The Houston Texans advanced to the divisional round of the playoffs the last two seasons.
That simply won't do this year. The Texans are aiming much higher this season and anything less than reaching the Super Bowl will be a disappointment for a team loaded on both sides of the ball.
"I think it's obviously our main goal and our final goal, but there are a lot of steps that lead up to that," linebacker Brian Cushing said of reaching the Super Bowl. "It's mentioned here and there, but ... 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 before that's real."
The return of Cushing should be a boost to a defense that added safety Ed Reed and features 2012 defensive player of the year J.J. Watt. The unit was at its best early last season before Cushing tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in Week 5 and missed the rest of the year.
Cushing is healthy and can't wait to return to the field with his teammates when Houston opens the season on Sept. 9 at San Diego.
"Monday Night Football is a great stage to really perform on," Cushing said. "It's a chance to go back out there and really establish our role as a dominant defense. To help with that is going to be a tremendous feeling."
Five things to look for as the Texans prepare for the season opener:
WILL REED BE READY?: The Texans added Reed, a nine-time Pro Bowler, in the offseason to shore up their secondary. But as the season approaches, perhaps the biggest question for this team is if he'll be ready for the season-opener after April hip surgery. Coach Gary Kubiak said Reed visited the surgeon who performed the surgery to repair a partially-torn labrum this week and the coach said that they should know more about his status for Week 1 soon. If he can't go, rookie second-round pick D.J. Swearinger could be forced into action early.
ANDRE FINALLY HAS HELP: Andre Johnson has starred at receiver since he was drafted in the franchise's second season, but he's never had a big-time playmaker to line up on the opposite side. The Texans hope that will change this season after they chose a receiver in the first round of the draft for the first time since drafting Johnson when they selected DeAndre Hopkins with the 27th overall pick. Hopkins led Clemson with 82 receptions for 1,405 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior last season. Hopkins sustained a concussion in the second preseason game, but should be OK for the opener. Houston is also excited about the development of Lestar Jean, Keshawn Martin and DeVier Posey, and Kubiak said that this is the best group of receivers he's had since he took over the team.
WHAT WILL WATT DO NEXT?: Watt has vowed to be even better this season than he was in 2012. It's difficult to image how he could do much more than he did a year ago after putting up eye-popping numbers in just his second NFL season. Watt led the league last year with 20 1/2 sacks and had 81 tackles. But perhaps most impressive was his incredible knack for batting down passes, 16 in all, which has earned him the catchy nickname J.J. Swatt (which he doesn't really like). He's unhappy that team struggled down the stretch last year, losing three of its last four regular-season games to miss out on a playoff bye and homefield advantage in the playoffs. "We need to finish," he said. "Last year, we didn't finish at the end of the season and that's exactly what we need to do this year."
FOSTER'S FEEL: Running back Arian Foster came off the physically unable to perform list after struggling with a calf injury and back soreness for most of camp. He did not play in Houston's third preseason game and Kubiak said he won't play in the exhibition finale, leaving questions about how he'll perform in the opener. Kubiak said he thinks Foster will be fine without getting a preseason snap, and Foster agreed, saying he can get in synch with the offensive line in practice. With just one other experienced running back on the roster in Ben Tate, his health will be a key for the success of the offense. Foster ran for 1,424 yards and 15 touchdowns last year for his third straight 1,200-yard rushing season.
CAN SCHAUB WIN A BIG GAME: Quarterback Matt Schaub started every game last season and threw for more than 4,000 yards with 22 touchdowns. Despite those numbers, some question whether Schaub is the quarterback to take Houston to the next level. Last season was his playoff debut after he missed Houston's first playoff run with a foot injury. The Texans season ended with a 41-28 loss to New England. Schaub threw for 343 yards and two scores in that game, but also had an interception in the fourth quarter ending a drive which could have got Houston within a touchdown. That miscue had many fans and media blaming the quarterback for the loss. Kubiak has repeatedly expressed confidence in his quarterback and Schaub said he "puts blinders on" and ignores the outside criticism.
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