How bad is the AFC South? Well, three weeks ago, the Texans marched into Mexico City to play the Oakland Raiders with a 6-3 record, sitting atop the division despite, quite literally, having the worst offense and worst special teams in all of the National Football League.
Predictably, rather than those units raising their level of play to chip in on another three wins, the team's end results sunk to the level of its offense's and special teams' statistical "prowess," dropping three in a row and plummeting to 6-6. Meanwhile, the Texans's two closest competitors — Tennessee and Indianapolis — had their quarterbacks attain AFC Offensive Player of the Month for November and AFC Offensive Player of the Week for Week 13, respectively.
So I repeat, how bad is the AFC South? Well, somehow, through all of that, the Texans are still in first place, thanks largely to their 3-0 record within the division, as all three teams in the lead (Houston, Tennessee, and Indy) have 6-6 overall records.
Make no mistake, though — the Texans are in trouble. Yes, the numbers of the if/then scenarios for the balance of the season still favor them. To wit, Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com lays it out in his overview of the final four weeks of the season around the league, when he says that the Texans-Titans game in Week 17 is among the season's most important remaining games:
If the Texans can beat the Colts in Week 14 and follow up with a win here, they'll have a 97 percent chance of winning the South. Even if they lose their other two games against the Jags and Bengals, they would have an 84 percent shot of winning the division with an 8-8 record, thanks to their superior tiebreakers.
Yeah, beat the Colts in Indy and the Titans in Tennessee (and the two QB's I alluded to above), and you're 97 percent certain of winning the division! Calculating the "if" is the easy part of this; it's accomplishing it that will be the problem, with a defense that has five of its eight or nine most valuable players either banged up or on IR, and a quarterback that the entire town quietly wishes would sustain a minor injury that is not so horrific that you feel bad for wishing it, but just debilitating enough to elevate Tom Savage. (Stubbing a toe in the shower, cutting the throwing hand opening a video game, something along those lines... nothing that requires surgery, a cast, a sling, or rehab.)
Still, somewhat puzzlingly, Bovada lists the Texans this week as the favorite to ultimately win the AFC South:
At least the Texans didn't have to answer any questions this week about never winning in Indianapolis. The combo platter of T.J. Yates and Brandon Weeden got that job done last season. This time, though, Andrew Luck is starting, and the Texans will need more than the 16 points they scored last season in Indy. Believe that.
Here are four things to watch for on Sunday...
4. Texans's undermanned defense
As of Wednesday's practice this week, here were the individual health situations for the prominent members of the Texans defense:
DE J.J. Watt: INJURED RESERVE
CB Kevin Johnson: INJURED RESERVE
DE Jadeveon Clowney: LIMITED (arm)
CB Johnathan Joseph: NOT PRACTICING (cracked ribs, bruised lung)
OLB John Simon: OUT (chest)
S Andre Hal: BACK AT WORK (ill last week)
CB Kareem Jackson: UMMMM (not that good at covering people right now)
ILB Brian Cushing: YIKES! (two broken bones in his back!)
This is not an optimal situation with which to head into a game against Andrew Luck, especially at the level Luck is playing right now. While the Colts are just 6-6, Luck may be having his best individual season as a pro, and he just carved up the Jets last week, 22-28 for 278 yards and four touchdowns.
3. Texans's overall gas tank
No NFL team has a schedule that bounces back and forth from home to away games each week in a totally ideal fashion. Every team's NFL schedule has a stretch where you say "OK, that's the part of the season where we just need to survive." The Texans are limping to the end of that patch this weekend. Consider that Sunday is the fourth road game that the Texans have played since their bye week, with only one home game embedded in there. One of the road trips was out of the country to Mexico City. Also, Luck wraps up a four-game stretch where they've played against Derek Carr, Philip Rivers, and Aaron Rodgers before him. Oftentimes, during portions of a schedule like this, the very last game can be really, really ugly. Even a healthy Texans team might be worn down from all of the travel... and this is not a healthy Texans team, as outlined in the previous bullet point.
2. Indy's kicking game
Special teams have been an issue all
decade season long for the Texans. As of this week, they still rank 31st in DVOA. The Colts, for all of the issues they allegedly have on their roster, have managed to put together some good special teams play in 2016, ranking 3rd overall in DVOA. They've been solid in the return game, but the strength of those units is in the specialists. Kicker Adam Vinatieri has turned back the clock and is having one of his best seasons ever at the age of 97, and punter Pat McAfee is one of the best in the league, as well. In a close game, the Colts have Vinatieri. In a game where field position is key (Read: EVERY Texans game), the Colts have McAfee and coverage units that are not-the-Texans-coverage-units.
1. Brock's last stand?
The clock has already struck midnight for much of Houston on the Osweiler Experiment, at least for 2016. Unfortunately, the Texans haven't even put batteries in the clock yet when it comes to a decision on keeping Osweiler as the starter. Hell, you could argue, after Bob McNair's comments following the Packers game that a change at quarterback isn't even on the figurative white board ANYWHERE in the bowels of NRG Stadium:
"He played as well as his competitor did. If not for the passes that were dropped, his grade would have been higher than (Packers quarterback Aaron) Rodgers," McNair said. "Don't be critical of him. He played well."
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It's become increasingly apparent that, consciously or subconsciously, the Texans value Brock Osweiler's development, if not his psyche, more than they value wins this season. If he puts up another lackluster effort on Sunday in a loss, and still starts in Week 15 at home against the Jaguars, there's no other way to spin it at that point.
I think the Colts win this one on Sunday, but I'll play it within the spread just because the gambling gods tell you to bet against teams that won by 28 or more the previous week...
Prediction: Colts 24, Texans 20
Spread: Colts -6
Season record (SU, ATS): 9-3, 8-3-1
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.