The Houston Texans and New York Jets need to put up or shut up early. Right away, in fact, as the NFL season kicks off.
If the Texans are to contend for their first playoff berth, they must find a way to beat the Indianapolis Colts, who come to Reliant Stadium on Sunday. Houston is 1-15 against Peyton Manning and the boys since entering the league in 2002.
Talk that this is the year the Texans will challenge Indy in the AFC South will be meaningless if the Colts keep on dominating the series.
“The expectation for the organization is to win a championship,” coach Gary Kubiak said. “That can’t get done until we win the AFC South or make the playoffs, so we’ve got to stay focused on those two things and that will be our goal. But we’ve got to understand the work that has to come to accomplish those goals.”
Houston’s optimism is based on its first winning record (9-7) a year ago, plus an offense that led the NFL in passing. The Matt Schaub to Andre Johnson combination is as good as any in the league, and tight end Owen Daniels is back from a torn right knee ligament sustained midway through the 2009 schedule.
Of course, the Colts are coming off an AFC title and have surrounded four-time MVP Manning with an even better cast on offense. If the defense is decent, another trip to the Super Bowl is hardly far-fetched.
“One thing we’ve always done, whether finishing on top or finishing short, is to put the previous season behind us,” Manning said. “We are just going to keep trying to do things the right way.”
Some observers would say the Jets are doing everything the right way, adding stars such as LaDainian Tomlinson, Jason Taylor, Santonio Holmes and Antonio Cromartie to their lineup. Others would say they are doing things far too loudly, from the profane “Hard Knocks” on HBO to their everyday verbosity.
“This is who we are,” coach Rex Ryan said without apologies. “Some people are going to like us and some people are not. At the end of the day, we want to paint an accurate picture of who we are.”
They should find out pretty quickly how good they are, with home matchups against Baltimore on Monday night and then against New England.
The Ravens are another hot choice to go far this year. They also have bulked up their offense by bringing in receivers Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, joining versatile running back Ray Rice, dependable veteran wideout Derrick Mason, and a healthy at last TE Todd Heap. Their defense always is formidable.
“There’s still a lot to come from this offense because there are so many guys that can make plays,” Mason said. “When you’ve got more than two or three guys that can catch the ball, you’re allowed to open up and expand your playbook.”
Other openers include Green Bay at Philadelphia; Cincinnati at New England; Dallas at Washington; Atlanta at Pittsburgh; Denver at Jacksonville; Carolina at the New York Giants; San Francisco at Seattle; Miami at Buffalo; Arizona at St. Louis; Detroit at Chicago; Oakland at Tennessee; and Cleveland at Tampa Bay.
The other Monday night game has San Diego at Kansas City.
Opening weekend began Thursday with the Saints grinding out a 14-9 win over Brett Favre’s Vikings in a rematch of last season’s NFC title game thriller. A key stat: The defending Super Bowl champs held Minnesota to 253 yards of offense.
Green Bay at Philadelphia
Few teams are getting the Super Bowl hype that Green Bay is. The Packers really seem to be grasping the 3-4 defense that coordinator Dom Capers installed last year, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers looks primed for a huge season. But there are questions on the offensive line, which will be tested by the Eagles’ Trent Cole, and in the secondary, which faces dangerous receivers DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and tight end Brent Celek.
Kevin Kolb has the QB job and nobody in Philly wants to use the rebuilding word. Still, this is not the star-studded roster that went to five NFC title games in the last decade.
Cincinnati at New England
T.O. and Ochocinco on one side, Randy Moss and Wes Welker on the other. Carson Palmer and Tom Brady chucking the ball.
Two division winners who lost wild-card playoff games and are expecting to go deeper in the playoffs face off in what could be the most entertaining matchup of the first weekend. It could get loud, given the trash-talking ways of Cincinnati’s wideouts. The scoreboards could be active, although both teams believe their defenses will hold up.
Dallas at Washington
If Donovan McNabb lost sleep in the offseason thinking about how the Cowboys manhandled him in the 2009 finale and then the wild-card playoff round, he can’t be very relaxed heading into the Sunday night game at FedEx Field. McNabb’s Redskins debut could get painful as the Cowboys ramp up the pass rush, led by All-Pro DeMarcus Ware and NT Jay Ratliff.
Perhaps the most played-out story line in the nation’s capital this summer has been the Albert Haynesworth saga. For now, he’s a part-time defensive tackle.
