Within hours of the Giants being crowned Super Bowl champions, the wheels of 31 NFL teams began turning. The Giants became the measuring stick with which every other team will now compare itself and strive to replicate.
One team that stacks up well against the Giants is the Texans, whose 12-1 Super Bowl odds for 2012 are bested by only three teams: Green Bay (6-1), New England (7-1) and New Orleans (17-2). There is no question that the arrow is pointing up for Houston.
GM Rick Smith and head coach Gary Kubiak find themselves in an enviable position: Their team should be back in the thick of the Super Bowl hunt without making any major changes. Of course, with the benefit of the draft and free agency, the Texans will try to bolster the club, namely at wide receiver, where a better complement to Andre Johnson could put the Texans in the driver's seat in the AFC.
But what about the driver?
Although the Texans compare favorably to the Giants in a lot of areas, there is a considerable gap at the most important position on the field. Is Matt Schaub ready to make an Eli-sized leap?
Schaub is in unfamiliar territory this offseason. He is trying to come back from a serious season-ending Lisfranc injury. For the first time during his five years in Houston, he has a team that is built to win now on both sides of the ball. Also for the first time as a member of the Texans, Schaub will be entering a contract year. The Texans don't yet know what they will do at QB beyond this season. It is up to Schaub to make his case, and it is pretty obvious what the ultimate selling point would be.
Unlike Eli Manning and his Giants, Schaub won't be asked to consistently put his team on his back. Houston has one of the better offensive lines in football, creating cutback lanes for two supremely talented backs, Arian Foster and Ben Tate. The running game is undoubtedly the lifeline of the Texans. Still, there will be times when Schaub will be counted on to win games for his team in the fourth quarter. Manning went from upper echelon to elite this season, in large part because of his fourth-quarter heroics. In Schaub's case, his inability to win games in crunch time is arguably the greatest knock against him. In close games (within seven points) in the fourth quarter, Schaub's completion percentage with the Texans is 63.4, and his TD-interception ratio is 12-12.
Thus, I expect the Texans to at least kick the tires on Peyton Manning once he becomes a free agent. He is a once-in-a-generation talent who, if healthy, is light-years ahead of Schaub. But I suspect that teams like the Dolphins and Redskins have more to offer financially, and thus it will be Schaub's team next season.
Schaub could be on a short leash, though; the Texans were able to win a playoff game with T.J. Yates, a third-stringer drafted in the fifth round. It is widely believed that if Schaub, not Yates, had been on the field in Baltimore, the Texans would have been one game away from reaching the Super Bowl.
Needless to say, expectations will be higher in 2012. How Schaub handles the pressure will go a long way toward determining the Texans' chances of contending for a Super Bowl and Schaub's long-term outlook in Houston.