Last season they sank into a 6-10 finish, and these Texans face stiff tests in the coming weeks to gauge if they've truly taken a step forward from 2010, beginning with Sunday's game at New Orleans (1-1).
The Texans withstood a late rally by Miami in a 23-13 win over the Dolphins on Sunday. Houston is one of seven remaining unbeaten teams, and coach Gary Kubiak said Monday that this group may be better equipped to handle success because it's more mature.
"We've got a lot more poise," Kubiak said. "Nobody's in here jumping around, high-fiving each other. We're just in here, business as usual, trying to correct our mistakes, trying to understand what we're going to have to do better to win in New Orleans."
But the statistics bear out how much better Houston has played in its first two games, compared to 2010.
Wade Phillips' newly installed 3-4 defense has already exceeded Kubiak's expectations, leading the league in total yards (271), passing yards (162.5) and points (10) allowed. At this time last year, the Texans were giving up 442 yards and 411 passing yards and 25.5 points per game.
"We're surprised at how quickly the process has taken place, with no offseason and Wade really just having those guys for just seven or eight weeks," Kubiak said. "When you watch the work that's taking place every day, the energy we're playing with, how hard we're playing, you know why you're getting much better results."
Kubiak is also encouraged to see so many playmakers in the first two games.
Linebacker Brian Cushing has shown glimpses of his form from 2009, when he was named the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year. Cushing leads the team with 17 tackles, including 10 in Sunday's win.
A first-round pick in 2009, Cushing was suspended for the first four games last season for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances. Cushing sat out the early part of training camp to recover from offseason knee surgery, but Kubiak said he's worked himself into his old self.
"It's just the work he's put in to play," Kubiak said. "Brian's had a hard time staying on the practice field, not so much the field, playing games. I think Brian's practice habits have been very good. He has not missed any time throughout camp, once we got him going, and that's reflected in his play."
Mario Williams has adapted well to his move from defensive end to outside linebacker, producing two sacks, a forced fumble and a tipped pass that led to an interception. Rookie defensive end J.J. Watt blocked a kick on Sunday, and recovered a fumble. Defensive end Antonio Smith has two sacks.
Cornerback Johnathan Joseph, a key offseason acquisition, has an interception. He played through a sprained right ankle late in Sunday's game.
"For him to go out, and then come back in the fourth quarter, when we really took control of the game, that says a lot about him," Kubiak said.
The Texans also have better depth than they've had in past seasons, particularly at running back.
Arian Foster, the NFL's leading rusher last season, has been limited by a left hamstring injury, and didn't jog with his teammates on Monday. Foster had 10 carries on Sunday, and Kubiak said he will be re-evaluated on Wednesday.
Ben Tate, seeing his first action since Houston drafted him in 2010, has topped 100 yards in both games in Foster's place.
"He's playing really well," Kubiak said. "As we work Arian back into what we're doing, and get him back to full speed, Ben's going to probably carry most of the load right now. But he's responded very well, he's getting better every time out."
Kubiak said "there's a good chance" that receiver Kevin Walter (right shoulder bruise) will return for Sunday's game. As with Foster, Walter's replacement proved just as capable. Jacoby Jones caught three passes for 48 yards and had a 40-yard punt return.
"We've had a few issues on offense, with Arian and now with Kevin," Kubiak said. "But we've had some guys step up, so that's very important."
Kubiak saw contributions from virtually everyone in Sunday's victory, a sign that this franchise may finally be building toward a breakthrough season. The Texans also finished the game strong, something last year's team was almost never able to do.
"We had 45 guys play and have some factor in the game," Kubiak said. "It was very hot, and I thought we held up pretty good and help really well, especially in the last 10 minutes."