Houston Texans' 2021 schedule: Meeting with J.J. Watt, Cardinals highlights challenging road slate

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Texans' 2021 schedule was released along with the rest of the NFL slate on Wednesday.

The 2021 NFL season will kick off on Thursday, Sept. 9 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hosting the Dallas Cowboys (8:20 p.m. ET). ESPN’s Monday Night Football opener on Sept. 13 will feature the Las Vegas Raiders hosting the Baltimore Ravens (8:15 p.m. ET).

The NFL will change its schedule for the first time 44 years, expanding to 17 regular-season games. The final regular-season games will be played Jan. 9, 2022. The playoffs begin Jan. 15, 2022 and continue through Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13, 2022 at Los Angeles' SoFi Stadium.

Here's what in store for the Texans:

2021 schedule

Sept. 12: vs. Jacksonville

Sept. 19: at Cleveland

Sept. 23: vs. Carolina (TNF)

Oct. 3: at Buffalo

Oct. 10: vs. New England

Oct. 17: at Indianapolis

Oct. 24: at Arizona

Oct. 31: vs. LA Rams

Nov. 7: at Miami

Nov. 14: Bye

Nov. 21: at Tennessee

Nov. 28: vs. NY Jets

Dec. 5: vs. Indianapolis

Dec. 12: vs. Seattle

Dec. 18 or 19: at Jacksonville

Dec. 26: vs. LA Chargers

Jan. 2: at San Francisco

Jan. 8 or 9: vs. Tennessee

Strength of schedule (hardest to easiest): T-15th, .504

Biggest takeaway

The Texans are not a ratings draw, as evidenced by having the minimum one national TV game every team is given -- on Thursday night against the Carolina Panthers in Week 3. Less than three years ago, the Texans had superstars all over the field, including three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and quarterback Deshaun Watson. Now, all of those players may be gone if Watson gets the trade he asks for, is suspended or sits out the 2021 season. The lack of must-see players is reflected in this schedule.

One storyline to watch

Six of the eight road games come against teams that finished .500 or better in 2020 (the Jacksonville Jaguars and injury-ravaged San Francisco 49ers are the only exceptions). Among those is a game certain to be circled on the schedule by Texans fans: Week 7 against Watt, Hopkins and the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium. While Watt left on good terms with the Texans, don’t be surprised to see a huge game from Hopkins to show the Texans what they’re missing.

What Vegas thinks

The oddsmakers have the Texans' win total at 4.5. The Texans won only four games in 2020, and that was with Watson having the best season of his young NFL career. Since it seems unlikely he’s under center in 2021 -- and the roster has not greatly improved this offseason -- it’s hard to see the Texans improving their record this season, so I side with the under.

Bold prediction

The Texans get swept in the AFC South. Half of the Texans’ four wins in 2020 came against the Jaguars, who finished last in the division and ended up with the No. 1 pick. Jacksonville used that pick to take quarterback Trevor Lawrence, and his addition might be enough to leave the Texans in last place and 0-6 in the AFC South in 2021.