The 2019 Houston Texans: At the time of this writing, the 2019 Texans remain the last Texans team with a winning record/playoff appearance. There was a sense that 2019 would be a pivotal year for the franchise. Watson, nearly 2 full seasons removed from an ACL tear, was expected to take his place as a perineal MVP candidate/top quarterback in the league. JJ Watt was not getting any younger, but 2018 proved that he could still be a one-man defensive wrecking crew. The roster saw an extensive shakeup, especially when the Texans sacked then-GM Brian Gaine and made BO’B a dual-hatter leader, with the inputs/advise of emerging force Jack Easterby. Cal McNair, with the passing of his father Bob, was the primary decision-maker for the franchise.
The new brain trust struck quickly. In August, the team engaged in a series of franchise-altering trades, sending multiple players and draft picks to Miami and Seattle. The key return was Left Tackle Laremy Tunsil, brought in to protect Watson’s blind side. The primary cost for Tunsil’s services would be the loss of the team’s 2020 and 2021 1st round draft picks, as well as the 2021 2nd rounder. With likely contract extensions due to Watson and Tunsil, as well as other personnel action, the team would also lack excess cap space for future acquisitions.
With so much of the future mortgaged, 2019 shaped up to be a “win-or-else” type year. Houston, facing a challenging schedule, managed to go 10-6, good enough for a fourth division title under the BO’B regime. This set up a tough Wild Card round matchup with the Buffalo Bills, who initially jumped out to a 16-point third quarter lead, only to see the Texans storm back to take a late 19-16 lead. Buffalo would force overtime, and after a couple of tense possessions, the Texans, on the strength of a 34-yard catch and run by RB Taiwan Jones, kicked the game-winning FG, booking a trip to Kansas City for the Divisional Round. Unfortunately, the Texans gave Houston PTSD from 1993, as they blew a 24-0 lead to lose 51-31 to the eventual Super Bowl champion Chiefs.
Most will view the 2019 season as one where Houston not only blew another big playoff lead, but where the Texans engaged in a misguided short-term effort to win it all that had no chance of success. In retrospect, there is a chance that the all-in gamble actually could have worked. While the Texans finished one game worse in the regular season than in 2018, the squad did log some significant regular season wins. These included a comeback win against Kansas City at Arrowhead, as well as finally conquering the Sith Lord Belicheck. The squad could still derp away a game it had no business doing so (see the inexplicable home losses to Denver and Carolina). Still, the team entered the post-season capable of going on a run to the Super Bowl.
Even before that January kickoff at Arrowhead, the Texans’ path to the Super Bowl was in great shape. Based on the Titans’ upset of the Ravens, the winner of the Texans-Chiefs would have home-field for the AFC championship. The Texans also came into Arrowhead with justified confidence. They had already beaten the Chiefs at Arrowhead earlier in the season, and JJ Watt had returned to start. The Texans’ defense was not especially great that season, but they were effective enough, and with Watson coming off the game he had against Buffalo, Houston held plenty of momentum, which they put to quick use.
Houston jumped out to a 21-0 lead to start the game, and early in the second quarter, they were driving once again on a stunned Chiefs’ defense. Then comes the first critical move. Facing a fourth and inches at the Chiefs’ 13, the Texans decide to take the three points, going up 24-0. In some respects, that is understandable. Points can be at a premium in the playoffs, and teams have to capitalize on those opportunities. Yet, given how the Texans went conservative on that play, but then went for a fake on fourth and four at their own 31-yard line, there are more than a few questions here.
Suppose that Bill O’Brien decided to switch when he wanted to be aggressive and when to play it safe. At that point in the game of the fourth and inches, the Texans have all the momentum. If they failed on the conversion, they would still have a three score lead and would force the Chiefs to go nearly the full length of the field to get back into the game. If they convert, it is first and 10 deep in the KC red zone. After a fourth down conversion, the Texans could take that momentum to get another TD, moving to a 28-0 lead. At the time of the ill-fated fourth and inches decision, the Texans held a 94% chance of victory. It would be the high point of the game.
