Commentary

Texans on way to magical season

At this rate, it won't be long before Houston clinches AFC South, and more

Originally Published: October 5, 2012
By Adam Schefter | ESPN.com

One-quarter of the way through this season, it is not too early to break out the calculators and start computing the Houston Texans' magic number.

Houston is 4-0. It is the AFC's last unbeaten team. It has outscored its opponents by an NFL-high 70 points this season, the highest total for any team at this point since the 2009 New Orleans Saints team that went on to win the Super Bowl.

In a stat that symbolizes how impressive the Texans have been, they have more wins than the rest of the AFC South combined.

And it does not look like that will change anytime soon. The 1-2 Indianapolis Colts have lost their head coach, the 1-3 Tennessee Titans have lost their starting quarterback and the 1-3 Jacksonville Jaguars have lost their way.

Unless they lose key players at key positions as they did last season, when a foot injury sidelined quarterback Matt Schaub, the Texans could have the AFC South title and home-field advantage clinched by early December.

It's not just that the Texans are winning. It's how they are doing it. When the Jets studied the Texans in preparation for Monday night's game, they saw the type of team they want to be.

Houston is the only AFC team that is running the football more than it is throwing it. The Texans, a team built by general manager Rick Smith and coached by Gary Kubiak, have 124 passing attempts and 148 rushing attempts, one of the main reasons Houston is unbeaten and the AFC's team to beat.

Now the Texans are running away with their division, stringing together the type of season that dominant regular-season teams do.

After Houston won its first postseason game in franchise history last season, beating the Cincinnati Bengals in the wild-card game before losing at the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional playoff, one Texans official remarked that he could see this team's time coming.

One time already has come. It already is time to start figuring magic numbers.

On to this week's 10 Spot:

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
AP Photo/John BazemoreMatt Ryan has put together a stellar record in the Georgia Dome, going 33-4 there in his career.

1. Ryan flyin' high: If this season continues the way it has gone so far, it will be time to start engraving Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan's name into the NFL's Most Valuable Player trophy. Ryan has played this season the way Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers played last season. Through the first four games, all Atlanta victories, Ryan has thrown for 1,162 yards and 11 touchdowns with two interceptions and a 69.4 percent completion percentage. Through the Packers' first four in 2011, all wins, Rodgers threw for 1,325 yards and 12 touchdowns with two interceptions and a 73 percent completion percentage. Ryan has a plethora of targets for distributing the football, as did Rodgers. Ryan entered this season on a mission to quiet the skeptics. Rodgers has done it. Now Ryan tries to follow.

2. D.C. gridlock: The kind of change Washington really wants is at FedExField, where the Redskins have been the NFL's worst home team. Washington has not won a game at home in more than one full calendar year, since Sept. 18, 2011, when it squeaked past the Arizona Cardinals 22-21. Since then, the Redskins have lost seven straight home games, including their home opener this year to the Cincinnati Bengals. The Redskins next have back-to-back home games against two of the NFC's top teams -- Atlanta and the Minnesota Vikings -- in a chance to give Washington some change and a reason to celebrate.

[+] EnlargeGeno Smith
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesWest Virginia's Geno Smith is making a Robert Griffin III-like rush up to the top of many draft boards.

3. RG3, Part II? Just as former Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III did last year, West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith has exploded onto the NCAA scene. Through four games, Smith has thrown 20 touchdowns and only 28 incompletions, vaulting himself into the conversation to become the top quarterback drafted in April. He does play video-game football in the Big 12, but his production is undeniable. After Smith threw for 656 yards and eight touchdowns during last weekend's 70-63 win over Baylor, one NFL general manager texted: "Reminds me of RG3 Alamo game last year." Another GM texted: "Lot to like about this player. Arm, athletic, accurate. Rising up boards." What scouts like most about Smith is that he's a gym rat, a sponge, a player with a work ethic and a thirst to be better. Now Smith is embarking on a key stretch. Smith's next four games are against ranked opponents: Texas, Texas Tech, Kansas State and TCU. It is hardly a given -- and may never have been -- that USC's Matt Barkley will be the first quarterback picked in April. Smith is making his run for the Heisman Trophy and the distinction of being the first quarterback drafted this April.

4. Extra motivation: As if trying to save their team's season Sunday night weren't enough motivation, Saints quarterback Drew Brees and running back Darren Sproles have added incentive. They will be facing a San Diego Chargers team that essentially cast them aside, believing other players were better fits. It's not hard to understand why San Diego moved on when it had quarterback Philip Rivers and running back Ryan Mathews -- two very good players -- but it is difficult to comprehend how the Chargers got nothing in return for either player or even running back Michael Turner, who also once was allowed to leave. All walked away with the Chargers' getting nothing more than a couple of compensatory draft picks in return. Now Brees and Sproles will try to lead New Orleans to its first win of the season, a week before the Saints' bye, on a Sunday night when history also will be at stake. Brees has thrown a touchdown pass in 47 straight games, tying Johnny Unitas' NFL record streak. When Brees throws one Sunday night -- and he will -- he will have the record all to himself. Unitas, history and Brees' former team all await.

5. New York state of mind: Before the 2013 season kicks off, the New York Jets and Giants look doomed. Before the 2014 season starts, the Arizona Cardinals look finished. History tells us it will be that way. Every city that has hosted a Super Bowl since the 2000 season has watched its team fail to make the playoffs. Sometimes the seasons are disastrous, as this year's 0-4 start has been for New Orleans, as last season was for Indianapolis.

