- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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Final Power Ranking: 10
Preseason Power Ranking: 11
Biggest surprise: An impressive degree of resolve. Along the way to the AFC South title and the franchise’s first playoff berth, the Texans lost outside linebacker Mario Williams and quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart. They were without receiver Andre Johnson for a good stretch of the season because of two separate hamstring injuries. They suffered a bunch of other injuries that tested their depth. And they answered resoundingly. Take away a team’s best player on both sides of the ball -- Williams and Johnson wear those crowns -- and anyone is going to struggle. But the Texans forged on and played well enough to secure the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoff field. I questioned the team’s mental makeup heading into the season, but the staff and roster turned a major corner in erasing such concerns.
Biggest disappointment: The Colts were terrible, the Jaguars were way down and the Titans ultimately didn’t threaten for the division crown. The best teams in the AFC are hardly dominant. They all have holes. Had the Texans not lost Schaub to a foot fracture in Week 10 at Tampa Bay, it’s fair to think they could have made a bid for one of the top-two seeds. With a bye and home field deeper into the playoffs, they may well have entered the postseason as a favorite to advance to the Super Bowl. It’s disappointing that in a year when things lined up for them, they’ve lost so much that they’d have to be somewhat of a Cinderella to make a big run deep.
Biggest need: There is nothing giant looming. Williams is not under contract for 2012, so he’ll be an issue. Do they need to sign him long term? Or have they shown they can thrive on defense without him? A franchise tag is prohibitive as it would cost more than $16 million. The next great receiver for the system who will complement and, perhaps eventually replace, Johnson would be nice. But personnel-wise this team will have great flexibility in the draft, enjoying the luxury of taking the best players it sees, rather than being driven by a weak position group or two.
Team MVP: We can make a strong case for cornerback Johnathan Joseph, inside linebacker Brian Cushing or outside linebacker Connor Barwin. With such a wealth of candidates, we’ll cop out and shift to the guy who schemes for them, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. In the span of one season, the Texans went from being one of the league’s very worst defenses to being one of the very best. Guys have a swagger that comes from Phillips' confidence that he will accentuate strengths and mask weaknesses and that he can find the weak spot in an offense to attack. The pass rush has constantly harassed quarterbacks and the secondary contests a large percentage of passes.
New security: Gary Kubiak stayed the course and stuck with the things he believed would work in time. It all may have taken longer than he’d hoped, and his team certainly enjoyed some good fortune in the Colts’ fall and the availability of Phillips. But the head coach who came into the season with the very real possibility of being fired if he didn’t take his team to the postseason has delivered. He and his staff have earned new deals that ensure they’ll be overseeing an excellent core going forward.