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Thursday, September 9, 2010
Gary Kubiak's Texans must beat Colts

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

If the Houston Texans can't top the Indianapolis Colts in their season opener, it might never happen.

For eight years, the Texans tried to climb out of the chaos of expansion and become a winning team. In 2009, quarterback Matt Schaub threw for 4,770 yards and the Texans finally topped .500. But if the Texans, 9-7 last season, are going to take the next step and be a serious playoff contender, they must start establishing home-field advantage against teams in the AFC South, especially the Colts.

In the past three seasons, the Texans have gone 4-14 in divisional play. Last year, they went 1-5, forcing them to go 8-2 in the non-divisional games to get over .500. To repeat that and expect to go 8-2 against the rest of the league will almost be impossible, particularly considering the Texans have the league's toughest schedule.

This Sunday, the Texans highlight the season debut of First And 10 because they have a decent chance to beat Indianapolis. They catch Peyton Manning when he might be a little out of his comfort zone. Unless Charlie Johnson heals quickly from a foot injury that has sidelined him for five weeks, Manning might have to go into the opener in Houston with undrafted rookie left tackle Jeff Linkenbach starting. Tony Ugoh, for whom the Colts traded a first-round pick to be the left tackle of the future, was waived Wednesday. The left tackle must keep defensive end Mario Williams away from Manning.

Gary Kubiak
Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak is searching for the winning formula against the Colts.

Manning might not be at the total comfort level with the location of umpire Chad Brown, who will work with Ed Hochuli's crew in this game. Brown is a longtime umpire known for standing on the defensive line and absorbing plenty of hits through the years. For safety reasons, the umpire has been moved behind the offense, which slows down no-huddle attacks.

It might take weeks before the league figures out the proper mechanics of the umpire spotting the ball and getting into his position. This could infringe on Manning's play-calling in the no-huddle, but this subject is such a point of discussion in the league office that the crew will do its best to make things work.

But more eyes will be on coach Gary Kubiak and his Texans. The franchise is 1-15 all time against the Colts. If the Texans go 1-16, they will be chasing Manning and the Colts all season and their only route to the playoffs will probably be as a wild card. It's one of the biggest must-win games of the season. The Texans must win -- or else.

Other things to watch in Week 1:

1. Revenge for the "Hard Knocks" guy? Rex Ryan felt he should have been selected the Baltimore Ravens' coach instead of John Harbaugh, but he was professional about the rejection. Ryan stayed with Baltimore for the 2008 season, telling everyone he would coach the Ravens' defense to the playoffs and then get a head coaching job. He accomplished both. This game means everything to Ryan. He has re-established the New York Jets as a powerhouse. The Jets return the league's top defense and feel better about their offense. The opener of the ESPN's "Monday Night Football" doubleheader also features the proud defense he left behind under the control of linebacker Ray Lewis. Expect a physical game, but also watch the development of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who should break out this season. The Ravens are expected to try more no-huddle this year and they can do it with Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason and T.J. Houshmandzadeh catching the ball. This should be a classic.

2. Tough going for Kolb? Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb, who has just two starts in three seasons, and Packers QB Aaron Rodgers meet on Sunday. Each has replaced a legendary quarterback. The Eagles felt Kolb fit better as a rhythm quarterback in Andy Reid's West Coast offense, so they didn't fear trading Donovan McNabb to division rival Washington. They are confident Kolb is good enough to take the Eagles to new heights. The Packers have similar confidence in Rodgers, who replaced Brett Favre. In 2008, Rodgers threw for 4,038 yards as a first-year starter but he -- like most first-year quarterbacks -- struggled in fourth quarters and Green Bay finished 6-10. Rodgers now can win those fourth-quarter games while Kolb, who has only two NFL starts, must learn.

Lamarr Houston
Can Raiders rookie lineman Lamarr Houston (99) inspire his defense against the Titans?

3. The Raiders' commitment to defense: For years, the Oakland Raiders' defenses used to pad the numbers of Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson. Most figured he'd go for 140 yards a game against the Raiders' run defense. Al Davis finally thinks he has resolved the run defense problem. He has three new starting linebackers, including rookie Rolando McClain. In the past year, he has added Richard Seymour, John Henderson, Jay Alford and rookie Lamarr Houston to the defensive line. For confidence, the Raiders couldn't have drawn a worse opening game. They face Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans, who has his eyes on a repeat of a 2,000-yard rushing season and maybe 2,500 combined years. Can the Raiders hold him to under 100? If they can't, confidence could be effected. At least the Raiders won't see L.T. this season.