Atlanta at Pittsburgh
A major opportunity for the Falcons with Pittsburgh starting untested QB Dennis Dixon as Ben Roethlisberger begins his four-game suspension. Atlanta never had successive winning seasons until Matt Ryan and Michael Turner showed up. Now the Falcons are shooting for three in a row, not to mention unseating the Super Bowl champion Saints atop the NFC South.
The Steelers likely will need to win with defense and the ground game for a month. Fortunately for the Steel Curtain, all-world safety Troy Polamalu is healthy again, as is key DE Aaron Smith.
Denver at Jacksonville
Here’s one way to guarantee the Jaguars aren’t blacked out locally: Tim Tebow.
The backup QB comes to his hometown with the Broncos, and they didn’t work on special plays for the former Florida star all summer not to use him. Thousands of fans bought tickets for this matchup, so the crowd makeup could be as intriguing as the on-field action.
Carolina at New York Giants
The Panthers tend to play well in the Meadowlands, winning three of their four visits, including a 41-9 romp last December. That was in the old home for the Giants, and this is their first real game in the new, $1.6 billion building the Giants co-own with the Jets. Panthers coach John Fox is in the final year of his contract, so a victory here would be a nice early boost for his future in Carolina.
New York fell apart late last season and has issues at linebacker and, possibly, on the offensive line. Given time, Eli Manning has a nice collection of targets, led by Pro Bowler Steve Smith, whose numbers in 2009 easily surpassed Carolina’s former Pro Bowler named Steve Smith.
San Francisco at Seattle
It’s Pete Carroll’s official return to the NFL after a decade of brilliance and championships at Southern Cal. His Seahawks might lose half as many games this year as the 19 Carroll dropped with the Trojans. The rebuilding effort in Seattle is mammoth, and the team has shuttled players in and out all summer.
The Niners are being pegged as the NFC West favorite behind a solid running game with Frank Gore, an expected improvement in passing with Michael Crabtree in the lineup all season, and a staunch defense led by All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis, a favorite for defensive player of the year honors.
San Diego at Kansas City (Monday night)
Who is missing from the Chargers is as noteworthy as who is on hand for the overwhelming AFC West favorites. Gone to other teams are Tomlinson, Cromartie and Jamal Williams. Holding out are star receiver Vincent Jackson and starting left tackle Marcus McNeill. But still around are QB Philip Rivers, TE Antonio Gates, LBs Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips, probably enough to handle KC.
The Chiefs could be the busiest running team around with 1,000-yard rushers Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles in the backfield. Look for KC to try to pound San Diego in the second game of Monday night’s doubleheader.
Miami at Buffalo
A terse three-sentence statement announced Bill Parcells’ move into a consultant’s role this week. If the Tuna could have gotten away with no mention of the shift at all, he would have.
His team is fortunate to get balmy Buffalo in September instead of frigid western New York late in the season. WR Brandon Marshall should provide Miami with a door chewnfield threat it has lacked for years, but the Bills do have one strength: their secondary.
Arizona at St. Louis
Top overall pick Sam Bradford makes his debut against the most newsworthy team of the preseason. Unless the Rams’ offensive line comes together quickly, Bradford will spend a lot of time on his back or being chased out of the pocket.
Arizona already had lost Kurt Warner, Karlos Dansby, Anquan Boldin and Antrel Rolle before releasing QB Matt Leinart and opting for journeyman Derek Anderson. Ken Whisenhunt has been a real find as Cardinals coach, but he’s gone out on a shaky limb with that decision, and the two-time NFC West champs appear weakened overall.
Detroit at Chicago
Detroit won two games last season, which was two more than the previous year. Under coach Jim Schwartz and GM Martin Mayhew, the Lions appear to be building something substantial, and a win at Soldier Field would be a tremendous boost.
It would be a huge setback for the Bears, who were ravaged by injuries in 2009 and saw new quarterback Jay Cutler make too many mistakes. Chicago also needs a defensive turnaround after ranking 23rd against the rush.
Oakland at Tennessee
The Titans began 2009 with six straight losses before benching Kerry Collins for Vince Young. But the key for Tennessee this season is Chris Johnson, only the sixth man to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season. Johnson has his sights on an unprecedented 2,500.
Oakland has its sights on not losing at least 11 games for the eighth straight year. The Raiders might have some playmakers on defense with CB Nnamdi Asomugha, DT Richard Seymour and first-round pick LB Rolando McClain.
Cleveland at Tampa Bay
An early opportunity for two bad teams to get off to a good start. Jake Delhomme takes over at quarterback in Cleveland, which should be an improvement, but who will he be throwing to? Tampa Bay QB Josh Freeman broke his right thumb in the second exhibition game, but expects to play.
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