When does a 3-2 record and a one-game lead over the rest of the division not really feel like a 3-2 record and a one-game lead over the rest of the division? Well, I'll tell you.
It feels that way when everyone can see each loss on your schedule coming weeks before they happen. Under Bill O'Brien, the Texans have beaten exactly two teams that have gone on to the playoffs that season — the Ravens in 2014 and the Bengals in 2015. That's it. When the Texans play against playoff-caliber teams, they don't just lose. They lie down. They get punched and their response is to then let the other team stand over them, cackle and punch them some more. With that in mind, the Texans WILL be losing to Denver in two weeks on Monday night. By lots of points. Book it. It's what they do.
It feels that way when you know deep down in your heart that the only reason the Texans are in first place in their division has more to do with the fact that their division is a perennial blight on the face of the sport of football than with0 any competitive moxie or football acumen shown by the players and coaching staff, respectively. The AFC South sucks, and the Texans just suck less than everyone else in the division.
It feels that way when the $18 million quarterback, the guy many of us spent the offseason defending from the barbs of the fan base he left behind in Denver, plays in these big games with the nervousness of a Kardashian in church and a composure that makes it look more like the Texans had just put Brian Hoyer in a taffy stretcher than like they went out and signed a franchise quarterback.
Basically, it's days like Sunday that have you wondering if this franchise will ever shake this culture of whatever-it-is-that-we-are-calling-it...Let's get this recap over with:
4. Adam Thielen
Full disclosure — I had no idea that Adam Thielen was a real person before the game yesterday. In fact, if you told me there was a Minnesota Viking named Adam Thielen who went to Minnesota State, I'd have been more likely to think it was a character from the sitcom Coach than an actual human being. But indeed, Thielen was all too real for Texans defensive backs on Sunday, replacing Stefon Diggs as Sam Bradford's top target, hauling in seven catches for 127 yards and a touchdown, and etching his name alongside that of Seyi Ajirotutu on the wall of "unheralded no-name wide receivers who have torched the Texans" in Texans lore.
3. Jadeveon Clowney
Amidst the carnage of Sunday afternoon, Jadeveon Clowney put together the best game of his career, dominating the line of scrimmage, at times, and notching eight tackles, including four tackles for loss. Still, even Clowney didn't escape the vortex of stupid mistakes that afflicted pretty much every Texans player, as his two early penalties — one offsides call on the Vikings' first series of downs and a face mask call in the middle of a goal line stand later in the first quarter — were costly. Overall, though, this should be a game that makes Texans fans feel better about Clowney as an NFL entity, even if he looks a little out of place (and frankly not all that thrilled) duking it out as a 3-4 defensive end.
2. Sam Bradford
At the end of the day on Sunday, one undefeated team remained in the NFL, and that team was the Minnesota Vikings, quarterbacked by Sam Bradford, and while it's most certainly the defense that sets the tone for the Vikings, Bradford has completed 70 percent of his passes and has not thrown a single pick this season. On Sunday, he was tremendous situationally, leading the Vikings to a 50 percent conversion rate on third down, and taking some huge hits in the process. Consider, too, that he's done all of this with a backfield of Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata — no Adrian Peterson. It's hard to believe, but perhaps Bradford had a point when he was demanding a trade during the offseason after Philly made the deal to draft QB Carson Wentz. If Bradford keeps the Vikings in line for a division title and a bye in the first round of the playoffs, the future of the Vikings at the QB position undoubtedly shifts off of Bridgewater and onto Bradford, which is so crazy to think considering what Bridgewater had accomplished in the first two seasons of his career.
1. John Elway
Yeah, the Broncos finally lost a game on Sunday, a 23-16 loss at home to Atlanta, a game in which Paxton Lynch looked every bit the part of a rookie whose head was swimming a little bit. Still, Elway has to be smiling inside watching the Texans's Osweiler Project straddling a football fault line that could collapse this season. Twitter knows...
Speaking of Brock...
4. Brock Osweiler
In a quarterback's league, I guess this shouldn't be all that surprising or profound, but Brock Osweiler's individual season so far is essentially a microcosm of the Texans' season as a whole — in three home games, all wins, he's looked anywhere from serviceable to downright competent and comfortable...and in two road games, both horrific losses, he's looked like a hot mess, a 6-foot-8 version of Brian Hoyer in the playoff loss to the Chiefs. To be fair to Osweiler, any criticism of his play (and to be clear, his play deserves plenty) should be caveated with the acknowledgment of the rickety wall that is his offensive line. Osweiler is getting very little time to throw, and the residual effect of that has been a clear, burgeoning case of happy feet and feeling ghosts in the pocket with him on the protections that actually ARE blocked properly. Also, on Sunday, his receivers just couldn't get open, smothered by a stifling Vikings corps of defensive backs and linebackers. Back to Brock — his throwing at least one interception in his first five games as a Texan (none of them cheapies, by the way) is beyond disturbing, though. On our post-game show Sunday, callers were comparing Osweiler to Schaub in a disparaging way, but honestly, if the football gods told me I could sign up right now for Osweiler to become Schaub of 2009-2012, I'd ask for a pen.
