NFL Playoffs, Wild Card Round: Raiders-Texans — Four Things to Watch For
A rarely seen sight — the Texans celebrating a touchdown in 2016.
If you're among those rooting for the Texans to win a home playoff game this weekend, the easiest way to quantify just how kind the football gods were to you (and the Texans, who I'm certain are rooting for the Texans to win on Saturday) in Week 17 is by looking at the spread on Saturday's playoff game. The Texans are favored by 3.5 points over the Oakland Raiders. (It's gone to -4 in some places, but I am still getting -3.5 on the site I use for stuff like this.)
Now, I think it's safe to say that if the Texans were playing the Kansas City Chiefs this weekend, not the Raiders — and this would be happening if the Raiders had beaten Denver last Sunday — the Texans would probably be underdogs of at least six points, probably seven, even at home. That's a massive double-digit swing in points, and obviously a swing that takes the Texans from underdog to favorite.
As much hand-wringing as there's been all season, stress that could reach some very interesting pressure points when the season ends (head coach, quarterback, marquee WR, general manager, health of J.J. Watt — LOTS of pending drama!), the Texans are FAVORED to be one of the last EIGHT teams still playing football in a 32-team league. Nuts, right?
Yes, their quarterback is a disaster, but there are plenty of building blocks in place here. If the Texans were a house, they'd need a few rooms made over and a kick-ass home theater (quarterbacks are home theaters), but it's not a total tear-down and rebuild.
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So now the Oakland Raiders come to town, miraculously (if you're a Texans fan) with a more depressing quarterback situation than the Texans. Rookie Connor Cook will make his first career start on Saturday against the No. 1 defense (as measured by yards allowed) in the league.
There are a few things to keep an eye on this weekend:
4. Home field advantage... (question mark?)
The mixed emotions over the Texans' overall outlook have translated into late-arriving crowds at NRG, cautious cheering and short fuses when it comes to QB failure. Yeah, sure, you'd rather be at home than on the road in the playoffs, but the Texans' home-field advantage right now is far from peak times back in 2011, when the playoffs were still a new, fresh experience. Last postseason, the Chiefs were able to remove the Texans crowd from the equation on the first play of the game when Knile Davis returned the opening kick for a touchdown, so the good news for the Texans is, if it's still 0-0 on the second play of the game, THAT'S PROGRESS! A loud crowd is not a "must" to win this game, but it would help with a rookie QB starting on the other side. It's more just something that will intrigue me leading up to game time Saturday.
3. Fresh quarterback red meat
Speaking of that rookie quarterback, Cook will get a chance to etch his name into Raiders history and become the first quarterback since Rich Gannon to win a playoff game for this franchise. Unlike Matt McGloin, who has about 500 NFL snaps on tape, there is virtually no Cook film out there NFL-wise for Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel to scout. So now Texans rookie DT Joel Heath will likely get to relive the magic of his last season at Michigan State in film study all week long, as the best Cook tape will likely be a slew of Big Ten games from 2015. The unknown with Cook could work in the Raiders' favor, to some degree. Cook is replacing McGloin, not Derek Carr, so there's probably an actual uptick in physical talent level that might supersede Cook's experience deficiency. It should be fascinating seeing what disguised coverages and blitz packages Crennel has in store for Cook on Saturday.
2. Lamar Miller's fresh legs
For the past two weeks, the Texans have struggled to run the ball with Miller on the sidelines nursing an ankle injury he suffered late in the Jacksonville game in Week 15. Truth be told, Miller is nursing several bumps and bruises, and truth be told again, the Texans weren't running the ball all that well even WITH Miller over the second half of the season. Miller ended up the season with four 100-yard games, and the good news here is that one of them came in the Mexico City game against this very Raiders defense. Miller is reportedly feeling as refreshed as he's felt in some time, and, honestly, the less this team needs to lean on the passing game, the better. As it turns out, they may have managed the Miller health situation perfectly. We will find out Saturday.
1. Brock Osweiler
The intriguing part about Osweiler's returning to the starting lineup isn't really about Saturday's game. With Cook as the starter on the other side and a Raider defense that is below average as a unit, despite the presence of the dynamic Khalil Mack, the Texans SHOULD win Saturday's game even if they get Osweiler's B game (which is the equivalent of a C- game for any normal QB). The interesting thing, as pertains to Osweiler, will be what happens the following week when they travel (likely) to New England. Tom Savage was absolutely going back into that Tennessee game before the doctors re-shut him down at halftime, and Savage was going to be the backup this weekend, if he cleared protocol anytime after Wednesday. (Savage has been declared OUT for Saturday's game; Brandon Weeden will be the backup.) Is there a level of performance Saturday for which Brock wins the starter's job back full time? If he plays poorly Saturday, could Brock get yanked in-game for Weeden? And just how many Texans fans in attendance Saturday, deep down, are rooting for an injury to Brock so they can at least fulfill their "Hey, put in Weeden...he can't be any worse!" fantasy? The most likely scenario, to me, is that the Texans win this game IN SPITE of a garden-variety, crappy performance by Brock, and O'Brien is left, once again, answering the question "Who is going to start next weekend?"
Prediction: Texans 19, Raiders 9
Spread: Texans -3.5
Season record (SU, ATS): 11-5, 9-6-1
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.
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