Playoff appearances used to be the goal for the Houston Texans after the franchise's humble beginnings. Now, that's the expectation - and the goal is a Super Bowl.
While expectations for the San Diego Chargers may be considerably lower this year, they're anxious to hit the field with a new coach on the sidelines.
Brian Cushing and the Texans defense will try to spoil the Chargers' debut of a new offensive scheme under first-year coach Mike McCoy on Monday night in San Diego.
Playoff appearances each of the last two years were enough for a Houston franchise that went 55-89 in its first nine seasons. But after going 12-4 last year, the Texans aren't sheepish about setting the bar higher.
"I think it's obviously our main goal and our final goal, but there are a lot of steps that lead up to that," Cushing said of reaching the Super Bowl. "It's mentioned here and there, but ... there's a ton of steps before we start talking about the Super Bowl and it becomes a realization. It's one of those things that we have a lot of work to do before that's real."
Having Cushing back is a good start.
The fifth-year linebacker - who signed a six-year, $55.6 million extension with Houston on Wednesday - returns after tearing his left ACL in Week 5 and missing the remainder of the season. The 2009 Defensive Rookie of the Year ranked 15th in the NFL from 2009-2011 with 323 tackles.
"It's a chance to go back out there and really establish our role as a dominant defense," he said. "To help with that is going to be a tremendous feeling."
Even without Cushing for most of the year, the Texans still finished seventh in total defense, bolstered by Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt's league-leading 20 1/2 sacks. While the unit was weaker against the pass, Houston added a veteran presence by signing nine-time Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed.
Coach Gary Kubiak said it's possible that Reed could play in the opener after he was taken off the physically unable to perform list Saturday following his recovery from offseason hip surgery. The nine-time Pro Bowler will practice in pads for the first time Friday.
D.J. Swearinger, a second-round pick out of South Carolina, could be called upon at free safety if Reed can't play.
The health of star running back Arian Foster has also been a concern all offseason after he missed camp with calf and back injuries. Foster's 956 carries over the last three seasons are 99 more than the next player, but coach Gary Kubiak told the team's official website he'd likely see a lighter workload in the opener after not playing any preseason games. That could mean more carries for Ben Tate, who has totaled 1,221 yards and six TDs the last two seasons behind Foster.
San Diego missed out on the playoffs for the third straight season with a 7-9 record, leading to the dismissal of Norv Turner and the hiring of McCoy, who had served as Denver's offensive coordinator.
The addition brings a feeling of excitement to a team that finished second-to-last in total offense last season.
"This is the longest week it seems like in history," said quarterback Philip Rivers, whose 88.6 passer rating was the second-lowest of his career since becoming a starter. "You wait for game week, then it gets here, and they add an extra day to it."
Unlike the old scheme focused on deep passes, McCoy's scheme puts a greater emphasis on short and intermediate routes. Plays that develop more quickly should help Rivers after he was sacked an AFC-high 49 times.
"I think we need to play better around him," McCoy said. "I've been saying that since Day 1. He is a great quarterback; Philip is going to be fine. We got to get the entire team, everybody, has to do their job better and Philip will do his job better."
The signing of former Patriot Danny Woodhead - who totaled 747 yards from scrimmage and seven TDs - should help Rivers compensate for the loss of receiver Danario Alexander after a torn ACL in practice last month. The Chargers are hopeful that receivers Malcom Floyd and Eddie Royal will be ready to go after recovering from a knee sprain and bruised lung, respectively.
San Diego is 4-0 in the all-time series, including a 29-23 road win on Nov. 7, 2010, as Rivers threw for 295 yards and four TDs.
The Chargers are one regular-season win shy of 400.