Interrupting this Texans coverage for some more depressing Houston football news — in case you missed it, the University of Houston's playoff dreams went up in a cloud of smoke in Baltimore over the weekend in a 46-40 loss to Navy on Saturday afternoon. Hey, as a Notre Dame fan, I've been on the business end of a Navy triple option fest more than a few times over the past ten years, so Coog fans, I feel for you. To be clear, the only bearing this game has on Tom Herman's future as UH head coach is that it opens the door to the possibility of his leaving before a bowl game, since the Coogs right now are on a closer track to a December bowl than a New Year's Six bowl. In fact, in order to secure a spot in the AAC title game, the Cougars need Navy to lose two games now that the Midshipmen own the tiebreaker on UH. The good news is that, if you look at Navy's conference schedule, finding two losses is not that hard, with games against South Florida and Memphis, among others, remaining. But either way, this was a big kick in the junk to a Houston fan base that will now be under some pressure to show the college football world that they weren't front-running this whole time with Tom Herman. They need to continue to fill seats at TDECU Stadium.
2. Charles James
It was a rough afternoon for the secondary from a medical standpoint. Already going into the game with Kareem Jackson out with a hamstring injury, the Texans lost safety Quintin Demps to a calf injury and Johnathan Joseph to a concussion early in the game. This bumped everyone up a notch or two in the rotation, which at corner was fine for Kevin Johnson and A.J. Bouye, who were solid as the two outside corners. It was bad news for Charles James, who was picked on repeatedly by Sam Bradford, especially on third down, to the point where it felt like Bradford may as well have been pointing out James as if he was the Mike linebacker and saying, "I'm throwing it RIGHT THERE... AT THAT GUY... RIGHT THERE. NUMBER 31... HIM!"
1. Bill O'Brien, team preparer
Every time I bring up some critique of Bill O'Brien on my radio show, I have an annoying habit of prefacing the point I'm about to make with "I think O'Brien is a good head coach, but..." However, the outcome against the Vikings was so frustratingly predictable and repetitive that I'm left asking myself, "Is Bill O'Brien REALLY a good head coach, and if so, why?"
Consider the following:
a.) O'Brien arrived in Houston with the reputation of a "quarterback guru" and a deft play caller. However, the Texans' offensive side of the ball in the O'Brien era has ranged from, at best, below average to, at worst, days like yesterday. Brock Osweiler is not really progressing, the play calling was questionable on Sunday, and O'Brien's tactical game management — time-outs, replay challenges, clock management — is laughable at times. And that's HIS side of the ball, HIS area of expertise.
b.) In his 17 losses, including the playoff loss to Kansas City, O'Brien's teams have been outscored in the first half by a combined total of 302-98. Translated into plain English, when his team gets hit in the mouth, they not only don't hit back, they remain on the ground in the fetal position. While responding to adversity is, in large part, on the players, that this has been an issue since Week 3 of O'Brien's first season here speaks to a culture malfunction that some would argue even predates O'Brien. But O'Brien is the head coach now, and it's his job to fix it, and if anything, it's worsened.
c.) In more than half of the 17 losses under O'Brien (again, including the playoff loss to the Chiefs), the opposing team has achieved a double-digit lead before the Texans have punched back on the scoreboard, and in two of their last three losses overall, a punch-back never actually occurred — two shutouts, 30-0 to the Chiefs and 27-0 to the Patriots:
17-0 — 2014, Week 3, at New York Giants
24-0 — 2014, Week 6, vs Indianapolis
14-0 — 2015, Week 1, vs Kansas City
28-0 — 2015, Week 4, at Atlanta
13-0 — 2015, Week 5, vs Indianapolis
41-0 — 2015, Week 7, at Miami
30-0 — 2015, Playoffs, vs Kansas City
27-0 — 2016, Week 3, at New England
24-0 — 2016, Week 5, at Minnesota
That list doesn't include losses to the Steelers in 2014, in which the Texans gave up 24 points — TWENTY-FOUR! — in the final 3:08 of the first half, a 22-13 loss to the Bengals in 2014 in which they fell behind 16-3 early in the second half, and a 27-6 loss in 2015 to the Patriots in which the Texans were thoroughly dominated at home (in a game that was somehow flexed into Sunday Night Football because somebody in a suit thought the game might be watchable).
That's 12 out of O'Brien's 17 losses in which there was no give and take, no ebb and flow, just an ass kicking that included massive (oftentimes, PERMANENT) chunks of the game where the Texans trailed by two, three... SIX touchdowns. Put succinctly, the Texans have a huge "losing with dignity" problem under O'Brien.
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d.) O'Brien's total regular season record as head coach of the Texans is 21-16. This includes a 10-3 record against the AFC South, which means O'Brien is a substandard 11-13 against the rest of the league, with the 13 losses by an average margin of 14 points. In other words, if O'Brien took over a 2-14 team in virtually any other division, and that team performed as this Texans team has on the aggregate over the past three years, he might be in the same boat as Lovie Smith, Ken Whisenhunt or Mike Pettine — all fellow 2014 head coaching hires who've been relieved of their duties.
The Colts arrive on Sunday for a prime-time game at NRG Stadium, a situation O'Brien has faced in each of his previous two seasons as Texans head coach.
He is 0-2, if you need him. See you Sunday.
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.