So it turns out there's a Madden Cover Curse, and there's a City That Hosts The Super Bowl Curse that the Jets, Giants and Cardinals soon will have to confront. But for now, the Jets and Giants have other concerns.

So much of life is about perception, and New York's football teams provide the perfect example. The Jets actually are tied for first place in the AFC East, while the Giants are tied for second in the NFC East. The Jets are in a less competitive division, whereas any team in the Giants' division could win it. And yet even though the Giants and Jets are an identical 2-2, the feeling surrounding each team could not be any more different. There's a feeling that the Giants are capable of beating anyone in football and repeating, just like there's a feeling that the Jets are capable of beating almost nobody. And yet each is 2-2, with the Jets better positioned. It's all about perception.

6. Calling Hollywood: It always feels like the life of Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall is one big drama -- from his multiple arrests, a domestic incident with his wife and his diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. He wants to become the face of the disorder because people don't understand the discrimination experienced by those who have it. So partly for that reason, Marshall is turning his life into a made-for-the-movies drama. Marshall's agent, Kennard McGuire, has worked with Hollywood filmmakers to create a trailer for a documentary based on the receiver's life. The movie follows Marshal around and is ready to be put into production. Marshall takes pride in all he has overcome to get to where he is today as one of the game's top receivers. Now he wants to share it, all of it, with a wider audience.

[+] EnlargeChristian Ponder
AP Photo/Paul SancyaChristian Ponder has the surprising Vikings pointed in the right direction.

7. Purple surprise: In a division with Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler, it seemed Minnesota quarterback Christian Ponder would face a daunting challenge in this and future seasons. Yet so far, Ponder is the NFL's only starting quarterback who still hasn't thrown an interception, one year after throwing 13 of them in 10 starts. Ponder has led the Vikings to an equally surprising and impressive 3-1 mark. In back-to-back weeks, the Vikings dominated the San Francisco 49ers, a team many considered as good as any in the NFL, and went to Detroit to beat the Lions. Ponder is not Minnesota's only success story. Running back Adrian Peterson has returned from his knee injury and looks like ... well ... Adrian Peterson. Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway told ESPN reporter Tom Pelissero that Vikings wide receiver Percy Harvin is "the best player in the NFL. ... I'd like to see anybody challenge that." And Minnesota's defense has played at a Bears-like level. The Vikings are vying to be the NFL's biggest surprise story. Minnesota has three of its next four games at home -- Tennessee, at Washington, Arizona and Tampa Bay -- and has a chance to make more headlines and believers.

8. Three for the road: Green Bay already has struggled some, and there could be more difficulties over the next three weeks when it plays at Indianapolis, Houston and St. Louis. The Packers will become the 121st team since 1990 to play three straight road games, which teams typically prefer not to do. It all evens out in the end, eight games at home and eight games on the road, but playing three straight on the road wears on teams. Of the 120 teams that have played three straight road games since 1990, 23 have gone 0-3, 55 have gone 1-2, 33 have gone 2-1 and only nine have gone 3-0. The reward will be on the backside, from Oct. 28 through Dec. 9, when Green Bay plays four of six at home.

[+] EnlargeBrady/McDaniels
Jim Davis/Getty ImagesPatriots quarterback Tom Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will see familiar faces on the other sideline when they face Peyton Manning and the Broncos.

9. Together again: When New England hosts Denver on Sunday, it will be one big reunion. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning will be returning to New England to square off against friend Tom Brady in a matchup of the best two quarterbacks of the past decade and two of the greatest of all time. It will mark only the second time in NFL history that two starting quarterbacks with 125-plus career regular-season wins meet in a game. The first time, Dan Marino and John Elway squared off on Dec. 21, 1998. But the connections in this game go well beyond the quarterbacks. The man snapping Manning the football will be former Patriots Pro Bowl standout Dan Koppen.

"We kind of go through this every week, players on other teams, from James Ihedigbo, Mark Anderson, whoever it is," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "There are players on other teams that have played for us. It's a little bit unusual, but it isn't. We haven't seen Dan Koppen in another uniform. But that's the way it is in the NFL."

It's not just players this week. It's coaches, too. Former Broncos head coach and current Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will try to pick apart a Denver defense he helped create. Asked what he learned from his experience with the Broncos, McDaniels said: "It's really hard to pinpoint one thing over another, but they gave me a great opportunity. It's a great organization, a great owner (Pat Bowlen) and you go out there and try to do the best you can. Ultimately, you learn a lot of different things on a lot of different levels because you're involved in so many aspects of the organization as a head coach. Hopefully all of those experiences will pay off and make me a better person and coach."

10. Lombardi link: After Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano learned he had leukemia last week, team owner Jim Irsay called it "unprecedented," something the two men discussed. "If you go back to the history of the league, (Vince) Lombardi developed cancer and besides that, it's hard to really remember where you had a head coach in the National Football League develop a serious illness at the early or mid-part of the season." The two men also discussed a storybook ending. "Grabbing that Lombardi trophy some day is going to be that much sweeter when we overcome this," Irsay said. Everyone is rooting for Pagano.

The Schef's specialties

Game of the week: Philadelphia at Pittsburgh -- Up to the Steelers defense to force turnovers. Since the start of 2010, the Eagles are 7-2 when Michael Vick doesn't commit a turnover and 11-9 when he does.

Player of the week: Vikings running back Adrian Peterson -- Against Chris Johnson and the Titans, Peterson re-stakes his claim as the game's top back.

Upset of the week: Washington over Atlanta -- Falcons haven't lost this season and Redskins haven't won at home in more than a year. Some things are overdue.