MICHAEL MAROT, AP Sports Writer- Bob McNair is raising the stakes in Houston. The playoffs are no longer good enough for the Texans owner. Now, it’s Super Bowl or bust.
After winning back-to-back AFC South titles and making back-to-back exits in the divisional round of the playoffs, Texans players have embraced the concept of taking the next logical step: bringing home the Lombardi Trophy.
“It’s obviously our main goal and our final goal,” linebacker Brian Cushing said. “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.”
This could be the Texans’ breakthrough season. With many of the expected AFC title contenders already dealing with major injuries, Houston appears in solid shape. It plays in a division with the surging Colts and two teams still trying to rebuild, Tennessee and Jacksonville. Houston just can’t afford another early postseason exit.
Here are five things to know about the AFC South:
SAME OLD, SAME OLD: Not much has changed over the last year. Actually, not much has changed in two years. Houston remains the overwhelming favorite to win the division. Indianapolis, with a healthy quarterback, is still a playoff contender. Tennessee and Jacksonville are still trying to figure out if their young quarterbacks can thrive in the NFL. This division again looks like a two-team horse race. How close could it be? If Indy had won at Houston last year, the Colts would have been division champs. Indianapolis has improved, but don’t expect the title chase to be quite that close in 2013.
TEXANS TWO-STEP: Houston may not be the trendy pick to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. But with New England looking for new receivers and tight ends, Baltimore trying to replace half of its starting defense, Pittsburgh still searching for a ground game and Denver trying to overcome injuries and Von Miller’s suspension, the Texans may be the most viable of the AFC favorites. They still have Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Schaub, Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson, former rushing champ Arian Foster, reigning Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt and Cushing, the 2009 Defensive Rookie of the Year.
They’ve also added Ed Reed, and if he’s healthy, he is a leader and has winning pedigree coming off a title with the Ravens. Houston should win a third straight division title, and with some good luck, could make its first AFC title game appearance.
HORSEPOWER II: Andrew Luck is the best young quarterback in the division, and Indy’s offense could improve with the addition of veteran linemen Gosder Cherilus and Donald Thomas, proven running back Ahmad Bradshaw and receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, a potential deep threat. Where the Colts made the most progress, though, is on defense.
Suddenly, the Colts look aggressive and confident in Chuck Pagano’s version of the Ravens’ 3-4 front, and this year the Colts have more players who fit into the system. A year ago, the Colts were good enough to reach the playoffs and push Baltimore on the road. This year, the Colts’ young team faces a tougher schedule and higher expectations, but don’t expect a major drop-off from the division’s second-best team.
NASHVILLE SOUND: Tennessee decided to play for the future when it made Jake Locker the starting quarterback last season. The payoff might come now, or more likely next year. The Titans are looking for more consistency and productivity from Locker, but they need something else even more: a healthy offensive line. Last season’s injury rash prevented RB Chris Johnson from getting on track and forced Tennessee to rely on Locker’s unproven arm too much. The combination derailed Tennessee’s season and nearly cost Mike Munchak his job. Munchak, Locker and the line are getting a second chance now, and if the defense is good enough to make them competitive — another huge uncertainty — the offense can’t afford to blow it.
THE JAG-GED EDGE: After another dismal season, new coach Gus Bradley inherits one of the league’s youngest teams and worst situations. Starting quarterback Blaine Gabbert still must prove he can win in the NFL. Former rushing champ Maurice-Jones Drew is returning from a foot injury that ruined his 2012 season. Receiver Justin Blackmon has been suspended for the first four games, and the defense still needs leadership and playmakers.
The most promising facet in Jacksonville might be that new team owner Shad Khan decided to rebuild. Khan’s commitment to success and a few wins may actually keep the hometown fans engaged — or at least get them to attend home games.
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