This didn't seem too farfetched a month ago. What happened?
"The Houston Texans are the class of the AFC!"
"It's Week 10, you went back in time."
"Ohhhh, okay. Yeah, they are so legit. Put money on them." /wrings hands.
After their ninth game, the 7-1 Texans went into Chicago and beat the 7-1 Bears 13-6. It wasn't a pretty game, but a top AFC team beat a top NFC team on the road. Oh, perspective, you naughty girl. The Bears lost five of six and the Texans struggled to find success, even in victory.
It took overtime to beat the Jaguars the next week. Overtime to beat the Lions. They forced six turnovers against the Titans, turned it over zero times, and still only won 24-10. "But they were 11-1!"
Yeah, but they lost to the Patriots 42-14. There was a class of the AFC, and Houston started to look like they were in the middle one. Now the Texans come into the playoffs having blown a bye week and a top overall seed, facing the Bengals in the Wild Card round at 12-4. I can't help but think of the girl that was about to get her plug pulled in The Matrix.
"Not like this."
The Texans waited a decade to get this good. They didn't post a winning season until 2009 but the pieces seemed to fall together finally for Gary Kubiak. Until now, and someone has pulled the wrong Jenga block and brought Houston's season to a seemingly crashing finish line. Except that there's one other caveat:
The Houston Texans are the 3-seed in the weak AFC. This horse has a long ways to go before riding out of town.
Why the Texans Win the Super Bowl
You Think Wade Philips Left You Without a Dope D To Step To?
Step to, step to? Philips helped bring the Texans to prominence in 2011 and he's still doing it even without Mario Williams or Brian Cushing. Houston has one of the best defenses in the NFL, even as they stumbled.
Football Outsiders ranks the Texans as the #3 overall DVOA and #5 Weighted DVOA (More recent games carrying more weight) in the NFL. Which is much better than the normal stats, which ranks Houston "only" as 9th scoring defense, 7th total defense, 16th against the pass and 7th against the run. But they've also allowed just five rushing touchdowns all year and benefited from 23 opponent fumbles.
Per FO, the Texans are 4th in the NFL against #1 wide receivers and 4th against tight ends, but have struggled against #2's. That could be good news against a Bengals team that relies heavily on A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham for yardage. They are also 5th against the run by DVOA, so if you eliminate BenJarvus Green-Ellis on top of those two, how are the Bengals going to score on offense?
One good way to be good one defense? Having the best defensive player in the game.
Watt ya Watt ya Watt ya Want
It's pretty incredible that J.J. Watt was fifth defensive player taken in the 2011 draft, but it's also pretty incredible how excellent that draft has already turned out to be. Watt was taken after Von Miller, Marcell Dareus, Patrick Peterson, and Aldon Smith, going 11th overall. In only his second season he has run away with DPOY honors.
69 solo tackles, 20.5 sacks, 16 pass deflections (!), four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries. Football Outsiders had more to add about Watt, writing that he obliterated the record for 'Defeats' as far back as they have recorded that number. (Turnovers, tipped passes that lead to turnovers, tackles for a loss, tackles or passes defended that prevent conversion on third or fourth down.) Watt had 56 of those, 11 more than the second-best: Ray Lewis in 1999.
He had 20.5 sacks but also more pass deflections than Ed Reed and all but nine players in the NFL, all of whom play in the secondary.
Elite players win Super Bowls, especially ones that disrupt a quarterback and an offense on that level. J.J. Watt is an elite player.
Foster the People
Another elite player, this one on offense, is Arian Foster. If he has a big postseason performance, with that defense, the Texans will be tough to beat. The Texans were 10-1 when Foster averaged at least 3.21 yards per carry, 2-3 when he didn't. The Bengals are not very good on run defense and for Houston, they just have to concentrate on one game at a time. They need to beat the Bengals and remember that they are good at football before heading to New England if they get past the first round.
If the Texans can consistently run the football with success, it will take pressure off of Matt Schaub to win the game for Houston, which is a good thing because Schaub comes into the game on a low note, having thrown just one touchdown over the last four games.
Lots of Foster, lots of success on the ground, solid defense and Watt all day long. Then the Texans can try to take out some revenge on the Patriots. One game at a time. It's still a long road ahead...
Why the Texans Won't Win the Super Bowl
They're Going Down, Down, Baby
It's been awhile since the Texans actually played really good football, as I was saying. Football Outsiders actually ranks them 19th in Weighted DVOA, which takes into account your last eight games and then partially into account the four games prior to those. So over there last twelve games, Houston hasn't played like a playoff team.
The Texans beat the Broncos in Denver way back in Week 3. Throw that out the window and what do you have left? A win over the Ravens in their first game without Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb? A win over the Bears, the team that collapsed anyway? A win over the Colts, a team that had the easiest schedule in the league and won most of their eleven games by a hair?
Houston looks like a team that has talent all over the field. They aren't playing that way.
Hurt by Johnny Cash, covering Nine Inch Nails
This team was 5-0 with Brian Cushing. 7-5 without him. Like clockwork, the Texans seem to lose important players to devastating injuries. Darryl Sharpton got five starts at middle linebacker and has also been placed on injured reserve. Barrett Ruud, who couldn't even stick with the Saints this year, is the first backup at middle linebacker.
It's just been hard for Houston to stay healthy at that position and injuries could be their downfall once again.
Good Enough like the Goonies?
Are you, Good Enough?
Are you good enough to beat the Patriots in New England and then the Broncos in Denver? Well, you did beat the Broncos in Denver many moons ago, but you lost to the Patriots by quite a bit. Over Houston's last two road games, they've lost by a combined scored of 70-30.
And if they beat the Bengals. And if they upset the Patriots. And if they got by Denver (the best thing that could happen to them would obviously be a win and an Indy or Baltimore upset over the Broncos, thereby getting a home game in Houston). Are they good enough to beat whatever team comes out of the NFC?
It's been a long time since the NFC was as good as the AFC. It's going to be awhile, probably, before the AFC can compete on a regular basis with the NFC. While the AFC added the likes of Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, Brandon Weeden, Ryan Tannehill, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Mark Sanchez, and the messes of the Raiders, Chiefs, and Chargers, the NFC just got more loaded at the more important position. Outside of Andrew Luck and Andy Dalton, it's all NFC:
Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Sam Bradford, Matthew Stafford, Nick Foles, Josh Freeman. Even the "veterans" like Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan are relatively young. Much younger than Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. So, how can the AFC catch up?
They probably won't for awhile. And any team in the AFC that seems like they could compete as soon as this year, is one of those two teams on a bye week; The Patriots or Broncos. The only way Houston breaks through the wall this year is by playing better than they have as of late, and finding out how to rekindle the magic that they had been working on for the better part of the last two season.
Then just maybe, Anything Could Happen.