Many in media circles are writing off the Houston Texans as a viable AFC title contender following a late-season collapse. But veteran defensive end Antonio Smith experienced a similar season that ended with a trip to the Super Bowl.
Getting off to an 11-1 start, the Texans were the overwhelming favorite to earn home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. But after losing three of its last four games, Houston must play in the wild card round, hosting Cincinnati on Saturday.
“We know we have a lot to prove,” said Smith, who played at Oklahoma State and John Marshall. “We know we have to beat the great teams to be AFC champs. That's our dream. That's what we've been talking about all the way back to training camp.”
Once considered one of the top AFC contenders, Houston now is an 18-to-1 long shot to win Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.
But Arizona also was a long shot to reach the Super Bowl in 2008, when Smith played with the Cardinals.
Four years ago, Arizona lost four of its final six games, including a 47-7 loss to New England in the Cardinals' next-to-last regular season game.
Houston's 28-16 loss last Sunday at Indianapolis cost the Texans the No. 1 seed. But skeptics surfaced a month ago following a 42-14 loss at New England in a high-profile Monday night showdown.
“Most people probably view us as underdogs just like we were in Arizona,” said Smith. “Everyone will be looking at the Broncos and Patriots. But we know what this team is capable of.”
The key to making a deep playoff run could be the defense, led by J.J. Watt, the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year.
Under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, Houston finished with the league's second-ranked defense last season. The Texans once again were among the league leaders before slipping to seventh.
“We just need to go out and have fun, play the style of defense we're capable of,” Smith said. “We just need to play wide open. Playoff games are physical. We just have to match their intensity. That's the recipe. I know we have the team that can do it.”
Houston looked like a Super Bowl contender early in the season. The Texans defeated Peyton Manning and the Broncos on the road. Houston also routed Baltimore, 43-13.
“We've had some humbling experiences,” Smith said. “When the playoffs start, everyone is back to the same point. It's like a fresh start. We just need to get back to playing like we were earlier.”
An eight-year veteran, Smith signed a five-year $35 million deal with the Texans after the Cardinals' Super Bowl season.
“To get where we want to get we'll probably have to play New England or Denver one more time,” Smith said. “But first it's Cincinnati. This is going to be a test to see what type of team we are. I think we're ready for the journey, ready for the battle.”