Say what you will about the mediocrity disguised as parity that the NFL has trotted out as its "product" in 2016, but the league still does an amazing job of staging an offering where a) a ton of the games late in the season have a high level of relevance and impact, either for playoff participation or seeding, and b) an outcome of ONE game can swing a team's fortunes drastically.
We saw it on Thursday night, when the Kansas City Chiefs' 21-13 win over the Oakland Raiders propelled them from the No. 5 seed to the No. 2 seed in the AFC and knocked the Raiders from the top spot in the AFC down to No. 5. And we saw it again yesterday in the Texans' 22-17 win in Indianapolis over the Colts, the second straight for the Texans at Lucas Oil Field after 13 seasons of sadness there.
Ponder for a second the two scenarios the Texans were staring in the face on Sunday, in light of the fact that Tennessee wound up beating the Broncos at home on Sunday, as well:
TEXAN WIN: Houston's record goes to 7-6, they maintain control of their own destiny, and go to 4-0 in the division. The Titans and Colts each have three losses in division, and there is a decent chance Week 17 in Tennessee may be meaningless (in a good way, for Houston).
TEXAN LOSS: Texans' record goes to 6-7, they trail two teams (Colts/Titans) by one game in AFC South, and there's a high probability the Week 17 game in Tennessee is for survival and/or the division title.
This is what the late Pete Rozelle drew up on the chalkboard when he envisioned a league with parity. I mean, maybe not the part where a team quarterbacked by Brock Osweiler has the inside track on winning a division, but you get what I mean. On Sunday, Osweiler was merely underwhelming, as opposed to abysmal, and with the Texans running game and defense, "underwhelming" is good enough to beat about half the teams in the league, including the Colts.
Winners and losers abound, so let's go...
4. Jadeveon Clowney
With J.J. Watt out for the season, the list of players up for the Texans' team defensive MVP probably boils down to Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, maybe A.J. Bouye, with honorable mentions to Bernardrick McKinney, Vince Wilfork (at least early in the season) and Johnathan Joseph. For what Clowney's been asked to do — basically take over Watt's spot at 3-4 defensive end, not exactly what he's cut out for — I'd probably give him the nod, and on Sunday, he finally made the type of play we've all been waiting for, a game-changing (game-saving?) strip sack on Luck on 3rd and goal at the Texans 3 yard line late in the third quarter with the Texans leading 16-10. On the play, Clowney had tight end Dwayne Allen blocking him, which had to feel like a light dumbbell compared to a barbell when you consider that he's been butting heads with guards and tackles all season. Just a huge play for a guy who's been a quiet force for the Texans for most of the season.
3. Romeo Crennel
And actually, while Clowney might be the Texans' Most Valuable Player, Crennel might be the team's Most Valuable Person. With all of the pressure squarely on his side of the ball to perform, and without the services of the greatest defensive player on the planet, Crennel has managed to field a fundamentally sound unit that, while deficient in generating game-changing splash plays, generally doesn't beat itself and did a tremendous job of closing out Sunday's win when Bill O'Brien placed all of his trust in them by kicking a field goal to go up 22-17 rather than go for it on 4th and 1 with under three minutes to go in the game.
2. Texans ground game
While there was plenty of talk coming into this game about the possibility of Andrew Luck's carving up a depleted and banged-up Texans defense, there was very little discussion of the Colts' missing five regulars off a defense that was already fairly horrific. The Texans had their way with the Colts running the football, with Lamar Miller (21 carries, 107 yards) and Alfred Blue (16 carries, 55 yards) finding the perfect mix of workload. The only issues the Texans had were play calling-related when Bill O'Brien and George Godsey would get cute and go away from the run game at the oddest, most high-leverage times (2nd and goal, 3rd and goal on the drive that ended with the Texans' first field goal, as well as 3rd and inches at the IND 41 yard line where Brock threw his pick in the second quarter).
1. Major Applewhite
Taking a brief left turn from Texans talk, I wanted to share some thoughts on the University of Houston's hiring Major Applewhite as their next head football coach, just one day after it was heavily rumored that Lane Kiffin would be named the school's next head coach. First, there is just as much tangible evidence that Applewhite is a good head coach as there is evidence Kiffin is. The only difference is that Kiffin has actually been a head coach for several years, and was never really good, aside from maybe one ten-win season at USC. Also, I think that Houston is sitting on a very different level of momentum than anything the program has had in the post-Southwest Conference era. For all of Tom Herman's false sanctimony on the way out, he did leave the program in much better shape than he found it, and for both recruiting and culture purposes, continuity SHOULD be a big factor in the school's hiring criteria. Having that continuity stem from the offensive side of the ball is an added bonus. I have a few thousand more words I will write about Applewhite's hire, but in general, considering the available choices out there, I like it. Hey, speaking of Herman...
4. Renu Khator's presidential-ness
Hey, Renu Khator....what are your thoughts on Tom Herman leaving your school?
UH President Renu Khator on Tom Herman at UT: “I hope he does better than (Kevin) Sumlin is doing for A&M or (Art) Briles did for Baylor”— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) December 10, 2016
Ah, okay then!
3. AFC playoff clarity
On paper, the AFC wildcard race has been pretty clear all season — it's been widely assumed that the next two AFC West teams after the division winner would take the two wild card spots. The Dolphins have recently crashed the conjecture party after feasting on a soft portion of their schedule. However, things are getting very interesting. As of Monday morning, here is the AFC playoff race:
1. New England 10-2 (AFC East champ)
2. Kansas City 10-3 (AFC West champ)
3. Pittsburgh 8-5 (AFC North champ)
4. Houston 7-6 (AFC South champ)
5. Oakland 10-3 (Wild card #1)
And now the teams up for the last wild card spot:
6. Denver 8-5
7. Miami 8-5
8. Baltimore 7-5 (plays at New England tonight)
9. Tennessee 7-6
10. Indianapolis 6-7
11. Buffalo 6-7
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Again, on paper, it looks to be Denver's or Miami's to lose, but consider the following — Denver closes the season with home games against the Patriots and the Raiders sandwiched around a trip to Kansas City (the top three teams in the AFC!), and Miami lost Ryan Tannehill to what looked like a bad knee injury. The odds of the second AFC wild card turning into a 9-7 slop fest buried in tie breakers are high.
2. Colt-over-Texan mystique
When you face a team twice per season and you can literally count on one hand how many times (five) you've beaten them in your history, it can be psychologically debilitating. Even after finally getting the "in Indy" monkey off their backs last season, the Texans had to deal with the caveat of "yeah, but Andrew Luck was injured." Well, considering the fact that the Texans have gone 2-0 this season against the Colts — the comeback win at home and yesterday's methodical 22-17 win in which the Texans were pretty clearly the better team most of the afternoon — and done so a) without J.J. Watt and b) with Andrew Luck taking every snap for the Colts, the mental mind games that the Colts' mere presence on the other side of the field would play on the Texans should be a thing of the past. The Texans are not a great team. Hell, they're barely an average team. But they are simply better than the Colts, and they now know it.
1. Andrew Luck
Chuck Pagano as your head coach, Ryan Grigson as your general manager. Poor bastard. (Well, not really "poor" in the literal sense, but damn, Luck's future looks a lot more "Philip Rivers" than "Aaron Rodgers" at this point.)
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.