Heading into this weekend's slate of games, there were only 11 NFL teams above .500 on the season, the lowest number of teams above the even mark since the elder Bush was in the presidential office. Basically, in 2015's NFL, mediocre is the new average!
The bad news is that such mediocrity makes for far fewer marquee match ups as the remainder of the season unfolds. The games that include two of these endangered species we call "good football teams" are fewer and further between. The good news is that this cesspool of parity has allowed the Houston Texans to remain not only relevant, but prominently involved in an AFC South division race with a 4-5 record. What a country we live in!
The nice bonus from the win over the Bengals on Monday night is that not only did it put the Texans into a tie with the Colts for first place in the AFC South, but it nudged them into the wild card conversation, as well. Now, over two of the next three weeks, the Texans play two of the teams ahead of them for the second wild card in the AFC, the Jets and the Bills, both at 5-4.
It starts with the Jets this Sunday, and the return of Ryan Fitzpatrick. Let's give you a few storylines to follow, shall we?
4. Hopkins vs Revis
See, here's the big problem for the Texans this Sunday and every Sunday since Arian Foster's Achilles tendon decided to take the rest of the season off — they have one guy who can make plays. Deandre Hopkins. That's it. He's the only one on this offense that can make something happen when the other team has a play well defended. Every other Texan skill player needs a given play to work exactly as it's diagrammed or else it ain't working. Hopkins goes up against CB Darrelle Revis on Sunday, which should be fun to watch, but probably means that some other Texan will need to step up. I'm not optimistic.
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3. Return of Rotund Randy
Both defenses are stout. The Jets' defense is ranked fourth in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders. The Texans haven't given up a touchdown since the first half of the Miami game, ten quarters ago. This thing has a real chance to be a battle of field goal kickers, which means that it will be Nick Novak against his predecessor Randy Bullock. Yes, Texan fans, that feeling of dread that filled your heart every time Randy waddled out to kick a field goal is no longer your problem. Even better, it actually IS the problem of your opponent. I wonder if the team will run a highlight reel of Bullock's missed field goals and PAT's to welcome him back to NRG Stadium.
2. Offensive line cohesion
Duane Brown, Xavier Su'a-Filo, Ben Jones, Brandon Brooks, Derek Newton. Left to right, that's the combination of five that Texan fans thought they were getting along the offensive line when they were dreaming of the 2015 season last spring. And finally, in the Bengals game, for the first time this season, it was the combo they actually got. Su'a-Filo's ability to play football at a professional level has been the main impediment to melding this group together, but on Monday, he looked competent after a shaky start. If the Texans are going to improve their anemic running game during the final seven weeks of the season, a cohesive offensive line is an excellent starting point.
1. Bill O'Brien "This Is Your Texans QB Life"
Since taking over as head coach of the Texans in 2014, Bill O'Brien has started four different quarterbacks — Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Case Keenum, and Brian Hoyer. Sunday, he will likely add his fifth when T.J. Yates tries to do what he's done best as a Houston Texan — win football games as a last resort at starting quarterback. In 2011, it was good enough to get to the second round of the playoffs. On Sunday, Texan fans just hope it's good enough to beat the first starter of the O'Brien Era.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.