2016 Houston Texans: This was one of the odder and more frustrating seasons in team history. The quest for the great franchise quarterback continued. The next candidate: free agent pick Brock Osweiler, he of tall stature and of effective back up QB play for the Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos. A nice 4 year/$72 million contract brought him to Houston. Throw in major contracts for RB Lamar Miller and OG Jeff Allen, and the team was hoping to recreate its free agency success of 2011, only for the offense. That did not happen. The offense set the wrong kind of records and Osweiler would find himself topping the list of all-time free agent busts.
Yet, for all of the struggles of the offense, it was the defense that carried the team once again. The team finished number one in total defense for the league…all of this without the services of JJ Watt for most of the season, out with a herniated disk. They would once again win the AFC South with a 9-7 record, yet, they would actual win their home playoff game (helped by Oakland forced to start a rookie third string QB), only to see their season end in the division round.
The division round playoff game promised to be just another warm-up act for New England as they prepared for another run for the Super Bowl. The Texans came into Gillette Stadium as a multi-score underdog, and given the offensive struggles, and the fact that New England, with a third string QB, blanked the Texans 27-0 in the same place in Week 3, there was no reason to expect the outcome to be different. By the end of the first quarter, the Patriots went up 14-3, and all is going to expectations.
Yet, someone forgot to tell the Texans that they were done. In the second quarter, on back-to-back possessions, they forced two New England turnovers, and turned a 14-3 laugher into a 14-13 nail-biter. The Patriots went into the half up 17-13, but the Texans defense is giving Brady all sorts of trouble, forcing three interceptions and sacking him three times. New England managed a third quarter touchdown to go up 24-13, but late in the third, the Texans were in Patriots territory.
On a third and 8 from the New England 45, Brock Osweiler drops back and finds a streaking Will Fuller, running free into the end zone. Osweiler heaves a deep pass that is (surprisingly) on target. All Fuller has to do is hang on to the ball, and the Texans have cut the deficit to 20-24 (or possibly 21-24). Unfortunately, Fuller inexplicably drops the sure touchdown. Houston has to punt, and New England remains ahead 24-13. Houston would cut the deficit to eight on a field goal, but two Osweiler fourth quarter interceptions seal the Texans fate, and New England goes on to win 34-16, advancing to yet another AFC title game.
What if Fuller held onto that sure touchdown pass?
In this season, the Texans could have gone in wildly divergent paths. They sported a significant negative point differential (-49) that should have had them with a losing record and well out of the playoffs. Even if the Mexico City game against the Raiders had gone the Texans’ way, and not been all but gifted by the officials to Oakland, the Texans would still have been the fourth seed. The offensive limitations of Osweiler became apparent after only a couple of games, but the Texans did not have a lot of options. Remember all the hype/hope for Tom Savage? Perhaps the Texans could have tried a different route, but the draft didn’t seem like the best place to look for a QB prospect, not without blowing up all of the team’s future draft capital (that happens later).
Even in the playoffs, there is something to be said for divergent fates. What if Derek Carr, or Matt McGloin for that matter, are not injured and Connor Cook does not become one of the few players to make his first NFL start in an actual playoff game? What if Clowney doesn’t make that huge interception in the first quarter? Yet, there is something intriguing about Houston’s clash with New England. In particular, the defense was playing some outstanding ball for most of the season. Not perfect, but they were clearly playoff caliber, and they kept the Texans in a game where they probably had no business being competitive. The “diamond” formation that the Texans used on defense gave Brady fits.
The Texans’ offense was another matter. The team cashed in on a couple of opportunities, but they also left points on the board, aside from the Fuller drop. Osweiler had one pick earlier in the game, but the fourth quarter, when the team had to put everything on his shoulders, was a bridge too far. Yet, supposing that Fuller makes the catch, and the Texans play the percentages to cut the deficit to four? If things play out as projected, the Texans can tack on that early fourth quarter field goal and be down only 23-24. While it is possible that New England would still get the W, the Texans’ mindset for fourth quarter play is far different if they are down only one instead of down eight. The run is still a significant factor, and perhaps Osweiler wouldn’t have had to press in his play. Also, the defense was starting to tire in the fourth, especially when called back so quickly on the field after the turnovers. The mindset of the team might have been that much better. The chance for victory is certainly greater, as Houston is keeping the pressure on New England to fight to win over a team they should have easily handled.
Supposing the Texans goes for two after the Fuller touchdown? If they miss, they are down 24-19, which is not always ideal, but the mindset of being one play away from taking the lead vs. two plays to tie is a difference maker. Throw in the field goal and the team is only down 22-24, with plenty of time to get that next score. Granted, a New England touchdown, which is a great possibility with Brady at home, would render that hope moot. Still, a late third quarter touchdown could have further elevated a team, especially a defense that was starting to face some weariness.
If the two-point conversion happens and the margin is 21-24? If Houston holds, and manages a field goal on the next fourth quarter drive, you have a tie ball game in the fourth. At that point, anything could happen. New England could still score the last 13 points, but in a tie game, would Osweiler press as much as he did? Possible, but he might have also played a smarter game, not feeling he had to press as much. Also, there is the chance New England makes the mistake, and Houston can capitalize to escape with the upset.
In the end, it might be too fanciful to hope that Houston would win at New England. Then again, a strong defense carrying a team to a championship is not that alien a concept. The previous season, the Broncos won the Super Bowl on the strength of their ferocious defense. While the 2016 Texans defense may not have exactly equaled the 2015 Broncos, the D was playing well enough to win in the playoffs.
Most point to the 2011 team as perhaps the best team in franchise history, but there is a case to be made for 2016 maybe being just as formidable. The defense had won games all year, and the offense, inept as it was, could manage a few plays with talent like DeAndre Hopkins and explosive rookie Will Fuller. However, even if Houston pulls off the upset of New England, that would only mean a matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh. While the Texans’ defense would give the Steelers some trouble, the Steelers defense, fired up by the Heinz Field crowd would give the older Houston fans bad flashbacks of the late 1970s, with the Steelers overcoming a dangerous Texans team and returning to the Super Bowl to try to claim title number seven.
Admittedly, the biggest thing holding back the ’16 squad was the QB position. Osweiler showed flashes, but the Texans missed the memo about what happens when a backup who shows some promise gets way overpaid to be a franchise QB (see Mitchell, Scott). Still, when a team like Houston is an unexpectedly close fight with a team like New England, you have to take advantage of the limited chances. That Fuller couldn’t hold on to arguably the easiest catch he would have all season was emblematic of how Houston could get so close, and yet still not get over the hump.
It was blatantly clear that the team in 2017 had one overarching mandate: Get a Quarterback! Get a Quarterback!! GET A QUARTERBACK!!!