When the season started, I was worried about the front seven. I had brain-shredding nightmares about a defense without J.J. Watt. Fears of a front seven lacking depth in August stuck around my head and laced my heart. If Watt was injured, how far would the defense drop off? From sixth in defensive DVOA to 10th? To 15th? To 20th? I had no idea.
Then all of those preseason fears became reality when it was confirmed that one of the greatest defensive players of all time, a man who had never missed a game, would be out for the rest of the season because of another back surgery. The answer to that question, after all the worry, was seventh. A small drop from 8th at -9.3% to 7th at -6.9%.
The reason why was the growth and evolution of three players. That, and Romeo Crennel being a genius, a genius whose brain is wrinklier than a naked mole rat. Jadeveon Clowney went from showing flashes, from proving that Gosder Cherilus was wrong, that microfracture knee surgery was just a sad hiccup that stole a year of Clowney’s life, to one of the best edge defenders in the league. Benardrick McKinney has proven Brian Cushing wrong, that McKinney is actually the best middle linebacker on the team, as he had 78 run tackles this year, all while pillaging lead blockers, ducking around guards, and overcoming that soft belly that plays in front of him. A.J. Bouye has gone from a whatever fourth corner, to an acceptable slot corner, to one of the best number two corners in the league, all in the span of a single season. Plus Crennel has manufactured a pass rush, used his entire arsenal of players in a variety of different ways, and has held every team Houston has faced in check.
While Brock Osweiler was just having fun out there by slamming the ball and guffawing with an angry face, the Texans’ defense played a game Saturday afternoon that was the culmination of he last sixteen games. They shut down the run. They pressured a third string rookie quarterback making his first career start and took advantage of his mistakes. They locked down third down. They were simply incredible.
I spent most of this season upset that Brock Osweiler was the worst quarterback in the NFL. I questioned the Texans’ performance and was ready for them to possibly miss the playoffs. This was all warranted. Yet I wish I let my heart override my brain more often so I could really savor this defense instead of hating the abhorrent negative. This Texans’ defense has been unbelievable. The more I think about it, the more I think it could have been all-time great one, the type that can win a title no matter who takes the snaps, if Watt had played this year.
But Watt didn’t play much this year, and the Texans still don’t have a quarterback. The offense scored points because of field position, Clowney’s gift, running away from Khalil Mack, throwing to the short middle part of the field by attacking the Raiders’ putrid inside linebackers, and Osweiler finally put the ball close enough for DeAndre Hopkins to make a play against a really bad defense. Next week is an expected loss, but because of how great this defense is, I don’t think it will be of the blowout, total annihilation, humiliation and decimation variety. This defense may actually be able to keep it a close game against the Patriots. If that happens, it will be the most incredible thing it has done during an incredible year.
The Texans played their best football of the season in a Wild Card Game that included a clean and productive outing for Brock and the offense. The Texans went conservative early, which is what you do when you get a lead in a playoff game and your defense is dominating a rookie quarterback in his first start. The defense was so much fun to watch! The Raiders were a shell of their former selves compared to the last meeting in Mexico, but Houston played well enough to have beaten them even if both teams were at full strength.
Speaking of injuries and being at full strength, I heard during the broadcast that J.J. Watt was recently cleared for full football activities. While I appreciate him getting as much time to heal as possible for a fully healthy return to action next year, it's natural to wonder how much he could impact the upcoming tilt against the Patriots if the Texans had pulled him off I.R. instead of Brennan Scarlett.
That was a good playoff win for the Texans!
This was an amazingly beautiful game by the Texans’ defense, even when considering a rookie QB was making his starting debut. The fact is the defensive line, led by Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, and a fantastic looking D.J. Reader, outplayed the Raiders' offensive line from the first snap. Derek Carr would've fared little better.
The Texans scored five (5) times Saturday. The starting field position and results are as follows:
-Oakland 40 (after the Raiders couldn't get past the 9 yard line): Field goal.
-Oakland 4 (after Clowney's pick): Touchdown.
-Houston 5: Field goal.
-Houston 40 (after the Raiders couldn't get past the 22): Touchdown.
-Houston 47 (after the Raiders couldn't get past the 14): Touchdown.
In other words, the tremendous defensive play put the offense in a position to minimize how much field it had to cover in four out of the five scoring drives.
The defense looked fantastic. Clowney was in "man among boys" mode and Romeo Crennel was cementing his place as best defensive coordinator in NFL history. Say what you will about Carr being out, but him being in wouldn't have changed the outcome. It just would have made a closer final score.
All we ever needed from Brock Osweiler was for him to be average. Of course we all WANT more, but it's clear at this point that any best case scenario you lay out for him as the starter for the Houston Texan caps out at average, and that might be TOO optimistic. We got a glimpse Saturday of what this team should have been in 2016--a great defense with an offense that can take advantage of field position and avoid game-changing turnovers.
Let's not forget that the Texans were very fortunate in that they did put the ball on the ground three times against Oakland (Osweiler and Tyler Ervin x 2), but were able to recover all three times. Good luck with that if it happens in New England.
The Texans are of course likely to get fired into the sun next week against the Patriots. Even if they get pressure on Tom Brady, he can beat it. Even if they limit turnovers, the Patriots’ defense is likely to stifle our offense. It is what it is. This current Texans Era is a perpetual cycle of "well, they did a bit better than I thought" combined with "they put themselves in this position to exceed expectations with questionable offseason player evaluation and bizarre in-game coaching plus odd week-to-week gameplans.” It's a weird dichotomy and a cycle I'd love to see broken as soon as KITTENING possible.
If you had asked Texans fans before the season started what achievement would have marked acceptable proof that the team had a successful season, I reckon the majority of reasonable fans would have answered with, “Win a playoff game.” Yes, the ultimate goal is always to win a championship, and the Texans are one of only eight (8) teams left with a chance to do that this season. But for this team to win its division and then to win a playoff game, without J.J. Watt, no matter how compromised or weakened the wild card opponent was, is something to applaud.
I don’t harbor any illusions of what the likely result of Saturday night in Foxborough will be. All I’ll say is that defense travels, and scoring points against the Texans’ defense is no easy task, even for the greatest quarterback in NFL history. The Texans have a chance to shock the world in January, and that’s exciting. No matter what happens this weekend, the Texans will have matched the most successful season in franchise history. They’ll have done that without perhaps the best player in the NFL doing what he normally does. That’s reason enough to appreciate what the 2016 Houston Texans accomplished. I want more, but I won’t let that stop me from enjoying the moment.
Here’s hoping that, no matter the odds, it doesn’t end Saturday evening.