Toronto, ON – For nearly a decade, it seemed the AFC South was amongst the most predictable divisions at the onset of a new NFL season, as the Indianapolis Colts have finished at the top in seven of the last eight years.
It had become commonplace for insiders to anoint the Colts as the division front-runners. With the same regularity, many have made claims in recent years that one team was the likely candidate to finally topple Peyton Manning and company - the Houston Texans.
Following Gary Kubiak's inaugural season as head coach in 2006, the Texans have been annually expected to make the jump from non-playoff team to contender, yet have fallen short of the mark year-after-year. Despite those shortcomings, experts and fans have restored their faith in Houston as each season seems to start with renewed optimism.
A successful three-year run in which they finished with at least a .500 record from 2007-09 had many predicting 2010 would definitely be the year the Texans finally supplanted Indianapolis as the toast of the AFC South and qualified for the postseason for the first time in franchise history. An opening-week victory over its divisional rivals would initially support such claims, but after starting the season 4-2, Houston would falter down the stretch by going 2-8 following its bye week.
There were some reasonable explanations for the decline, primarily injuries, as All-Pro wideout Andre Johnson had to deal with a wonky ankle for much of the season. Regardless, the injury served as no excuse for the team's disappointing 6-10 record, matching the mark Kubiak had in his first season as bench boss.
Citing signs of regression, many fans felt it was time to let the franchise's second head coach walk, with the belief that the team no longer responded to the 50-year-old Kubiak after years of showing no progress. That sentiment wasn't shared by those within the organization, however, as the Houston native was retained, though that didn't mean change wasn't soon to come.
Feeling a defense with the likes of Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing wasn't producing at the level expected of an All-Pro lineup, the Texans fired defensive coordinator Frank Bush and replaced him with someone who knows a thing or two about football fanatics in the Lone Star State - former Dallas Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips.
The revamping of the defense didn't stop at the top, as Houston made possibly the biggest offseason moves outside of Philadelphia, obtaining cornerback Johnathan Joseph and safety Danieal Manning to aid an already imposing front line with an equally-intimidating secondary.
Now just weeks away from the start of the 2011 season, we're hit with an eerie sense of deja vu about Houston - only this time it may be warranted.
Through the first three games of preseason play, the Texans are an impressive 3-0 and boast the highest point differential of any team in the NFL at plus-77. Even with running back Arian Foster suffering from a hamstring injury, there is much for fans to be excited for in Space City.
Of course, results in exhibition matches should be taken with a grain of salt. However, much of the belief that the Texans' time is now is also predicated on how the rest of the division is shaping up.
There seems to be no end in sight for Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson's holdout for a new contract, and even if a deal is reached, there seems little reason to believe the Titans will be successful with a head coach not named Jeff Fisher at the helm for the first time since 1994.
Though Maurice Jones-Drew will still be terrorizing defensive lines in Jacksonville, there was little noticeable change this offseason to a team that fell just short of the playoffs in 2010. Surprisingly enough, the Jaguars appear to be the division's most promising contender to the Colts outside of Houston, due to their continuity and the locker room's belief in head coach Jack Del Rio.
Even the defending division champs' future hangs in balance. The health of Manning remains in question and even when he does return, the Colts look to be far off -- on either side of the ball -- from the team that fell to New Orleans in the Super Bowl just two seasons ago.
With the competition suddenly appearing to be on the same playing field - if not below it - plus a lineup consisting of All-Pro talent on both sides of the ball along with a new defensive mastermind renowned for his effective schemes and stingy units, this could very well be the season Texas' other team finally makes it over the hump.