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NFL Preview - Houston (0-0) at San Diego (0-0)



By John McMullen, NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - The San Diego Chargers will kick off the Mike McCoy era by hosting the defending AFC South Champion Houston Texans in the second half of ESPN's Kickoff Weekend "Monday Night Football" doubleheader.

If the NFL truly is a war of attrition McCoy and the Chargers have been in full retreat already.

The former Denver Broncos offensive coordinator thought he landed in America's Most Beautiful City as the architect of the reclamation product called Philip Rivers.

Instead he finds himself in the sequel to "MASH." A tough rebuilding job was only made more difficult for McCoy by a host of bumps and bruises during training camp and the preseason.

It all started back in May when McCoy lost emerging outside linebacker Melvin Ingram to a torn ACL during OTAs and things haven't slowed since. From hard- luck wide receiver Danario Alexander's torn ACL to Malcolm Floyd's sprained knee to Eddie Royal's bruised lung and concussion to Manti Te'o sprained foot, McCoy has to be wondering if there is a Voodoo doll out there with his name on it.

"It's part of the game," McCoy said when discussing all of his team's injuries. "It's the unfortunate part when you lose the guys we've lost, but it's an opportunity for the other guys to step up."

No one is going to feel sorry for the Chargers, though, so the mantra has to be next man up and forging ahead with the original plan, keeping Rivers clean in the pocket.

The veteran North Carolina State product is obviously still a talented quarterback but he fell on hard times during the final season of the Norv Turner era, thanks in large part to a porous offensive line.

Losing the team's best offensive lineman -- guard Louis Vasquez -- to AFC West-rival Denver didn't help and mission No. 1 in San Diego has been rebuilding things up front.

D.J. Fluker was the best O-Line prospect left on the board when San Diego picked at No. 11 overall in the 2013 draft and general manger Tom Telesco bit. Fluker has flourished early and looks like he will solidify the right tackle position. Whether pedestrian veteran King Dunlap can do the same on the left side is another question.

Defensively, the spotlight figures to follow former Notre Dame star Te'o, a great college player who fell in the draft because of his strange "catfishing" scandal.

Te'o, though, will have to wait at least another week to make his NFL debut. The Chargers have ruled out their promising rookie or Monday's opener because of his sprained right foot.

Te'o -- the Heisman Trophy runner-up last season with the Fighting Irish -- originally injured the foot in the Aug. 8 preseason opener and has been wearing a walking boot since.

Perhaps the best thing about the Houston Texans' forecast for 2013 is that it's similar to what might have been said 12 months ago.

The now 12-year-old franchise has high-profile names at several positions, a veteran coaching staff and has successfully turned the corner -- thanks to consecutive AFC South Division championships -- from perennial expansion doormat to legitimate conference powerhouse.

Of course, where some see a blessing, others may imply something less.

With two straight playoff appearances and a roster largely in the prime of its collective life, expectations tend to change quickly. And in the case of the Texans, those expectations are nearing a point where another 12-4 finish with one playoff win will be judged a failure rather than a success.

If you ask Houston star defensive end J.J. Watt, though, that's a good thing.

"Expectations are extremely high and that's the way they should be," he said. "You should, every single day, attack it like the highest of the high expectation and you should expect to be great. If you're coming out here just hoping for a decent season, you're coming out here for the wrong reasons. You don't want to go to the dance and sit on the sideline. You want to get out there and move a little bit."

Watt, who surpassed 20 sacks and 20 tackles for loss last season, is aiming for a triple-crown of 20 or more sacks, tackles for loss and pass defections this year. He also made noise in training camp about wanting to flip to the other side of the ball -- to join fellow former Wisconsin Badger tight ends Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham.

Coach Gary Kubiak has been lukewarm at best when it comes to that proposition, saying "it's not going to be anytime soon." But while he's not particularly intrigued with the idea of putting his stud defensive player in the sights of opposing defenders who might want to do him harm, the eighth-year coach has few qualms about admitting that his preseason goal is, and remains, a world championship.

That said, a large part of his task is keeping the team focused on short-term gains that make the long-term objectives possible.

"I never showed up for any camp not wanting to (win a title), so this year's not any different," Kubiak said. "I'm the guy that's got to keep everybody focused on the work. A lot of people talk about those things this time of year -- everybody wants to play in that game and get to that game. But unless you work your tail off and understand that there's going to be a lot of highs and lows throughout the course of a season. I've got to keep everybody grounded and be ready to play opening day against San Diego."

The Chargers are a perfect 4-0 in their history against the Texans, beating Houston twice at Qualcomm Stadium and twice in Reliant Stadium. This is the second time these two teams have locked up in a season opener as they opened the 2004 season in South Texas, a 27-20 San Diego win which kicked off a 12-4 campaign for the Chargers that season.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

When you are struggling with your offensive line, the last name you want to see on the other side of the football is Watt, perhaps the biggest single disrupter in football. Although listed as a five-technique end in the 3-4, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips can move Watt up and down the line to exploit various matchups and he should have plenty with the rookie Fluker as well as nondescript interior players like Jeromey Clary and Nick Hardwick set to oppose the All-Pro.

Mix in the returning Brian Cushing at linebacker and you come up with one of the best defenses in football for Houston and one where Rivers will have trouble attacking with the banged-up Floyd and Royal manning the wide receiver spots.

Safety Ed Reed has been listed as a game-time decision by Kubiak as the veteran continues to deal with scar tissue issues in his surgically repaired hip. Even if Reed does play, it will be in some kind of rotation because Shiloh Keo has been named the starter at free safety.

Offensively, Houston may have finally found a real complement outside the numbers for Andre Johnson in rookie wideout DeAndre Hopkins. A lengthy field- stretcher, Hopkins should also help open up the underneath stuff for Daniels and Johnson.

Running back Arian Foster, meanwhile, remains one of the best in the game and really helps set up easy play-action reads for quarterback Matt Schaub.

Te'o's injury forces San Diego to vault a mediocre option like Bront Bird into significant repetitions.

Up front the Chargers expect a big year from end Corey Liuget while veteran Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle is the leader of a defensive backfield which is working in new starters at the corners, former Jaguar Derek Cox and third-year man Shareece Wright.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

The Chargers have never lost to the Texans but McCoy may have a tough time living up to that history because Houston is now the consistent AFC powerhouse not San Diego.

The Texans have won four straight road openers and are coming off a season in which they piled up the most wins in franchise history with 12. You should be able to make that five consecutive solid debuts on Monday as Houston takes its first step to another 12-win campaign.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texans 31, Chargers 20

09/09 08:59:28 ET

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