In looking at counterfactual situations, sometimes the plausible doesn’t deviate from the actual. Such is the case with the 2022-23 Houston Texans. However, the past season did have a few moments where things could have gone different. While not likely to vault the Texans into playoff contention, a swing of two games might have significant impact. Thus the two games against the Indianapolis Colts. In an interesting schedule quirk, the Colts and the Texans opened and closed the season. The Texans went 1-0-1 against them. Still, given the close margins of those games (one combined point separated the two teams), what if both of those games ended differently?
The 20-20 tie doesn’t end in a tie:
Historically, new full-time Houston head coaches start well, holding a 3-1 mark (3-0 at home). For three quarters, Houston looked to move that mark to 4-1 and 4-0, respectively. Houston’s defense forced multiple turnovers, and the team led 20-3 after three quarters. However, the fourth quarter flipped the script. The Texans could not move the ball nor stop the Colts, as they forced overtime. The Colts could have won, but missed the winning OT FG. The resultant drive saw Houston move the ball into Colts territory. Yet, with under a minute left, and with Houston facing fourth and three at the Colts’ 49, Lovie Smith sent out the punt unit. This assured the tie.
Houston’s fate record-wise is not all that much different here. Only a half-game difference (1-4 vs 1-3-1). The bigger concern is what a blown lead to start the season would do to the players on a young and not-so-talented team. At least with a tie, there is some positive. A loss, when a 17-point blown lead is involved...that is a bit harder for younger players to swallow. How effective could Smith rally the team after that tough start? Perhaps 0-5 is in play. While it is not likely that Houston would fire Smith that soon, an 0-5 start likely assures his pink slip. Would the funk from a blown loss in Week 1 lead to the mythical 0-17 that many figured Houston could reach? Not likely, but it couldn’t be ruled out, especially for a young team psychologically scarred by such a needless debacle.
As for Houston, a 1-0 start might only lead to the team being 2-3 going into its early bye (all else remaining the same). Yet, with such a young team, perhaps the dynamics change. The games against the Denver Broncos and Chicago Bears would be losses, but in both games, Houston was either tied or held the lead in the second half. Resiliency, especially if they withstood a Week 1 Colts comeback, could do wonders for team belief. Given the shortcomings for Denver and Chicago, both were very winnable games, and both turned on Houston mental issues as much as poor run defense. The 1-0 start could have seen the squad move to 2-1 or even 3-0. If that happened, the NFL universe would’ve gone nuts with all the hot takes on Mills being the next great 3rd round QB and Smith showing he’s “still got it”. Going into the early bye 4-1 (with the Los Angeles Chargers loss and Jacksonville Jaguars win still happening) would be one of the biggest stories of the NFL season.
Yet, a second order of counterfactuals set in, and things move back towards the norm. Absolute best case, Houston could get to 5-1 in this scenario, but even 4-2 would look great (after a coin-flip game against the Raiders). Then the bottom would fall out, with the squad still losing its next eight games. Given pre-season expectations, 5-9 or 4-10 after that stretch would be impressive. Still, the Texans should have had more than two wins (possibly up to six) coming into the finale at Indy. The drawback is that Houston, especially if Mills regresses after the team’s strong start, is still looking for a QB, and more wins reduces the chances for getting a top QB prospect. Maybe they still roll with Will Levis, or more likely, they sacrifice much of the Watson draft capital to move up, also limiting any major draft night moves (like they actually pulled off this past April).
The Jordan Akins Octopus for the 32-31 Win Doesn’t Happen:
Determining the future outlook of this game would depend on whether Week 1 remained a tie. If Houston lost, then it has likely already clinched the #1 pick in the draft. If the Texans won, and in particular, they got off to a good start, the #1 is no longer a factor, but neither are the playoffs and the team would come into the game to end the season on a strong note. Still, this game proved more entertaining than expected, but will be more remembered for the draft implication. For this scenario, let’s say Week 1 remains a tie.
This leaves Caserio in the driver’s seat for the draft. A QB, likely Bryce Young, is priority one. However, with the top pick in most other rounds of the draft, does this impact Caserio’s wheeling and dealing? Does Caserio still make the big push for drafting Anderson? With Chicago likely at the #2 pick, and if they don’t trade it, Anderson is off the board to the Windy City. However, Chicago is still just as likely to surrender the #2 pick, say to Carolina or some other QB-needy team. Might Houston still wheel and deal for Anderson? If it is still Arizona at #3, and Caserio still makes the big draft night trade, perhaps Houston adopts the new social media slogan “Roll Texans”.
An additional bonus is that Indy might decide that after going 2-6, Irsay might decide that Saturday is the best man for the head coaching job. Perhaps Saturday could grow into the job, but given how he did with the 8-game audition, a Colts’ win could result in the daily double of improving Houston and diminishing Indy.
Fans lambasted Lovie for going for the win. Say Lovie decides to play it conventional and go for one after the late TD? Both teams play OT, again. Houston has the offensive momentum, so it is possible that Houston still wins. Yet, you can’t rule out another tie, especially if Lovie just doesn’t want to end his career on a loss. At that point, the Texans will be a symmetric 2-13-2, and the Bears 3-14. A tie is worth half-a-win in the NFL calculations, and thus both Houston and Chicago finish with the same winning percentage (.176). Here we go back to Week 3, when Houston derped against Chicago. By “winning” that tiebreaker with Chicago, Houston still locks up the #1 pick, and maybe the Colts still keep Saturday. Lovie Smith is likely gone by the end of Black Monday, but all of the other scenarios for Caserio and the draft still apply.
Ultimately, the final judgement on these two games in 2022 rests on the next few years for Houston. Will Houston rue its non-losing record against Indy, especially if the 2023 Draft does not yield the desired future glory? Not that any team would or should hope for a loss, but will Houston look back on the Week 1 tie and Week 18 victories as pyrrhic ones?