Texans looking to challenge AFC elite

Texans looking to challenge AFC elite
May 22, 2013, 1:00 pm
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BOSTON -- The Houston Texans have been methodically improving since 2007. Last season’s 12-4 campaign -- marred by a season-ending swan dive in which they lost three of their final four regular-season games -- was a two-game improvement over the 10-6 season of 2011.
Aside from a 6-10 year in 2010 which resulted in a remake of their defense, the Texans have been .500 or better every year since 2007.
Their chore now? Breaking through against the AFC elite. The spankings applied by the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in December and in the AFC Divisional Playoffs stung. But Texans GM Rick Smith told me Tuesday that getting through those losses is part of the process.
“It’s interesting how that happens,” Smith said when asked about teams learning how to compete on increasingly bigger stages. “It’s cyclical obviously. But if we’re going to reach our goal we’re going to have to learn how to go into an environment like that and win. And part of that maturation process for us as a team is experiencing those things. And I think that will help us moving forward because we’ve been in those environments and we’ve taken the steps whether it was making the playoffs for the first time, going on the road and trying to win on the road, and the kind of things we have not done that will help us and serve us well as we continue to evolve.”
The Patriots beat Houston 42-14 and 42-28 in their two meetings last season. The Texans’ vaunted defense was exposed by the Patriots’ up-tempo style. The urgency the Patriots’ offense showed in those games -- getting to the line quickly, snapping the ball as Houston was still processing personnel and matchups -- highlighted the in-game adjustments Houston will need to make as it plays high stakes games. The Texans’ best players and their coaching staff did not respond well to the challenges.
As the Texans work to improve on that and get key players like linebacker Brian Cushing back from injury, Smith acknowledges keeping an eye on the rest of the AFC hierarchy.  
“We keep track of what everybody is doing,” he said. “If you’re going to try and continue to remain competitive and win you better know what your competitors are doing.”
Arguably the biggest offseason move in the AFC was the flight of Wes Welker from New England to Denver. Both the Patriots and Broncos, obviously, are fighting in the same weight class and Houston is trying to prove its mettle there as well.  
Speaking of Welker, Smith said, “He’s a force. He was so connected to the quarterback (Tom Brady) and that was a significant piece of their offense. That trust was so big. They were as good as anybody and I’m sure (the Patriots) will address that. Certainly the signing (of Danny Amdendola) they made will do that. But if you’re asking me about (Welker’s) contributions to their offense, it was pretty significant.”
The Texans face a fascinating December this year. On December 1, they host New England. Two weeks later, they are at Indy, and then they host Welker, Peyton Manning and the Broncos.
By Christmas, we’ll have an idea whether the work done in the offseason by Smith and head coach Gary Kubiak was enough to help the Texans break on through.