By Sam McPherson

The AFC South is up for grabs in 2015, and that’s the best news the Houston Texans could have hoped for after starting the season with two losses. A 19-9 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave Houston its first victory of the season, and now all four teams in the division are tied with 1-2 records after three weeks of play. The division title is in play for the Texans, and that means the team needs to get its offense in gear after three weeks of mediocre performances. Running back Arian Foster, however, still may not be ready for the Week 4 matchup on the road against the Atlanta Falcons.

Foster could be a game-time decision on Sunday, based on how workouts go this week. The Texans don’t want to rush him back, only to see him re-injure the troublesome groin. If he’s not 100 percent, Houston will not risk playing him. Running back Alfred Blue continues to be the man on the spot in Foster’s absence, as he ran for 139 yards and a touchdown against the Bucs, a desperately needed effort for the Texans stagnant offense. Toss in a little defense, and Houston has its winning formula.

Mallett Is The QB For Now

No one is going to mistake quarterback Ryan Mallett for an All-Pro, but if Blue can keep running the ball effectively, the Houston QB just needs to play mistake-free football. Mallett has thrown an interception in each of the last two games, and he has to cut down on mistakes like that. On the positive side, Mallett also has thrown TDs in each game, and his completion percentage improved from Week 2 to Week 3 with the successful running attack behind him. That will be the key going forward: To win, the Texans need to run well and throw wisely.

Of course, we know Head Coach Bill O’Brien won’t hesitate to return Brian Hoyer to the position if Mallett makes fatal errors. Either way, the Houston QB situation largely depends on the RB situation for its success.

Running Black “Blues”

Blue’s Week 3 showing could give the Texans confidence to be patient with Foster’s health. He had back-to-back runs totaling 20 yards on the Houston TD drive in the first quarter, and that was very important in terms of getting the Texans—and Mallett—off to a good start. Blue added two carries for 18 yards during the first drive of the third quarter, where a field goal gave Houston the lead again. Finally, he had three carries for 22 yards and the game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter. That’s the kind of RB performance the Texans require.

Overall, his numbers for the season are solid enough: 45 carries, 187 yards, one TD and a 4.2 yards-per-carry average. When the defense gives the offense a chance to establish itself, Blue can do the job. But it’s tough for any RB to carry a team when trying to play catch up. So if the QB situation depends on the RB situation, then the RB situation depends on the defense.

Best Defense In The AFC South

So far, the Houston defense has surrendered just 20 points per game, and that’s the best mark in the division. In terms of yards, the Texans rank 12th in the NFL currently, giving up 332.7 yards per game. That’s not a good number, considering the somewhat anemic offenses Houston has faced this year. In Week 4, the Texans get their toughest test yet: The Atlanta Falcons offense is ranked third at 411.7 yards a contest. For comparison, Houston’s three prior opponents are ranked 22nd (Kansas City), 16th (Carolina) and 26th (Tampa Bay).

It will be vital for J.J. Watt and his friends to put pressure on Atlanta QB Matt Ryan from start to finish on Sunday. Otherwise, the Texans could be headed for another loss, and this one won’t be a close one like the first two were earlier this season.

Putting It All Together

The formula for Houston success is clear: Play good defense, run the ball well and throw the ball wisely to minimize mistakes. It may be tough to accomplish that this week against the Falcons on the road, and Week 5 presents another huge challenge with the division-favorite Indianapolis Colts coming to town. After that, the Texans have three winnable games in a row (at Jacksonville, at Miami, Tennessee) before the bye in Week 9. This five-game stretch will determine Houston’s 2015 fate. If the Texans can win three or four of the upcoming five games, they may have a chance at the playoffs.

Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.

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