Respect. The Texans tried to earn it during their first 9 seasons but at best were never thought of as more than a fringe playoff team who struggled to finish games. After last seasons division championship and 1st round playoff win while dealing with a string of injuries; the Texans finally earned the respect of the national media, the Vegas odds-makers, and fans across the nation.
The Vegas odds-makers released their early lines for the 2012 NFL season, which means nothing in a practical sense, but it gives you an idea of how strong they think each team is. For the Texans, they have them underdogs in just 4 games, with two more games listed as pick-ems (@ Jets, @ Broncos). Three of the four games the Texans are underdogs in, are on the road (home vs. Packers the other). Generally home-field advantage is worth 3 points to line-makers in the NFL, so in two of the games that the Texans are underdogs, they'd be favored on a neutral field (+2.5 @ Lions, +1 @ Bears). Also notable, the Texans are favored in every division game; Green Bay, New England, and San Francisco are the only other teams also favored in every division game.
So does this mean that the Texans a legit Super Bowl contender, or does it mean that their division is garbage? I'd say it's a little of both. With every team except the Texans going through a quarterback transition, the near future of the division is certainly available for the Texans to control. The Jags and Colts are at best 6 win teams for different reasons, but the Titans could give the Texans trouble. When the schedule was released back in April, I predicted each game of the schedule and had the Texans at 5-1 in the AFC South with the 1 loss at Tennessee. I do believe the Texans will win the division, but the Titans are at worst an average team. Questions at quarterback and a lesser defense to the Texans I believe will be the difference.
When we start to get into August and the NFL predictions come out in magazines and on websites, the AFC South along with possibly the NFC West will have the least variety among it's predicted division winners. Like the NFC West, there is by most accounts 1 clear-cut front runner who 90% expect to win the division, average teams with good overall talent but with QB issues (Arizona/Tennessee/Seattle), and obvious bottom-feeders (Colts, Jaguars, Rams). The Texans only have 1 legit threat in the division, and that threat is a team that they beat 41-7 on the road without Andre Johnson, and then later only lost to by 1 when they played all backups and decided to go for two at the end of the game instead of kicking the extra point; it's the Texans division to lose.
WEEK OPPONENT SPREAD % CHANCE
Week 1 vs Miami -6.5 0.72
Week 2 at Jacksonville -5.5 0.69
Week 3 at Denver PK 0.50
Week 4 vs Tennessee -7.5 0.78
Week 5 at NY Jets (MNF) PK 0.50
Week 6 vs Green Bay (SNF) +1.5 0.47
Week 7 vs Baltimore -3 0.59
Week 8 Bye
Week 9 vs Buffalo -7 0.75
Week 10 at Chicago (SNF) +1 0.49
Week 11 vs Jacksonville -10.5 0.86
Week 12 at Detroit (Thurs.) +2.5 0.45
Week 13 at Tennessee -3 0.59
Week 14 at New England (MNF) +6.5 0.28
Week 15 vs Indianapolis -10.5 0.86
Week 16 vs Minnesota -10 0.84
Week 17 at Indianapolis -5.5 0.69