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CBSSports.com National Columnist

Texans have easy path to potentially great season


HOUSTON -- I'm trying not to overreact to this game, this one game, this first game of a long NFL season after a strike-shortened training camp. Trying. Here goes:

If Peyton Manning doesn't come back this season, the Colts won't win more than four times.

How did I do?

Oh, wait. That's not my only reaction to the Houston Texans' 34-7 victory against Indianapolis on Sunday. There's also this:

The Texans could win 12 games this season, and they could win 12 games easily.

Now then, give me a second to walk away from my computer, have a sip of water, get my head straight. ... OK, I'm back and re-reading what I've written -- nope, no overreactions there. I feel good about it, even knowing what a pitfall it can be to make season-long judgments based on one game.

But what a game it was.

The Colts didn't look merely bad -- they looked mentally beaten. They looked old at key positions, untalented at others. They looked poorly coached. They looked like a 4-12 team, although I'm not sure where those four victories would come from. Home games with Cleveland, Kansas City, Jacksonville, Carolina and Tennessee, I suppose. Win four of those five, and that's a 4-12 season. That assumes the Colts lose every other game on their schedule, and based on what I saw Sunday at Reliant Stadium, that shouldn't be a problem.

The Colts are so lousy, I demand a revote on the MVP trophy. Which MVP trophy? Pretty much every one Peyton Manning hasn't won since he entered the NFL in 1998, though I'd settle for a revote on the MVP balloting last year, when this same Colts team -- these running backs, those receivers, that defense, that coach -- won 10 games and reached the playoffs.

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Imagine Kerry Collins, who fumbled three times Sunday and tripped over his own feet two other times, quarterbacking the 2010 Colts. Does Indianapolis go 10-6 last season? Of course not. Does Indianapolis go 6-10? Maybe, assuming it could find six wins on that schedule -- and with Jim Caldwell as the head of the search party, that's a big assumption. There's a reason Caldwell went 26-63 in eight years at Wake Forest, that reason being he's not very good as a head coach.

Caldwell went 24-8 in his first two seasons as the Colts' coach, but that was with Manning at quarterback. Without Manning? Caldwell is 0-1, which doesn't mean much, but there was a single decision Sunday that suggests he's the same guy who went 26-63 at Wake Forest. That decision came with less than two minutes left in the first half, the Texans inside the Indianapolis 20, leading 24-0 and about to score again. Caldwell called timeout, twice, to make sure the Colts -- who had mounted exactly 59 yards of offense in the half -- had enough time to drive 80 yards in the final 90 seconds.

Huh? Exactly. The Texans kicked a field goal for a 27-0 lead, then kicked off. The Colts were 80 yards away, and 21 seconds later they were punting. Houston's Jacoby Jones returned it 79 yards for a touchdown -- making it 34-0 at the half.

But enough about the Colts. What about the Texans? Are they as good as they looked on Sunday?

Probably not, no. The Colts are lousy. (OK, enough about the Colts now.) But the Texans have shored up their weakness of a year ago, their defense, without sacrificing any of their explosive offense. If anything, the Texans' offense could be better this season, what with the return to health of former Pro Bowl tight end Owen Daniels, who gives one more target to Matt Schaub -- one of 12 quarterbacks in NFL history with back-to-back 4,000-yard passing seasons. Put it this way: the Texans scored 34 points and produced 384 yards of offense Sunday without reigning NFL rushing leader Arian Foster (hamstring). He'll be back soon, possibly next week.

The Texans' defense, meanwhile, won't be returning to its form of 2010, when it was one of the worst defenses in the NFL. Wade Phillips is running the defense now, and while he's an uninspiring head coach, he's a difference-maker as a coordinator. The last four teams to hire Phillips as a coordinator went to the playoffs that first season, posting an average improvement of four victories. That would put the Texans at 10-6 this season.

But I'm on record as saying Houston could and even should go 12-4, and not simply because they're that good -- they might not be -- but because their schedule is that bad. The rest of the AFC South is lousy, and the Texans also have games with Miami, Oakland, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Cincinnati and Carolina. That's 12 demonstrably winnable games, not to mention home games with two teams -- the Steelers and Falcons -- who were trounced on the road Sunday. So will the Texans go 14-2 this season? Probably not, no.

But the Texans' defense isn't the pushover it was last season. The secondary has been overhauled, the linebackers are healthy and Phillips has installed his 3-4 scheme -- making a 6-foot-6, 290-pound outside linebacker out of Mario Williams. That's just not right. Williams had two sacks Sunday and forced a fumble, leading a Texans defense that held the Colts to 236 yards and 1-for-9 inefficiency on third down.

"We see it every day in practice," Schaub said of the Houston 3-4 defense. "They've been doing that all camp. To go out and see them do it in a regular-season game ... we weren't shocked. We weren't blindsided by it."

The Colts shouldn't have been blindsided by what happened Sunday, but maybe they were. This is a franchise that has won at least 10 games for nine straight seasons. These players don't know anything but success, and after one game they weren't about to concede the 2011 season -- at least, the part of the season without Peyton Manning -- as a lost cause. After the game, the Colts spit out variations of the cliché that an NFL season is a marathon, not a sprint.

"It's a journey, not a sprint," said cornerback Jerraud Powers.

"It's not a sprint, it's a marathon," said tailback Joseph Addai.

"It's a marathon, not a sprint," said Caldwell.

True. All of it. But somebody has to finish last in that marathon. Somebody always does.

Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.

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