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Catching up with … the Texans

10.11.12 at 12:24 pm ET
By

J.J. Watt

In terms of setting up the AFC playoff picture, the Texans are pretty similar to the Patriots. Both are considered elite teams in weak divisions that are heavy favorites to cruise through the remainder of their easy schedules and, as of recent weeks, have potent running attacks. They are also likely the toughest opponent remaining on each others schedules.

That is where the similarities stop, however, as the Texans have built their 5-0 run around their elite defense that is balanced with an offense that is predicated around giving the ball to Arian Foster and Matt Schaub not letting anything bad happen. While Houston does run a pretty conservative gameplan under head coach Gary Kubiak, it’s been effective, as the Texans are currently tied for third in the league in scoring with 29.8 points per game while their defense has shut down opposing offenses, ranking third and fourth in yards per game and points per game, respectively.

The Patriots haven’t seen the Texans since they met in the final week of 2009, in which a throwaway game for the playoff-bound Patriots turned disastrous when Wes Welker tore his ACL. Since then, that upstart team has gone through a lot of changes en route to becoming a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Here’s what we do know about the Texans.

1. They’re arguably the best team in the league, for now:

Monday night’s matchup against the Jets was supposed to be a slaughter of a team that had just lost two of its best players and a starting quarterback that isn’t expected to finish the season as such. The result was a win, which is what matters, but the fact that the Jets had the ball with a chance to score a go-ahead touchdown in the closing minutes makes the 23-17 victory much less convincing.

While a close call against a mediocre team is speculation, the loss of inside linebacker Brian Cushing for the season is not. Cushing, who tore his ACL against the Jets, is not only one of the best players on the Texans defense, he’s one of the most versatile, excelling in both coverage and blitzing in addition to his stoutness against the run. Filling in for Cushing will be some combination of second-year player Tim Dobbins and former Cowboy Bradie James, resulting in a huge dropoff at a vital spot in the defense.

Still, the Texans are one of two undefeated teams left in the NFL and, the Jets game aside, have looked great in the process. Although, that 5-0 record could be a product of notching some easy wins against the Titans, Dolphins and Jaguars while beating the Broncos and Jets by six points each. But it could also be the mark of a team that’s outperformed most of the NFL. The answer is likely somewhere in the middle.

2. J.J. Watt is a force to be reckoned with:

Watt had a strong rookie season with the Texans and quickly became a major cog of the 2011 team’s defense that lost Mario Williams early in the season. Now, especially after Monday night’s breakout performance against the Jets, Watt has skipped right from the “rising star” stage to having the phrase “NFL’s best defensive lineman” thrown around.

Watt is currently second in the league in sacks with 7.5 (and was actually the league leader until Wednesday) and currently tied for third in passes defended with eight. That’s out of the entire league, not just defensive linemen. Trailing only the Saints’ Patrick Robinson and the Bears’ Tim Jennings, Watt is currently tied with, among others, Devin McCourty for the third for a stat that in which a defensively lineman normally has no business contending. The next closest non-defensive back on that list include two linebackers with five passes defended while the closest defensive lineman has four.

All of this comes from a defensive end in a 3-4 defense, a position that rarely produces many stars, much less explosive ones like Watt. While there are exceptions, like former Patriot Richard Seymour, 3-4 ends are usually relegated to playing two-gap assignments and trying to free up their linebackers. Think Seymour’s talented but much-less heralded linemate Ty Warren.

3. This model should look familiar:

A great defense, an offense built around a feature back and a quarterback that can manage the game and drive down the field when he needs to? It may be absurd to say, but the 2012 Texans are built very similarly to the Pats’ Super Bowl winning teams of the early 2000s, especially the 2004 squad.

Lets look at the biggest stretch of the comparison: Schaub and 2004 Tom Brady. It may seem crazy looking back, but Schaub’s 2012 looks very similar to Brady’s numbers through five games in that season: both quarterbacks averaged roughly 232 yards per game, Schaub’s 99.2 passing rating beats out Brady’s 93.5 at that point and his 8:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio matches up with Brady’s mark of 10:5. In fact, the Patriots went on to finish 11th in the NFL in passing yardage, making such a role possible for Schaub to fill.

Other comparisons are there: Watt looks like a young Seymour, Arian Foster is every bit as good as Corey Dillon was, Jonathan Joseph is a top-tier cornerback like Ty Law and, before his injury, Cushing was comparable to Tedy Bruschi’s play at that time. That’s not even mentioning Andre Johnson, who, when healthy, is far more explosive that the Pats’ 2004 receiving corps, which was led by David Givens, who caught 56 balls that year.

The Texans have a long way to go before they go 14-2 and win a Super Bowl, and the NFL’s come a long way since then, particularly in the way teams are scoring points these days. But if Pats fans look at this team with they come to New England in Week 14 and think they’ve seen a team like this before, it’s because they have.

Looking ahead:

The Texans are a virtual lock for a playoff spot. They’re 5-0 and the other three teams in their division would celebrate a .500 record, with the biggest threat being a Colts team that was the worst in the NFL last year. The Texans would likely have to go 3-8 for the rest of the season for there to be a realistic shot of missing the playoffs and that’s with a schedule that currently has four teams with winning records left on the schedule, which include the Packers, Ravens, Bears and, of course, the Patriots in Week 14.

Texans remaining schedule:
Week 6 vs Packers (2-3)
Week 7 @ Ravens (3-2)
Week 8 BYE
Week 9 vs Bills (2-3)
Week 10 @ Bears (4-1)
Week 11 vs Jaguars (1-4)
Week 12 @ Lions (1-3)
Week 13 @ Titans (1-4)
Week 14 @ Patriots (3-2)
Week 15 vs Colts (2-2)
Week 16 vs Vikings (4-1)
Week 17 @ Colts (2-2)

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