HOUSTON -- For safety Danieal Manning, the choice was simple when he became an unrestricted free agent last spring.
If he wasn't going to re-sign with the Chicago Bears, with whom he spent the first four years of his career, the Corsicana native wanted to come home.
That put the Dallas Cowboys, the team he rooted for as a kid and one in desperate need of safety help, at the top of his wish list.
But after contacting the Cowboys through his agent, Russell Hicks, and getting no response -- likely because his asking price was too high --Manning turned to option No. 2: the Houston Texans.
Clearly, it worked out for the best.
Not only was Manning given a four-year, $20 million contract, including $9 million in guarantees -- compared to the $5 million the Cowboys gave safeties Gerald Sensabaugh and Abe Elam combined in 2011 -- he joined a franchise on the rise.
The Texans (11-6) won their first AFC South title, their first postseason game last weekend with a 31-10 wild-card blowout of the Cincinnati Bengals and are playing the Ravens in Baltimore today for a chance to reach the AFC Championship Game for the first time in franchise history.
"We reached out to the [Cowboys]," Manning said. "[Being from Corsicana], that was one of the first teams I was thinking about going to in free agency. But everything worked out for the best. God knew exactly where I needed to be. I wanted to come home. I'm glad I got the opportunity."
The Texans are certainly glad they landed Manning, whose addition is one reason they made history and are on the brink of more.
He was part of a defensive makeover that included former Cowboys coach Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator, cornerback Johnathan Joseph and top draft pick J.J. Watt, all of whom helped the Texans' defense improve from 30th in the league in 2010 to second.
Unlike the Cowboys -- who blamed the lockout and the lack of the off-season program for their inability to grasp all the nuances of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's new scheme and for communication issues that led to subsequent poor play -- the Texans took to Phillips' 3-4 from the beginning. They got better as the season went on, despite losing Pro Bowl pass rusher Mario Williams.
Manning said that was one reason the Texans were so dominant in their playoff victory against the Bengals compared with their 20-19 victory against them earlier in the season.
"I was more aware of what this defense was calling my position, where it wants me to play," Manning said. "Now I have the nuances where I can play the way I play."
It translated into what Phillips called the best practice week he's ever seen a defensive back have in all of his years of coaching, and Manning snared one of the Texans' three interceptions against Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton.
"[Manning] had eight interceptions during the week," Phillips said. "We knew he was going to get [an interception]. So we weren't surprised. The guy had the best week I have ever been around as far as a defensive back."
Manning called Phillips' praise "an honor" because he has been around so many great players, but his goal "wasn't to stand out, but to do [my] part to be in the best position to help the team."
Thirty-nine of the 53 players on the Texans' roster are in the playoffs for the first time. Manning has the experience of playing in two NFC title games and one Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears.
He understands the importance of raising the intensity and level of play in the postseason and is setting the example for his teammates.
"Watching Danieal Manning practice and watching him prepare -- if you're his teammate, you know there was something different about it," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said.
Manning said he knows all too well the bitter taste of losing in the playoffs and is not ready to go home. It's one reason why he's added the role of primary kickoff returner to his list of duties in the playoffs, even though he hasn't returned kicks since he returned Nov. 27 after missing three games with a fractured leg.
"Whatever it takes," he said. "I can't allow myself to let these guys lose."
Clarence E. Hill Jr.