris Johnson get the 234 rushing yards he needs to break Eric Dickerson's all-time single-season record against the Seahawks – and is there any doubt coach Jeff Fisher will give him every opportunity to do so?
21. San Francisco 49ers: Would it kill Mike Singletary to let Isaac Bruce(notes), one of the best receivers of his era, play in what could be the final game of his career in front of the fans who adore him most?
24. Cleveland Browns: After being doused with Gatorade by his players following Sunday's victory over his former team, did defensive coordinator Rob Ryan look something like this upon entering the locker room?
- the Texans