FanHouse's 2010 NFL Season Preview features division-by-division predictions based on our tried and true "Heat Index" formula. Each team is graded on a scale of 1-10 (10 being highest) in five key categories: Offense, Defense, Special Teams, Coaching and Intangibles. The higher the score, the better we think the team will be this season. Coming Sept. 6: NFC South
Make the playoffs. It's the standard goal of any NFL franchise -- once you're in the tournament, anything can happen -- but for the Houston Texans it would be a monumental milestone. The Texans, who joined the league as an expansion club in 2002, have yet to experience postseason play, but entering Coach Gary Kubiak's fifth season they're inching in the right direction. The 9-7 record of 2009 was the first winning mark in the club's eight-year history, though achieving it took four straight victories to end the season (three against losing teams, the last against a New England squad that had clinched its division). Baby steps, baby. Now it's time for one big giant step into January, but it will likely take a winning record in the AFC South. Whoops! The Texans have never done that either, finishing 1-5 vs division foes in '09.
Offense: Moving the ball for the Texans isn't the problem; doing it with balance is. Quarterback Matt Schaub and wide receiver Andre Johnson have become as dangerous a combination as there is in the league. In his first completely healthy season, Schaub completed 68 percent of his passes for 4,770 yards, 29 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Johnson, meanwhile, has blossomed into one of the game's most explosive wideouts. In '09, he caught 101 passes for a league-high 1,569 yards and nine TDs. Kevin Walters isn't nearly as explosive on the other side, but he's reliable when healthy, and tight end Owen Daniel, coming off a season-ending knee injury, is another rising star. Daniel had 40 catches and five TDs through eight games when he got hurt. Given their passing game, imagine if the Texans could run the ball. Last season, Houston finished 30th in rushing offense (92.2 yards per game), with Steve Slaton leading all ball carriers with a measly 437 yards. Rookie second-round pick Ben Tate could have made a difference, but the former Auburn star was lost for the season during training camp with an ankle injury. New offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, who replaced Kyle Shanahan (now with his father in Washington), has to keep the passing game lethal and jumpstart Slaton and the running game to keep defenses on their toes. Heat Index: 7
Defense: Houston got criticized on many fronts in 2006 for bypassing Reggie Bush and using the No. 1 overall draft pick to take defensive end Mario Williams. No one is criticizing the Texans anymore. Williams, despite playing hurt most of '09, has 35 sacks over the last three seasons and has become the leader of a developing defensive line, but it's the Texans' linebacking corps that helped the defense move into the top half of the league statistically. Pro Bowl middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans is a three-down player and sideline-to-sideline force. He found quite the complement in rookie outside linebacker Brian Cushing last season, but the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year apparently found some help in his medicine cabinet. Cushing is suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the league's banned substance policy. The Texans let their best defensive back, cornerback Dunta Robinson, bolt via free agency to Atlanta. Robinson, though, was a top-10 pick but never a splash-play guy. The Texans hope they found one in rookie first-rounder Kareem Jackson, who started for Alabama's national championship team last fall. Heat Index: 5
Coaching: Kubiak's record is a 31-33, but clearly the guy knows what he's doing on offense. Spending a good part of his career alongside Dan Reaves as John Elway's backup and sharing headsets with Mike Shanahan in both San Francisco (quarterbacks coach) and Denver (offensive coordinator), the guy has mastered the West Coast passing game and zone-blocking scheme. Obviously, the Texans like him and were encouraged by last year's strong finish. The club signed him to a contract extension good through the 2012 season. Heat Index: 5
Intangibles: The Texans got a taste of what it's like to be winners, but it took a too-little, too-late flurry to get them in a wild-card race that fell to two other 9-7 teams (Baltimore and the New York Jets). The leaders on the team (Schaub, Williams, Ryans) have to put some demands on this team, starting with more accountability in AFC South play. You don't do that by going a combined 1-15 all-time against Peyton Manning. And you certainly don't do it by losing twice to Jacksonville in the only winning season in team history. Heat Index 3
Total Heat Index: 28/50.There's lots of optimism in Houston, but we'll see how sunny everyone's disposition heading into October. The Texans open at home against the Colts -- and wouldn't that be a great statement to make. Week 2 takes them to Washington, where the younger Shanahan certainly will have some intel to share with Redskins defensive coaches. Good test. The third game brings in cross-state rival Dallas in the just the third regular-season meeting between the Texas two. We'll know a lot about this team after those three games.