As the Houston Texans' 2017 season mercifully comes to a close this Sunday afternoon, it's time to reflect on the various things that the football gods robbed us of when they chose to maliciously tear the ACL in Deshaun Watson's knee. (Yes, I'm closing 2017 on a vindictive note — it's been that kind of year.)
I think it's safe to say they may have robbed us of a third consecutive AFC South title and perhaps a deep playoff run. Considering that Watson threw for 19 touchdowns in seven games, it's safe to say we were probably deprived of seeing a rookie QB throw for 40 or more touchdowns. (Seriously, think about that!) Finally, given the way the schedule was structured, the Indianapolis Colts were able to skirt the wrath of Deshaun Watson in BOTH games against the Texans this season.
That gets under my skin, because the Colts are easily the most annoying team in the division, and maybe the entire league, considering the extent of their success is entirely predicated on landing the No. 1 overall pick in the EXACT correct two off-seasons (1998 with Peyton Manning, and 2012 with Andrew Luck), although to be fair, in their history they've been pretty good at landing the No. 1 overall pick in the wrong off-seasons, as well.
This season, the Luck-less (and, for once, luckless) Colts are on track for another top five pick in the draft, while the Texans are a couple months away from really having to fix the holes in the roster around Watson. For now, we have this Week 17 game to get through, though, so let's focus in on a few things....
4. Jadeveon Clowney
For what felt like the fifth or sixth straight game, last Monday, outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney went to the turf with an injury requiring some attention from the medical staff. (It's probably fewer games than that, but this season has been such a grind, everything medical feels magnified.) To his credit, Clowney (again) picked himself up, walked off, got a look-see from the medical staff, and returned to the game. However, given his past injury issues, including microfracture surgery his rookie season, do we really need to risk putting Clowney out there in a meaningless game (actually, a game the Texans would be BETTER OFF LOSING — more on that in a second) and risk his sustaining something that would turn the 2018 offseason into a rehab situation? Personally, I say no, but you know Clowney wants that tenth sack of the season heading into contract extension negotiations this winter, and besides, the culture of the NFL dictates that, if he's healthy, he plays. So I know he will play, but I just think the prudent thing to do is come up with a reason for him not to. Anyway...
3. Life without DeAndre Hopkins
News came down on Thursday afternoon that Hopkins would probably miss Sunday's game with a calf injury. This is significant for a number of reasons. First, Hopkins has never missed a game (nor even come close to missing one) in his NFL career, so his streak will end at 79 games in a row. Second, Hopkins is vying for first team All Pro status, duking it out presumably with Atlanta's Julio Jones. General wisdom says Antonio Brown has one of the two WR spots locked up, so here is where Hopkins and Jones rank in the vital receiving stats:
Rec. Yds TD # of QB's
Hopkins 96 (5th) 1,378 (2nd) 13 (1st) 3
Jones 83 (T-10th) 1,364 (3rd) 3 (T-66th) 1
So Hopkins leads Jones in every category with six games of Deshaun Watson and nine games of scrubs throwing him the ball. Make a note, voters. Third, and in the moment on Sunday most importantly, I'm frightened to see how a Texans offense without Hopkins functions. This could be ugly, like really ugly.
2. Offensive line audition
The Texans' offensive line has been the worst in the NFL this season. I say that having watched their offensive line every week and others' only a week here and a week there, but I still make that assertion only because (a) it is statistically BAD, hell, historically bad at protecting the quarterback, according to Pro Football Focus, and (b) I have eyes, and I can just tell, this group is not good. So, if you're thinking, "Well, the Texans have a ton of cap money to spend this offseason, they'll just go shopping!", think again....
Not exactly upscale shopping. Honestly, when it comes to the offensive line, I think the Texans are going to be relying on more solutions that are already in-house than people think. Nick Martin will be the center. Beyond that, I think they're counting on Derek Newton being slotted somewhere. Given the fact that this staff and front office casually relied upon Kendall Lamm at left tackle coming into this season and thought that WE were the crazy ones for thinking that might not work too well, I think it's perfectly within bounds to think they already see fourth round rookie Julien Davenport as their left tackle in 2018. And since they tried to sell us Kendall Lamm, do we really think that they won't try to sell us Chad Slade, Kyle Fuller, or Greg Mancz as a starting guard? For anyone thinking the o-line fix is to merely spend in free agency, in the words of Luke Skywalker, THIS IS NOT GOING TO GO THE WAY YOU THINK IT IS.
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1. The 2018 disclaimer on "We want to win this game!"
Bill O'Brien has said multiple times this week that, as the head coach, he wants to win this game on Sunday. Most seasons, at this point, given the relative similarity in futility between 5-11 and 4-12, most fans would be either indifferent or quietly rooting against the Texans so that they could secure a higher pick in the draft. However, with Cleveland owning both the Texans' first and second round picks in the upcoming draft, there are no real draft implications in the outcome of one game (unless you get worked up over slotting near the top of the third round, and if you do, heaven help you). However, if you're looking for one benefit in losing there is one that could have a significant effect on 2018. If the Texans lose on Sunday, they'll be tied with the Colts at 4-12, but on the strength of sweeping the Texans in the season series, the Colts would finish in third place. So the Texans will have secured a last place schedule! YAY! What does that mean exactly? Well, in 2018, the Texans play six division games, play the entire AFC East and the entire NFC East, and then play the corresponding finishers from the AFC West and AFC North. The slotting of the third and fourth place teams in the AFC West is still up in the air between Oakland and Denver. However, we know that in the AFC North, the Bengals will finish third, and the lowly Browns will finish last. A win over the Colts on Sunday is the difference between playing a home game versus the Bengals or the Browns in 2018. Which would be better for the Texans? While the Bengals are a descending train wreck and the Browns have a ton of draft equity, I'll still take my chances with the Browns.
Which means the Texans will probably win this Sunday.....
SPREAD: Colts -4
PREDICTION: Texans 13, Colts 12
RECORD: 12-3 SU, 9-6 ATS
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.