In 2018, healthy Texans, Deshaun Watson can compete with AFC elite

HOUSTON -- In their Christmas Day blowout loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Houston Texans got an up-close look at one of the AFC’s best teams.

Although the Texans sit at 4-11 after their 34-6 defeat with one game remaining in the 2017 season, it’s not out of the question that Houston will be able to compete with those elite teams in 2018.

Yes, the Texans have struggled this year, but the team has had to deal with an extensive list of season-ending injuries: rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson (torn ACL), defensive end J.J. Watt (broken leg), outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus (torn pectoral muscle), rookie running back D’Onta Foreman (torn Achilles) and tight ends C.J. Fiedorowicz (concussion) and Ryan Griffin (concussion). No. 2 receiver Will Fuller even missed seven weeks, first with a broken collarbone and then with a cracked rib.

The Texans won the AFC South in 2015 and '16 by leaning on their defense and overcoming poor quarterback play. In those two seasons, Houston started six quarterbacks: Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates, Brandon Weeden, Brock Osweiler and Tom Savage.

Last season, Osweiler was unable to consistently throw the ball down the field, and the offense struggled. That forced the Texans to take action, trading their 2018 first-round draft pick to move up and pick Watson, who looks like the team's long-term answer at quarterback.

In the seven games Watson started in 2017, the Texans’ offense was one of the best in the NFL. With the rookie under center, Houston scored more than 30 points in five straight games, a franchise record. That offense should look even better next season with the return of a healthy Watson and Fuller staying healthy for a full season, something he hasn't been able to do through his first two campaigns.

The Texans have one of the best wide receivers in the NFL in DeAndre Hopkins, who leads the NFL with 13 receiving touchdowns. He has done that playing with four quarterbacks this season -- Savage, Watson, Yates and Taylor Heinicke -- and 11 in his career.

At 4-11, the Texans will sit at home this January for the first time since the 2014 season, but the team is optimistic that this season is an aberration. With a healthy team next season, Houston is confident it will be battling the likes of the Steelers, New England Patriots or Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC in 2018.