The Houston Texans finished the first half of the season with a 6-3 record. Here's a look at how they have fared and what's ahead:
First-half rewind: Houston dug itself into a hole with an 0-3 start, quickly falling into last place in the AFC South. But thanks to an improved offense and a much easier schedule, the Texans have gone from worst to first. Deshaun Watson, who was on a historic pace in his abbreviated rookie season, didn't pick up where he left off. However, after some early struggles, he appears to have gotten this offense into a rhythm. Houston has ripped off six consecutive victories and put itself in a good position for the final seven games of the season. Grade: Above average
What's the biggest factor in the Texans making a deep playoff run? The Texans have had a defense this good before -- they were ranked No. 1 in the NFL in 2016 -- but now they feel they finally have their franchise quarterback. Watson hasn't been consistent -- in part due to an offensive line that has struggled to keep him upright -- but he has shown improvement as the season has progressed. If the Texans are to stay at the top of the AFC South and make a playoff run, Watson will need to quickly develop chemistry with new receiver Demaryius Thomas, acquired in a trade with Denver to replace Will Fuller, who will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL in his right knee.
MVP: Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins is the difference-maker for the offense. The sixth-year receiver is averaging 99.3 receiving yards per game, which ranks fourth in the NFL. His seven receiving touchdowns are tied for second. Having Thomas starting opposite him should keep defenses from focusing on Hopkins, who will be leaned on in the final seven games.
Biggest surprise: During the offseason, Texans coach Bill O'Brien said he never would bet against star pass-rusher J.J. Watt coming back and playing at a high level. But in the first half of the season, Watt likely exceeded even O'Brien's loftiest expectations. Despite missing the majority of the past two seasons with injuries, Watt has nine sacks in the first nine games, putting himself in position to win a record fourth NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.
Hurdle to overcome: Losing Fuller will be a big blow to the offense, because he really helped stretch the field for Hopkins. Thomas is a proven producer and rookie Keke Coutee has looked promising even though he has missed time with a hamstring injury, but he's primarily a slot receiver. It will be interesting to see how defenses approach the Texans without Fuller's speed in the lineup.