HOUSTON (AP) — The pieces seem to be in place. All the Houston Texans have to do is go out and prove they're championship contenders on the field.
Houston had a breakthrough season in 2011, winning the AFC South and then battering Cincinnati in the expansion franchise's first playoff game. The magical year ended in Baltimore, and the Texans walked off the field feeling like they were a handful of plays from advancing even farther.
Every key player is back, running back Arian Foster and left tackle Duane Brown signed long-term deals and the Texans think they filled most of the gaps through the draft and free agency.
"I appreciate the fact that people are saying a lot of good things about us," coach Gary Kubiak said. "I think we're going to be a good football team, but we want to be great and I think we've got some work to do."
Wade Phillips also returns to guide a defense that made one of the biggest single-season turnarounds in NFL history in 2011, ranking second in 2011 (285.7 yards per game). Career sacks leader Mario Williams bolted for big money in Buffalo and linebacker DeMeco Ryans was dealt to Philadelphia, but Houston used its first-round draft pick on Whitney Mercilus and signed veteran Bradie James, who's well-versed in the defense after playing for Phillips in Dallas.
Kubiak had questions about the team's depth at tight end, fullback and in the secondary heading into the final preseason game. Otherwise, the Texans have no reason not to aim for the biggest prize of all in 2012.
"We took the next step as a team," quarterback Matt Schaub said at the start of training camp, "and the only next step after that is to get to the Super Bowl and win it. So anything short of that will be a disappointment in our eyes."
Schaub fractured his right Lisfranc joint in Week 10 last year, the most crippling of several in-season injuries. He completed 15 of 18 passes in the third preseason game in New Orleans and seems to have rekindled his chemistry with Andre Johnson. The five-time Pro Bowl receiver is also healthy again after missing nine games last year with injuries to both hamstrings.
"You can see them, in practice, starting to come together a little bit," Kubiak said. "That's very important because that gives confidence to our whole offense."
Johnson turned 31 in July, and Kevin Walter enters his seventh season in Houston. The depth behind those two has been bolstered by the emergence of Lestar Jean, an undrafted free agent in 2011, and fourth-round draft pick Keshawn Martin. DeVier Posey, a third-round pick, has been slower to develop.
Backup tight end Garrett Graham sparkled in the first three preseason games, sharing the team lead in receptions (seven) with Jean and Martin. Graham, a fourth-round draft pick in 2010, looks to be a capable backup to Owen Daniels, who's back for a seventh season.
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