As for the fake punt, when the Texans made that play call, the Chiefs offense finally locked in for a TD to cut the deficit to 24-7. BO’B may have seen the game getting away from him, thus the second critical decision of the fake punt at Houston’s 31-yard-line. Reid might have shaken free of the KC player, but he didn’t, and thus, the turnover on downs. If Houston punts, then at least the Chiefs would be forced to go a longer distance to score, offering a chance for the Texans to blunt the momentum. As it was, the Chiefs didn’t need a short field, but when the Texans gave them that, the winning percentage (then at 73%) for the Texans took a major nose-dive. From that time onward, Houston would be the one committing the blunders and the Chiefs went on a mind-blowing 51-7 run to finish the game.
Two plays, and the direction of a franchise is set. If Houston takes the better calculated gamble and goes for the conversion on 4th and inches and makes it, they would likely get the TD, and then are up 28-0. Kansas City’s offense would start to score, but if it is 28-7, would Houston still dare a far riskier fourth and four fake punt inside its 30? If not, then the Chiefs still get the ball, but further down the field. It is likely they would score again, but without such a dramatic flip in momentum, does Houston have that critical kick-return fumble that would allow the Chiefs to quickly get to 24-21, or in this scenario, 28-21?
Perhaps the Texans still fall to the Chiefs, who had the offense to overcome a 28-point deficit. However, if the percentages play out and Houston escapes Arrowhead with a hard fought win (let’s say a 41-38 final), the Texans are in great shape going into the AFC championship. Granted, the Titans would not be an easy out. In addition to felling the Patriots and the Ravens on the road, the Titans bested the Texans at NRG at the end of the season in a convincing 35-14 win. Yet, Watson, Watt and several key starters for the Texans did not play in that season finale. The game is a back-and-forth affair, with Henry getting his yards on the ground and Tannehill leveraging the play-action game for several big gains. However, the Houston crowd, witnessing its first AFC championship game at home, would be raucous and the home team takes that energy and delivers the city an AFC championship.
At this point, the Texans find themselves in the Super Bowl to face off with the San Francisco 49ers. San Francisco presents Houston with perhaps the most dangerous defensive lineup possible in the playoffs, and Watson will take his share of sacks/hard hits. However, Kyle Shanahan can’t avoid blowing another playoff double-digit lead (this time a 21-10 advantage). Watson plays an intense game of pitch-and-catch with DeAndre Hopkins for most of the fourth quarter and JJ Watt cements his place as the real “mayor” of Houston with a game-sealing sack on Jimmie Garoppolo as the Texans give Houston its long desired Super Bowl in a 24-21 victory. The parade for the Texans is the largest in city history.
The trade for Tunsil is regarded as one of the biggest high risk payoffs in NFL history. The Texans brain-trust is so pleased with the Texans’ win that in addition to rewarding BO’B with a new contract extension, they give him the formal title of GM. “I am hoping that this is the start of the ‘Texans’ dynasty!!!’” Cal McNair boasts at the victory celebration. Unfortunately, the dynastic aspirations are not to be. Most knew that the Texans were sacrificing the future for the chance for a near-term Super Bowl win. It paid off, but the Texans still suffered the consequences. Poor personnel decisions, coaching moves and player missteps doom the team as they go from 1st to 3rd worst in 2020, with the prognosis for the early 2020s sees the team a league bottom-dweller. Still, even as the team would struggle, most could look up to the rafters of NRG and see that oh-so-glorious Super Bowl championship banner, knowing that it would hang high forever.
Best case scenario? Maybe, but not as unlikely as you might have thought. Unfortunately, the all-in bet for the Super Bowl did not happen. Just as unfortunate, the team suffered all the consequences for going all in without getting the payout.