HOUSTON, TX - JANUARY 07: Head coach Gary Kubiak of the Houston Texans pumps his fist as he walks off the field following the Texans' 31-10 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals during the AFC Wildcard Playoff game on January 7, 2012 at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Will they rise up or melt under the spotlight?
The Houston Texans are no longer an expansion franchise. That label, that expectation of failure is gone and has been replaced by expectations and goals much greater than they've ever had during their previous ten years as a franchise. These expectations are coming from everybody; the media, fans, and the players themselves who have publicly said that this season was "Super Bowl or bust". There's no doubt that this team has the talent of a Super Bowl contender, but I don't think the people using that phrase truly grasp what it means; "or bust" would mean that they'd blow it up after the season if they didn't reach the Super Bowl. This team doesn't just have the most talent in it's history, but a lot of that talent is young and will be together for the next five or more years, so there's no need to blow anything up after this season is they don't reach the Super Bowl.
The bigger picture for me is not how high the expectations should be for this season or what they should do next year, but how they handle the pressure of being a Super Bowl favorite. A handful of players on this roster have playoff experience beyond last season including Antonio Smith who went to the Super Bowl with the Arizona Cardinals in 2008, but most of the Texans players are entering unknown territory. Sure the Texans were the favorite to win the AFC South last season after the news of Peyton Manning's neck injury, but they were coming off a very disappointing 6-10 season and were the favorites to win their division more by default than anything else. They were thought of as a playoff team, but not a team that would make a deep playoff run and certainly not a team that would be in a one-score game in the 4th quarter of the divisional round at Baltimore with a third string, 5th round rookie quarterback. In a lot of ways, especially after the injury bug hit mid-season, the Texans were playing with house money even into the playoffs. The pressure wasn't on them, they were the team without their starting quarterback and star pass rusher, and they seemed to thrive in that role as the hunter. That won't be the case this season as they take on the role of the hunted, and the favorite in the conference instead of the long-shot. Some fans may want to dismiss this change in mindset, but there is a big difference between flying under the radar to being one of the teams everyone is chasing and getting every teams 'A' game each week. Everyone handles this type of pressure differently, some use it as motivation and it can drive them to new heights. On the flip side others can let the praise get to their head and cause them not to work as hard, or they can get a little tight trying to be too perfect to live up to the expectations. Not only are the expectations bigger, but so are the challenges this season with Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers both on the schedule in addition to the return of Peyton Manning who owns a 16-2 career record against the Texans.
The question now is, what will the Texans response be to the pressure? Will the pressure lift them up or will it crack their pipes? I think this team can handle the pressure because of a good mix of veterans and younger guys who are loose and can keep things light and upbeat over the 16 game NFL season. Guys like Andre Johnson, Johnathan Joseph, Danieal Manning, and Antonio Smith have been to playoff games, performed well in playoff games and know what it takes to be successful. On the other end young guys like J.J. Watt, Connor Barwin, and Arian Foster never seem to let anything get to them, are able to keep things in perspective, and will keep this team hungry, energetic, and motivated.
It's difficult to say with certain that the Texans will live up to the hype, because they haven't done so in the past. The Texans were expected to take the next step in 2005 coming off a 7-9 season, but fell flat on their face and finished 2-14 the following year. After winning their final four games, having their first winning season at 9-7, and missing the playoffs on a tie-breaker in 2009, they again fell off and finished with a 6-10 record the following season. However, I believe last season showed that this group of Texans players are different. They're able to thrive under adversity instead of folding. Will they win the Super Bowl, I'm not sure, but if they don't, it won't be because they melted under the spotlight.