This weekend, the AFC South champion Houston Texans host the Oakland Raiders at NRG Stadium in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. In a battle to advance to the divisional round (and likely to Foxborough), both teams are playing without their preferred quarterback at the helm.
Houston lost a close game to the Raiders in November when the two teams met in Mexico City. Questionable calls by the referees, including a negated DeAndre Hopkins touchdown, stalled the Texans repeatedly as Oakland came away with a 27-20 victory. The match-up did provide a preview of the Wild Card bout, highlighting the areas of strength and weakness for Houston. As we head toward Saturday’s playoff tilt, here are a few things that will be most important to watch.
1. Containing running back Latavius Murray should be priority number one for Houston’s defense this weekend. With rookie quarterback Connor Cook at the helm, Oakland will likely attempt to lean heavily on the run. By controlling the ground game, the Texans can force Cook to throw more often, allowing Houston’s shutdown secondary to take advantage of his mistakes. In their last meeting, the stout Texans’ defensive front held Murray to 33 yards. If they can do that again, they will cut off a vital part of the Oakland offense this weekend.
2. Getting pressure on the rookie quarterback will be another key factor in this matchup. Cook will enter his first NFL game as a starter on Saturday, and the Texans have to take advantage of his lack of experience. If Houston can cut off the run and apply pressure to Cook, they can contain Oakland’s offense. That will give Brock Osweiler and company a shot at keeping the score tight.
The return of Jadeveon Clowney will be huge for the Texans. The explosive defensive end has spent the last few years hearing that Khalil Mack was the better draft pick in 2014, and he should be a man on a mission to prove the doubters wrong. I’m expecting a monster game out of Clowney and sincerely pity Cook for being on the wrong end of that. The entire defensive line should have a dominant performance as they take their play to the national stage and attempt to push Houston deeper into the postseason.
3. Houston’s secondary has to play shutdown. Again. With the defensive line attempting to pressure the quarterback and hold the run game, Houston’s dangerous secondary will look to capitalize on Cook’s rookie mistakes. The unit has been exceptional this season, with safety Quintin Demps nabbing an interception in five of his last six games (and earning AFC Defensive Player of the Month honors) and cornerback A.J. Bouye breaking out as a top tier defender. The disruptive group will be tasked with keeping Amari Cooper out of the end zone and forcing a turnover or two out of the rookie quarterback. Dominant play from the secondary could turn the tide of this playoff bout, giving the Texans the upper hand and taking pressure off of their offense.
4. Houston’s offense needs to build and maintain momentum for the duration of this match-up. Make no mistake: Oakland is still a threat, even without their star quarterback. If the Texans have any hope of advancing, their offense has to start matching the tempo (and scoring potential) of the teams they are facing. Lamar Miller will be back in action this weekend, providing a spark to the Houston run game, and Hopkins may well be seeking redemption after he was robbed of a touchdown in his last bout with Oakland.
But the two biggest questions for the Texans’ offense will be at quarterback and offensive line. Brock Osweiler is taking the reins back from Tom Savage, who is out this weekend as he remains in concussion protocol. For Houston to succeed, Osweiler needs to focus on better ball protection, as well as moving the offense down the field and converting in the red zone (I’m talking touchdowns, not just field goals). The offensive line also needs improvement, as they have barely managed to deter opposing defensive lines, let alone stop them. Houston won’t get far in the postseason without better play from the line and the quarterback position.
The Texans have leaned on their defense all season. This weekend will be no exception. Despite Houston’s offensive struggles, they should beat an Oakland team hindered by a rookie quarterback. The Texans have a solid shot at advancing to the next round. What do you think, Texans fans? Are there any match-ups or players you are really looking forward to watching? You can use the comments section to debate the game and the outcome below.