If it feels like it's been a while since the Texans played the San Diego Chargers, it's because it has been. In fact, since the Texans last faced the Chargers in 2013, they've faced every other team in the NFL, except the Green Bay Packers (next week's opponent), at least once.
The last time the Texans and the Chargers squared off was in the 2013 season opener in the late Monday night game. In that game, the Texans overcome a 28-7 second half deficit to win 31-28 on a last-second Randy Bullock field goal. I was actually in the stadium in San Diego that night, and the feelings were all good for Texan fans! Little did we know that would wind up being Gary Kubiak's second-to-last win as Texans head coach, and one of only two wins that whole season.
Since that night, the Texans have purged an entire coaching staff, flipped nearly an entire roster, and started pretty much every red blooded American male at quarterback. Meanwhile, the Chargers have... well, continued to be the Chargers. As outlined above, when we in Houston last saw them up close, they were coughing up a fourth quarter lead in the most unimaginable ways possible. (Cushing "pick six," anybody?)
Fast forward to 2016, and the Chargers have spent nearly this entire season...well... coughing up fourth quarter leads in the most unimaginable ways possible. That the Chargers are 4-6 this season, and find themselves a 1.5 point road favorite speaks, in equal parts, to the Chargers's definitive underachievement and the Texans's perceived overachievement this year.
By Football Outsiders' DVOA measurement, the 16th best team in the league has the 4-6 record and is in last place in its division by three full games, while the 30th best team has a 6-4 record and leads their division by a game with head to head wins over all three other division foes.
So who the hell knows what to expect on Sunday, other than (likely) a really close, pretty entertaining, possibly mistake-laden game? Let's home in on a few things for Sunday...
4. Fatigue factor
For the second straight week, the Texans face a team coming off of a bye week. Of course, this week, the degree of difficulty is even more acute when you factor in the Texans are returning from playing in Mexico on a short week, which means two or three nights of bad sleep, possibly supplemented by explosive diarrhea. When the Texans have been successful this season, they've been able to run the football, especially late in games. The Chargers have one of the better run defenses in the league (10th in DVOA), but will be missing their top run stopper, defensive tackle Brandon Mebane. That will help. The Texans have run the ball extremely well since the last two drives against the Lions on October 31, following that up with 180 yards against the Jags and 124 yards against the Raiders. For an offense that is statistically one of the worst in the league, the Texans have done a decent job at controlling and possessing the football when they've needed to. This Sunday, they will be challenged in this area by their opponent and by circumstance.
3. Brock Osweiler
Not that it's an incredibly difficult bar to clear, but Brock Osweiler had, probably, his best game as a Texan on Monday night, when you consider the environment (he was getting shot with lasers, for God's sakes!), the opponent, and the general mojo of his season, so far. Yes, if either of the two dropped interceptions by the Raiders were caught, we are probably evaluating things differently, but they weren't. I thought Bill O'Brien's assessment of Osweiler on Tuesday, that he made some good throws and was efficient on third down, was accurate. For the first time since the opening quarter of the Titans game, the Texans were able to methodically put together multiple drives against a non-prevent defense within the flow of the game. For now, that's progress that we will have to settle for. This Sunday, with the aforementioned Chargers run defense, more may be put on Osweiler's plate than normal, and he will need to be ready. (Worth noting, it was the Chargers as the Broncos's opponent in Week 17 last season when Osweiler was benched for Peyton Manning.)
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2. Return game
Just when you think that maybe, just maybe, rookie Tyler Ervin is ready to take the return game by throat — 57-yard punt return against Jacksonville! — he goes and bounces a ball off his face in a nationally televised game. Unfortunately, that's the second time it's happened to Ervin this season (Patriots game, too). We can't wait to see if he does it a third time. These games, and each possession for this team, are too important. Hopefully, there's been, at the very least, a competition this week with Ervin trying to fend off Akeem Hunt, Braxton Miller, and Will Fuller for return duties. Hell, I'd rather have painfully-average-Keith Mumphrey back there, because at least he will catch the ball. I mean, yeah, he will only return a kickoff like 18 yards, but it's a SAFE 18 yards. (Crap, I hate our special teams... where's my whiskey?)
1. Fourth quarter moxie
In all likelihood, this game comes down to which team makes plays in the fourth quarter. The Chargers have the more talented, more accomplished quarterback, and yet still, they've found a way to cough up a 17-point lead to the Chiefs in the season opener, fumble twice in the final two minutes against the Colts, and forfeit a 13-point lead in the last five minutes to the Saints. Before Monday night, the Texans have been virtually perfect in closing out games in which they've had a fourth quarter lead. I'll count on the mistake-prone road team to make road-team-type mistakes, even coming off a bye week...
Prediction: Texans 24, Chargers 22
Spread: Chargers -1.5
Season record (SU, ATS): 8-2, 7-2-1
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.