Are the Houston Texans “Contenders” or “Pretenders?” Is Houston’s six-game win streak all smoke and mirrors, or are they really putting the NFL on notice to generate respect? Starting the season off 0-3 against Tom Brady, Marcus Mariota, and Eli Manning and not putting up a single W, seemed to spell disaster for the Texans’ 2018-2019 season. Then something in Week 4 clicked, as the Texans have rattled off six straight wins against some decent (but not brag-worthy) opponents.
The Texans stumbled out of the gate against the New England Patriots, having no answer for Rob Gronkowski and of course, the arm of Tom Brady. Watson threw for a meager 176 yards on a 17/34 passing day. Next up was the Texans first divisional opponent, the Tennessee Titans, led by former Texans Defensive Coordinator, Mike Vrable. The Titans absolutely embarrassed Houston with a trick play on what appeared to be a punt, but turned into a 66-yard touchdown pass from Byard to Cruikshank early in the game.
Houston’s worst loss of the season came against the Eli Manning-led Giants. This week, Eli suddenly turned into his brother Peyton, and torched the Texans for 297 yards and two touchdowns to pair up with rookie RB sensation Saquon Barkley’s 82 yards and lone rushing touchdown. 0-3 was not exactly the start Bill O’Brien was looking for after coming off a very disappointing 2017 campaign.
I for one was ready to write this season off, and was already looking forward to the draft in September. Then October rolled around, a new Texans team appeared, and boy was I wrong! The Texans started by knocking off their divisional opponent, the Indianapolis Colts, and then grabbed the bragging rights over Texas from the Dallas Cowboys. Next, the Texans obtained a sure-fire win against Buffalo, which was followed by a surprising win against the imploding Jaguars. Their streak continued with a very convincing win over Brock Osweiler and the Miami Dolphins, and most recently pulled off a squeaker in Mile High over the Denver Broncos.
So what changed? Did the offense suddenly become unstoppable? No. Did the defense turn into the Legion of Boom? No. Did Bill O’Brien become some football mastermind? No. To me it’s been a combination of opponent coaching mistakes, inferior talent on the other side of the ball, some very good play-making from several players, and just some down right, knock down, hard fought football from the Texans to rack up six straight wins.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying the Texans didn't earn these wins, but also I'm not saying they did, either. I guess what I'm trying to say is, they've done just enough to win these games, something already difficult to do in the NFL, for a shocking six straight weeks.
Now we sit in the bye week, which couldn't have come at a better time in the season, as the Texans are pretty banged up and getting thin at some very key positions. So how does the rest of the year look? Well, if the team can get some key players back (Jonathan Joseph, Aaron Colvin, D’Onta Foreman, Zach Cunningham, and potentially Jermaine Kelly), I’d say they have a real shot to finish the season out with at least ten wins. They have three divisional games left: the Jets, Browns, Redskins, and defending Super Bowl Champs, The Eagles. Don’t let these teams fool you: the Browns have lost several close games; the Eagles are battling; and the Titans just made Jason Garrett and the Dallas Cowboys look absolutely foolish on their home field after one of the worst offensive starts I’ve ever seen.
The Texans will have their hands full with the Redskins and Adrian Peterson, despite some recent injuries to a few members of Washington’s offensive line, and a defense with former Texans’ safety, DJ Swearinger. Definitely a winnable game, the Texans could very well bang out ten straight wins and lock up the AFC South in early December. Now that’s fine and dandy, but will they truly be satisfied with another AFC South banner? Of course not.
This season around the NFL has had its twists and turns, shocking winners, upsets, blowouts, and excitement. When the playoffs arrive, if the Texans continue to improve with the addition of veteran wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, and JJ Watt and Jadeveon Clowney continuing to attack opposing QB’s, I could see the Texans making a decent run into this year’s playoffs. Guys like Kareem Jackson, Deandre Hopkins, Tyrann Mathieu, and Lamar Miller will have to continue to get better and keep opponents on their heels.
Of course, those potential playoff opponents will likely include Kansas City, New England, and possibly Pittsburg or Cincinnati. Can Houston compete with these teams? Yes, if the team can stay healthy, and things continue to click for them. I would, however, be cautiously optimistic that this trend of wins continues, but don’t get your heart broken if things go astray.
Until I see Bill O’Brien make a dramatic change in his predictable play calling, I cannot see the Texans making it past the first round of the playoffs. Watching the tape of the Denver game, the Texans ran the ball on first down seven (7) times in the first two quarters of football. That’s seven out of a possible eleven first down plays Houston ran. Bill needs to mix in more plays on first downs; maybe with the addition of Demaryius Thomas, the Texans will be able to do so. I would love to see the tight ends be more involved in the passing game, especially considering the flashes we've seen from rookie TE Jordan Thomas. I understand they have been cautious with the offensive line being so inconsistent, but week by week, that group has been improving and keeping Watson upright more and more often.
So in conclusion, are the Houston Texans “Contenders” or “Pretenders?” With everything seeming to come together at the right time for them at this point in the season, the Texans are contenders. They are three wins away from matching Bill O’Brien’s best season. There are several winnable games on the docket; this is a very hungry team, with a previously un-seen type of camaraderie. Players are getting healthy, rookies are getting better week by week, and veterans are returning to form. These are all signs pointing to Houston making a push for the playoffs, and a strong one at that!
* All stats from NFL.com