2018 Texans: The season when it was all finally supposed to come together. Watson, after the glorious, but all too brief, flash of brilliance in 2017, would have a full season as the unquestioned starter. Watt and Mercilus, reinforced by Tyron Mathieu and draft pick Justin Reid, would return to strengthen the Texans’ defense. BO’B would not have any real excuses anymore, but he would have everything he needed to get the team over the Divisional Round hump, and to greater glory. The team finished 11-5, their best record under the BO’B regime, armed with a powerful run defense, a resurgent All-Pro Watt and Watson.
Then the Indianapolis Colts happened. Led by their own comeback king QB Andrew Luck, the Colts proved to be the bane of the 2018 Texans. They won the regular season game at NRG, ending a Texans’ nine-game winning streak. The Colts logged an even more painfully emphatic win against Houston in the Wild Card Round, when they raced out to a 21-0 1st quarter lead, coasting to a 21-7 win.
Yet, the Texans did log a win at Indy in Week 4, a 37-34 OT game of survival. Despite blowing a double-digit lead in the 4th, Houston logged two overtime field goals, the second emerging from a failed gamble by Frank Reich late in OT. While Reich did suffer the slings and arrows of many for the failed execution of the play, he did not want to settle for a tie, which most could understand. That win, the first for the then 0-3 Texans, triggered that season-altering win streak, and for the second time in team history, the squad went from 3-games under .500 to a division title.
2018 returned to most people’s minds just recently with the Week 1 tie between both of these franchises. Again, the Texans blew a significant 4th quarter lead. Again, the home team faced a risky, but decisive opportunity to go for a 1st down on a 4th and short. This time, the home team Texans, under the helm of Lovie Smith, decided not to play for the win, but to avoid the loss, punting with the ball spotted at the Texans’ 46-yard line. When the Colts fielded the punt, they were inside their own 6-yard line, and with so little time left, Reich could do little but also accept the tie.
In looking back at that Texans-Colts tilt of 2018, what if Reich took the Lovie Smith approach, punting the ball and all but assuring that the game would end in a tie? Coming into the matchup, both teams, with dreams of post-season glory, faced a season-altering cross-roads. Their combined records were 1-5. The Texans had three straight one-score losses, and were staring down the barrel of an 0-4 start. After a season opening win, the Colts lost 2 straight and found themselves in near-panic mode. There was a lot on the line.
Let’s say that the Texans and Colts leave Lucas Oil with a tie on their record. The Texans now sit at 0-3-1 and the Colts at 1-2-1. If the rest of the season plays out in this alternative world as it did in reality, then the Texans finish with a 10-5-1 record. It is still the best season under BO’B. Yet, the Colts would also end the year with a 10-5-1. Given that the Colts in this timeline still log their Week 13 win at NRG, the Colts clinch the AFC South. The Colts would take the 3rd seed, by virtue of their half-game lead over the Ravens. The Texans clinch their first ever wild card berth and take the 6th seed, as they are 2 games back of San Diego and a half-game up on Pittsburgh.
Wild Card weekend opens with this matchup, only at a rocking Lucas Oil Stadium. Given the regular season results, most pick the Colts to win a tight contest. There is no certainty that the Colts would again jump out to a 3-score lead, but too many factors are in their favor for this one, and in this timeline, Houston again fails to get out of the Wild Card round, falling to a then 0-3 in road playoff games.
Yet, was it a given that the Texans would still go on a massive win streak? They faced an emotional matchup against another contending team with a slow start in Dallas the following week. This one also went into overtime. While another tie seems highly unlikely, would the team still have the needed momentum to get the W, if they didn’t have the near escape from the previous week? 1-3-1 is not a place most would want to be, but 0-4-1 would also be a legitimate possibility.
Also, the Texans were a veteran squad, with many players who survived the 1-4 start of 2015. Still, the internal grumbling and bickering could not help but grow in a situation where a contending team was really struggling. BO’B was an emotional coach, but would the pressure of underachieving, especially with a QB like Watson in tow, finally be enough to weigh the team down to a point where it couldn’t bounce back. Counting the Colts and Cowboys, seven of the games in the 9-game winning streak were of the one score variety. Would the later part of the streak still happen if the Texans hadn’t survived to win in Indy in Week 4? Instead of going into the next Colts matchup at 9-3, what if Houston went in with a worse record than even 8-4-1? Momentum counts in the NFL, and in the one-score games the Texans played in 2018, there was not much separating 9-3 from 3-8-1, or 3-9.
Also, say that the Frank Reich gamble works, and Indy converted the critical 4th down? If the Colts did manage to move into FG range, and then-kicker Adam Vinatieri, no stranger to clutch kicks, made the game winner to move the Colts to 2-2 and sent the Texans to 0-4? At that point, it is likely the season takes a far darker turn for Houston. The OT against Dallas may yet remain a win, but a struggling team burdened with high expectations could have also cracked, and 0-5 could have been on the table. At that point, even for a squad as talented as Houston, the playoffs are not likely to happen.
At this point, the team likely endures major upheaval. GM Rick Smith would still depart due to family concerns. BO’B received a grace period for the debacle of the 2017 due to injuries. However, he would not have that in 2018 with a losing/non-playoff season. Bob McNair was on the cusp of turning day-to-day operational control over to Cal McNair. The Texans were not known for knee-jerk reactions, but back-to-back non-playoff seasons, especially with the roster Houston had, likely leave BO’B in danger of a pink slip. If Cal wanted to go in a completely new direction, he would have been more than justified at that point to start anew. With a healthy Watson, Watt and a roster with playoff-caliber talent, there would be no shortage of quality candidates to hire. How Houston plays that search out would be one of the most intriguing in NFL history.
As it was, Houston escaped Lucas Oil field with a critical win. It saved the Texans’ season, however temporarily. It gave Watson the chance to evolve into a playoff contending quarterback, at least before other issues arose to derail his career. A tie in 2018 would not have been the end of the world, but it would significantly increased the difficulty of the Texans season. All roads would likely lead to 2019 being a critical junction in the history of the Texans, perhaps the best chance for the team to finally get to the championship mountain.