4. Cowboys' support of Mike Shanahan's Haynesworth stance: The last thing the Dallas Cowboys want to see is Albert Haynesworth on the field. Heck, the Cowboys probably would help the Redskins throw in an extra draft choice so Haynesworth can be traded to the Titans. On Sunday night, the Cowboys open at FedEx Field knowing right tackle Marc Colombo and left guard Kyle Kosier won't play because of knee injuries. Doug Free is the new starting left tackle, creating a 60 percent turnover in the blocking protection for Tony Romo. The last thing Dallas wants to see is an angry Haynesworth, who still can draw double-team blocks when he gets on a roll. Shanahan opted not to trade Haynesworth for less than a high pick in the 2011 draft, but he probably won't start the disgruntled defender. Romo should be happy about that.

5. The Greatest Show at Soldier Field: Mike Martz, the Chicago Bears' new offensive coordinator, unveils his new Cutler offense against the Detroit Lions. The numbers could be scary. Safety Louis Delmas is the only player back for the Lions' 32nd-ranked secondary of a year ago and his status is uncertain because of a persistent groin injury. Martz will attack Chris Houston, Jonathan Wade and other castoff corners along with safety C.C. Brown. Some say the C.C. stands for "Can't Cover." Martz knows last year's strategy against the Lions was to spread the field with three or four receivers and throw.

6. Young and the restless for Bill Belichick: In drafting a dozen players each of the past two years, New England Patriots coach Belichick figured eventually to have a young defense. He just didn't figure it to be this season. He's lost the experience of Ty Warren (injured reserve), Leigh Bodden (injured reserve) and Brandon McGowan (injured reserve) . His starting secondary has five combined seasons of NFL experience and he has new starters at linebacker in Marques Murrell and rookie Brandon Spikes. Tom Brady is 7-1 in season openers at home, but the Pats drew a tough assignment in the Bengals. Carson Palmer is loaded on offense with the additions of Terrell Owens, Jermaine Gresham and Jordan Shipley.

7. Fox in the new Giants digs: Carolina Panthers coach John Fox is in the final season of his contract. The former New York Giants defensive coordinator would love to someday become Big Blue's head coach. He had a great audition Dec. 27, 2009, when the visiting Panthers chased the Giants out of their old stadium with a 41-9 thrashing. Sunday, he could ruin the Giants' official housewarming of the New Meadowlands Stadium. The 2010 Panthers have the youngest roster in the NFL. Giants coach Tom Coughlin is trying to fix problems along the offensive line and on defense and bounce back from a difficult 2009 season.

8. Was Dixon the right choice?: With regular quarterback Ben Roethlisberger out four weeks with a suspension, Mike Tomlin went for the fresh legs of Dennis Dixon as the Week 1 starter against the Atlanta Falcons. Tomlin chose Dixon instead of the more experienced Charlie Batch after Byron Leftwich suffered a preseason knee injury. Dixon shows flashes of brilliance with his arm and running ability, but for the Steelers to come out of the first four games better than 1-3, they need consistent quarterback play. The Dixon-Matt Ryan matchup is particularly tough because Ryan probably will use a lot of no-huddle to tire the hard-hitting Steelers defense and keep it off balance.

9. Sun setting in NFC West: Seahawks coach Pete Carroll opens his return to the NFL with a roster as unsettled as Washington State University's instead of the powerhouse he had at USC. He's made so many changes after the 53-man cutdown that name tags might be needed when the team huddles against the San Francisco 49ers. For the Seahawks to contend, they can't afford losing a home game to the 49ers, a tough team that plans to test Seattle's ability to stop the run. The Arizona Cardinals, meanwhile, visit the St. Louis Rams for a Derek Anderson-Sam Bradford quarterback matchup. Years from now, Bradford versus Anderson might be a mismatch in favor of the Rams, but this is Bradford's first game, so expect plenty of full blitzes by the Cardinals.

10. Bottom-feeders: Each week in First And 10, we'll briefly -- and I mean briefly -- examine the league's bottom-feeders, teams that could be on the clock for next spring's draft. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the best chance to steal more wins than the rest of last season's six-win-or-less teams because they have four games against opponents that had five wins or less in 2009, starting with Sunday's opener against the Cleveland Browns. Broncos coach Josh McDaniels' only non-division road game against a team with a 2009 losing record is Sunday's at the Jacksonville Jaguars; losing that game could doom the Broncos to a bad road record. The only thing going for the Buffalo Bills in the opener against the Miami Dolphins is the Dolphins' coaching staff has no idea how to plan for Chan Gailey's offense, which is void of receiving and tackle talent. In the nightcap of the ESPN's "Monday Night Football" doubleheader, the Kansas City Chiefs open at home against the San Diego Chargers. San Diego doesn't have receiver Vincent Jackson and offensive tackle Marcus McNeill (contract holdouts). Still, new Chiefs defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel must figure a way to contain quarterback Philip Rivers, which won't be easy.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.