The Texans' 2011 season ended two games short of Super Bowl XLVI, with a seven-point loss to the Baltimore Ravens sending them home in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
Despite the lingering disappointment from that narrow loss and the what-ifs that came with it, optimism abounds for what's ahead in 2012.
"We expect nothing less but a Super Bowl," defensive end Antonio Smith said last week after playing in the Pro Bowl. "That's what we want to aim our eyes at. We've already made division champs. We've already made it to the playoffs. You could shoot nothing more than for a Super Bowl. If you're shooting anything less than that, you're cheating yourself."
The Texans were one of the most balanced teams in the NFL this season before quarterback Matt Schaub suffered a season-ending foot injury in Week 10. They ranked fifth in scoring (27.3 points per game) and second in scoring defense (16.6 points per game) through 10 games. For much of the season, even for several weeks after Schaub's injury, they were the only team in the NFL to rank in the top 10 in yards on offense and defense.
Even with a litany of injuries to key players, the Texans won the AFC South title and trounced the Cincinnati Bengals 31-10 in the first round of the playoffs.
"It was just a building step," Pro Bowl center Chris Myers said. "Obviously, we wanted to be able to make it as far as we could and went to the second round even with all the adversity that we had. It's just a path that we want to take and keep growing. Now, the expectations aren't just playoffs anymore. It's bigger and better things – AFC Championship and Super Bowl."
One of the reasons the Texans have such high hopes for next season is because of their defense, which will return every end-of-season starter in 2012 and should only get better with a first full offseason under coordinator Wade Phillips.
A majority of the Texans' defensive players made a pact to stay in Houston and train together this offseason instead of going their separate ways.
"We want to gel a little bit in the offseason and get everyone there so we can work and push each other," cornerback Johnathan Joseph said. "And that's the ultimate goal, pushing each other, and that's what gets you over the top. Competition is always a good thing, and I think we have that on our team. I received a lot of texts from a lot of guys (during the Pro Bowl week); even Brian Cushing texted me just cracking little jokes.
"Being around those guys on a day-to-day basis, it's like a brotherhood. I can't wait to get back with those guys because I came on a short time (in free agency last year), and at the end, I kind of was like, 'This is family.'"
Smith, Myers and Joseph were the Texans' only three Pro Bowlers this season. That number should significantly increase a year from now, but the Texans hope to be otherwise occupied.
As much as the Texans' coaches appreciated their week in Hawaii, which they earned by being the highest-seeded team in the AFC to lose in the Divisional Round, they have their sights set on getting to a slightly more important game next February.
"I'll take it one time; I don't want to do it again, though," special teams coordinator Joe Marciano said after the Pro Bowl. "Hopefully, we'll be going a little further and we don't have to come back here anymore.
"There's so much promise we're going to take the next step. We're gonna take the next step. The guys know it. We know it. I know it. Fans know it. Coaches know it. Players know it. We're gonna do it."