AFC South: Jermichael Finley

Andre Johnson/Matt SchaubBob Levey/Icon SMIAndre Johnson and Matt Schaub help lead a Texans team that has a clear path to the division title.
It’s a bit easy to say the AFC South should belong to the Houston Texans this season.

But I’m joining the chorus and saying it anyway: If this team can’t win this division, it’ll be time for owner Bob McNair to crumple up the plan and aim it for the closest trash can.

The Texans have a championship-caliber quarterback, receiver, tight end and running back (maybe two or three of those) all working with a smart and skilled offensive line that understands how it needs to work.

Mindset is the only question mark on offense, starting with Matt Schaub’s ability to rise to big moments. Even if he’s only average in that category, with Peyton Manning out for at least the bulk of the season, Schaub is the best signal-caller in the division by a wide margin.

The Schaub-Andre Johnson-Arian Foster combination is among the league’s best. Who has a better trio?

Philadelphia perhaps, with Michael Vick-LeSean McCoy-DeSean Jackson. Maybe Matt Ryan-Roddy White-Michael Turner in Atlanta. If we sub tight ends for running backs, San Diego with Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson is in the conversation as is Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley.

[+] EnlargeWade Phillips
Troy Taormina/US PresswireThe Texans' defense had an outstanding performance in its first game under coordinator Wade Phillips.
The revamped Houston defense was outstanding in the opener. Sure, much of that had to do with the Colts' offense in its first game with Kerry Collins playing in place of Manning. But we saw all the elements of a defense that can win games -- stout run defense, consistent pressure on the quarterback, quality coverage, the ability to cope with sudden-change situations.

One can see swagger and confidence in the body language of guys thrilled to be working under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. I think he’s too low key, but it can clearly work for him as a coordinator. He has a way of keeping things simple and keeping the mood light, and players have bought in. I never sensed a similar feeling when Richard Smith or Frank Bush manned the post, though they obviously didn’t have the same quality of personnel Phillips will enjoy.

On special teams, Neil Rackers has a big leg that will make a lot of touchbacks and long field goals. Jacoby Jones and Danieal Manning can provide a jolt in the return game. Rookie punter Brett Hartmann isn’t proven yet but has a big leg.

The schedule is hardly a breeze, but look at the quarterbacks they could face: Collins twice, Chad Henne, Matt Hasselbeck twice (or maybe rookie Jake Locker), Luke McCown twice (or maybe rookie Blaine Gabbert), Colt McCoy, Andy Dalton and Cam Newton.

Houston’s been called a soft team, a finesse franchise. Not too many soft teams produce the NFL rushing champion the way this team produced Foster last season.

If the Texans' offensive blocking scheme amounts to a finesse one, so be it. The Colts have won the division eight times in nine seasons with a lot of finesse. They’re fine with you insulting them over it while admiring their success.

The Texans can show their toughness this season in how they stand up to Pittsburgh on Oct. 2 and at Baltimore on Oct. 16 and in how they fare in their games with the Jaguars.

The Colts' issues should be a huge assist for the Texans, as will the fact that the Titans and Jaguars are trying to stay afloat with temporary quarterbacks while developing top-10 draft picks in Locker and Gabbert. Although both teams may be ascending, their talent doesn’t match Houston’s.

If the Texans can make it through the first three-fourths of the season with a good record and in good health, they should be golden with a home stretch against Cincinnati (away), Carolina, Indianapolis (away) and Tennessee.

It sets up for success.

If this team folds under the expectations, if it cannot go get what’s so attainable, it’s going to have to be dismantled. It will require no more Mr. Nice Guy from McNair, who will have to part ways with a lot of nice guys he truly admires, starting with GM Rick Smith and coach Gary Kubiak. McNair will have no choice but to look for a different tone after a house cleaning.

I don’t think that’s how things will play out. I think Manning’s injury is a big break that opens the door, a door the Jaguars and Titans are not ready to approach. The Texans are more than talented enough to storm through it if they don’t complicate things. Run the ball. Work the play-action and bootleg game off of it. Rush the passer. Build from there as the season goes on and finish strong.

Watch pundits pick you to be a team that can do damage in the playoffs, and respond to it.

It sounds simple.

It just might be.
Dallas Clark and Marcedes Lewis made strong showings in ESPN.com’s newest positional Power Rankings where we sorted through the league’s tight ends.

Here’s Bill Williamson’s piece on the rankings, where Clark came in third and Lewis finished eighth.

Those seem reasonable placements to me and aren’t far out of line with my ballot:
  1. Jason Witten
  2. Antonio Gates
  3. Vernon Davis
  4. Dallas Clark
  5. Chris Cooley
  6. Jermichael Finley
  7. Kellen Winslow
  8. Dustin Keller
  9. Owen Daniels
  10. Marcedes Lewis

The primary controversy involved Tony Gonzalez, whose one second place vote kept Gates from tying Witten at No. 1. I explained my non-vote for Gonzalez thusly:

“Gonzalez is still an excellent player. But as I struggled to find room for the 10 I felt needed to make the cut, he fell off. In 2010 his numbers suggest he was more quantity than quality. I'm not looking for giant plays from my tight end, but Dallas Clark-replacement Jacob Tamme matched Gonzo's 9.4-yards a catch, and while Gonzalez's first-down percentage was good (55.7) it was way lower than that of the three top rookies and smaller than that of guys like Heath Miller, Ben Watson and Todd Heap, who I hardly considered. One final note: As I've got access to Frank Wycheck during three shared radio appearances a week, I asked him for a ballot. I'm sure he admires Gonzalez's body of work. But right now Gonzalez wasn't in Wycheck's top 10 either.”

Houston’s Owen Daniels didn’t make the cu. My note was his only one, and got him a tie for 15th. He was coming off a blown-out knee last season and had some hamstring issues. So he wasn’t himself much of the year. When he is, I have no doubt he’s a top 10 guy, a tight end who runs receiver-caliber routes.

Overall, I expected to have an easier time putting together this ballot. But even avoiding rookies altogether, I struggled.

“After a hellish pass-rusher ballot, I thought tight ends would be far easier,” I told Williamson. “They were just as difficult. There is a great deal of young talent too. I steered clear of first-year guys, but in another season or two, this could be even more brutal to sort through.”

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