When you're 6-3, atop your division and coming off your first road win of the season (as an underdog, no less), the following week of preparation is not supposed to be this encumbered with criticism. So my guess is that, when it's all said and done, the happiest person to see toe meet pigskin to kick off tonight's game between the Oakland Raiders and the Houston Texans will be Texans head coach Bill O'Brien.
Indeed, it's been a long week of critical analysis by the Houston media for Billy O.
Allow me to take you back to the 2014 NFL Draft, in which the Texans had the first pick in each of the first two rounds (and a handful of rounds after that, but for our purposes here, the first two rounds are all that matter). Needing a quarterback in the worst way, coming off a 2-14 season buried under a mountain of "Schaub," the Texans came away with DE Jadeveon Clowney and G Xavier Su'a-Filo with the 1st and 33rd picks of that draft.
Now, flip over to the Raiders, who also had very acute needs at nearly every position in 2014 — including a QB need so acute, they actually SIGNED Matt Schaub! — and were picking a few picks after the Texans in each round. THEY came away with OLB Khalil Mack and QB Derek Carr with the 5th and 35th picks, respectively.
Fast forward to 2016, and the Texans are enduring the Age of Osweiler while Carr is an MVP candidate in Oakland. Oddly enough, at 6-3 (Houston) and 7-2 (Oakland), only one game separates the two teams in the standings, but a canyon separates the optimism about their respective futures. Oakland is viewed as being on solid ground for the next decade, while Houston... hell, the Texans could still finish 7-9 THIS SEASON.
And so, to bring this all the way back around, that was Bill O'Brien's week, for the most part — reliving the 2014 draft, in which the Texans passed on Derek Carr twice. Granted, the entire league passed on him once, but still, that doesn't matter to Texan fans paying to watch Brock Osweiler struggle to just run the offense competently, forget carry the team. The Carr Issue is so pressing that O'Brien was barely asked at all about passing on Mack for Clowney, which at this point also looks like a mistake, although Clowney's play this season has been a source for optimism.
As much as O'Brien probably doesn't want to admit it, he knows... if the Osweiler thing doesn't work out, and eventually the O'Brien Era ends the same way as the Capers and Kubiak Eras, the figurative epitaph on O'Brien's reign here will read "Here lies Bill O'Brien's Texans coaching career... he passed on Derek Carr for Xavier Su's-Filo."
But there's still time for O'Brien to change the narrative, and it starts tonight in Mexico City. An upset by the Texans puts them in pole position for the No. 2 in the AFC after Tampa Bay knocked off Kansas City yesterday. Let's examine four things to watch tonight, shall we?
4. Texans defensive line (at 8,000 feet)
There is no getting around it (actually, literally, no getting around it) — the Raiders have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, perhaps second only to the buttress that Jerry Jones has built in front of Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott in Dallas. It's also no secret that, for the most part, the Texans have struggled defending the run this season. Add in the fact that this will be the highest elevation most of these guys have ever played in, and this is all a terrible combination for the Texans. It's why I actually think the best play on this game, from a gambling standpoint, is the UNDER, because I could see the Texans struggling offensively, the Raiders getting a lead, and then grinding the clock into dust. This has potential to be a game where Texan fans come away very depressed by how their defense was bullied around by the Raiders offensive line, like a street fight gone awry.
3. Kicking game
While still statistically near the bottom of the league (31st in Football Outsiders DVOA), Houston's special teams are at least showing signs of being an aid in winning some of these closer games. Last week, Tyler Ervin finally broke out with a long return in the punting game to set up an easy touchdown against the Jaguars. The Texans will likely need at least one play like that again tonight. Also, higher elevation means more distance on field goals, which is bad news for the Texans, considering the Raiders have Sebastian Janikowski as their placekicker, whose range is around 55 yards at sea level. In the thin air of Mexico City, we could see a 60-yard field goal tonight. Also, worth mentioning, for whatever reason, place-kickers around the NFL really struggled on PATs yesterday, 12 missed in all, so we will see if that affliction made its way to Mexico tonight.
2. Akeem Hunt
For Texan fans who were enamored with Hunt's performance in the preseason (yes, I am raising my hand), last Sunday in Jacksonville was fun. Because of an injury to Jonathan Grimes, Hunt finally got to see some game action, and showed a little juice with 52 yards on eight carries. Tonight, all of a sudden, with Grimes still out and now Alfred Blue (calf) out injured as well, Hunt becomes a key offensive component for the Texans, especially with (again) the altitude likely to play a role in endurance. Spelling Lamar Miller for a few carries, a role normally reserved for Blue, likely becomes a combination of Hunt, Ervin, and more short passes to tight ends and maybe a gimmick play here or there. It's not out of the realm to think Hunt will get a dozen or so touches tonight. The interesting thing will be, if Hunt is productive, how the Texans manage the RB depth chart when everyone is healthy. (I smell an IR trip for Grimes. That's the betting favorite for me.)
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1. Derek Carr
Let's face it, the biggest storyline of last week in press conferences is the biggest storyline for this game tonight — Derek Carr against the team that a) his brother failed at skippering a decade ago and b) decided to roll with a mish-mosh of veteran sludge at QB instead of drafting him in 2014. If Carr lights up the Texans in a win, and Osweiler plays the same way he's played on prime time road stages so far this season (56 percent completion rate, 3.99 yards per attempt, no TDs), it's going to be an ugly round of questions again this week for O'Brien.
Despite their failures at New England and Denver in prime time this season, for some reason, I think the Texans keep it close tonight. Close, but no cigar...
Prediction: Raiders 23, Texans 19
Spread: Raiders -6
Season record (SU, ATS): 7-2, 7-1-1
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.