This past weekend saw the debut of “Super Wild Card Weekend”, whereby the NFL jammed six playoff games across three days, to include arguably the biggest stakes Monday Night Football game in history. This is a carryover from last year’s debut of two additional teams into the NFL post-season tournament. More games most assuredly will equal more money, between advertising dollars for the respective networks, and playoff gate receipts for the hosting squads. Does that exactly mean greater quality games? Eh, the early returns are not encouraging, but there is enough negativity in life, so we will pass on that analysis for now.
The addition of a conference 7th seed did not happen in 2020, but at an earlier point in time.
If the addition of the 2 extra playoff teams happened back in either 2010, or perhaps even 2002, then there would be some changes in the history of the Houston Texans. In particular, there were two seasons where Houston finished as the “first out”, sitting at home while the 6 teams ahead of them went on to test their luck in the playoff Wheel-of-Fortune.
The Houston Texans finish with their first winning season in franchise history, riding a four game winning streak, punctuated by their first win over the vaunted New England Patriots. That game was an early afternoon kickoff, which meant that the league still had a myriad of games to play. For the Texans, they still had playoff hopes with the final game of the season. The New York Jets, who manhandled Houston in the season opener, traveled to Cincinnati for the Sunday Night game. A win by Cincinnati, who already had a playoff spot, would elevate Houston into the playoffs. If the Jets won, they would be in the playoffs and Houston would stay home. New York crushed the Bengals, sparking the first of back-to-back runs to the AFC championship under Rex Ryan, Mark Sanchez and the Ground-and-Pound Jets.
However, if the NFL allowed for seven teams that season, Houston would find itself in its very first playoff spot. Due to the various conference record tie-breakers, the Texans would open on the road, facing off against the then two seed of…the San Diego Chargers, helmed by Norv Turner, Phillip Rivers, Antonio Gates and the last season of LaDanian Tomlinson. At 13-3, it was the best record for the team since their 2006 14-2 season. While the Colts were the clear-cut favorite in the AFC that season, the Chargers had to feel they had as good a chance as any team. Getting a team like Houston, with the league’s leading passing attack in yards, but a fair-to-middling defense, would have been a nice warm-up act for the Chargers.
The teams did not meet in the regular season, so there is little direct frame of reference for how this game would have played out. However, the Texans would come into this game with a boat-load of confidence, given how the season ended. The Matt Schaub to Andre Johnson connection was as devastating a duo as the league had and the Kubiak offensive scheme was practically at its peak for Houston. Yet, they also lacked playoff experience, and Schaub, while playing well to get the Texans into this position, had not quite proven himself able to win the “big” one. Additionally, Houston only had a 2-5 record against teams with a winning record. Given the weapons San Diego had on the that roster, especially Antonio Gates, who tended to play very well against Houston, the Texans likely do not clinch the franchise’s first playoff win, as they would lose in a likely offensive display, something on the order of 34-27.
What that might have done for the Texans’ prospects coming into 2010? The expectations coming into that season were sky-high even with the near-miss of a playoff spot. If the team had made the playoffs, then 2010 was the season for further advancement into the NFL elite. Alas, the counterfactual immediately reverts back to form, as the defensive shortcomings of the Frank Bush era dog the team, which a potent offense could not overcome. The squad craters to 6-10, Bush is sacked, and in an ultimatum-type season, the Texans bring in Wade Phillips, draft a DL-prospect out of Wisconsin, and the rest…well, more at a later time.
The inaugural BO’B season, before the dark times when the quest for franchise power consumed all. The Texans were coming off a seemingly flukish 2-14 season. Kubiak and Schaub did not return to the team. One veteran defensive coordinator (Phillips) was replaced by another (Crennel). However, many key players from the previous regime remained on the roster. In particular, that defensive line prospect from Wisconsin, JJ Watt, entered the season as the highest paid DL in the league, as well as its best defender. There was hope that BO’B could carry over his quaterback-whisper abilities from Penn State, getting the most of guys like Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallet and Tom Savage.
The team, even cycling through 4 starting quarterbacks, managed to return to their winning ways, finishing 9-7. The season finale, like in 2009, once again saw the Texans with an outside chance for the playoffs. Having dispatched Jacksonville, the Texans sat at 9-7, only needing Cleveland to upend Baltimore to secure the team’s 3rd playoff berth in 4 seasons. Going into the 4th quarter of the JAX/HOU tussle, the casual Texans fan could look at the scoreboard to see Cleveland holding a late lead against the Ravens. However, a 17-point 4th quarter clinched the game and with Kansas City downing San Diego, Baltimore secured the final Wild Card spot.
However, what if the Texans, instead of relying on the arm of the Browns’ Connor Shaw, managed to parlay their victory over Jacksonville into securing the seventh and final seed in the expanded NFL playoffs? For the Texans, that would mean a playoff date with…the Denver Broncos in Denver. The Broncos were looking to avenge their Super Bowl XLVII humiliation at the hands of Seattle. Long time Texans’ nemesis Peyton Manning again helmed a powerful Broncos offense, While the Texans boasted an improving defense and were led by MVP candidate J.J. Watt, the squad would have been limping into the post-season. The season finale saw Arian Foster leave with a hamstring injury, making him unlikely to play in the Wild Card game. Multiple other Texans came in with injuries, to include Whitney Mercilus and Jonathan Joseph. A playoff team with Case Keenum and Alfred Blue in the offensive backfield was not likely to concern Denver. Throw in a 2-6 record against teams with a winning record, and the Texans likely open as double-digit underdogs.
No Houston NFL team ever won a post-season game in Denver, and in this scenario, that doesn’t change. The defense plays hard, but the offense is way too limited and Denver cruises to an easy double-digit win, say 27-13. As for that game’s impact on the future of the Texans? Like the 2009 counter-factual, reality sets back in very quickly. Houston realizes that it needs a quarterback, and it goes on a quest to determine who can be the “guy” The ever-riveting Ryan Mallet/Brian Hoyer duel dominates the off-season/training camp storylines, but ultimately, it will once again end in the Wild Card Abomination against Kansas City, and the story moves forward.
Thus, we complete the thought experiment about the fortunes of the Texans in a world where the expanded playoffs occurred before 2020. What say you? Agree, disagree, or have a totally different take? Let your thoughts be heard below.