Referencing Hurricane Harvey, coach Bill O’Brien has dedicated the coming Texans season to the city of Houston.
Referencing Hurricane Harvey, coach Bill O’Brien has dedicated the coming Texans season to the city of Houston.
Photo by Eric Sauseda

Flipping the Coin: Our Annual Pendergast Bucket List

As Hurricane Harvey was back here in Houston devastating our city, the Houston Texans were forced to watch from afar. Diverted to Dallas after their preseason game in New Orleans last Saturday night, 90 players and all the team’s staff and coaches were left to tweeting prayers and fund-raising from afar.

Displaced and despondent, head coach Bill O’Brien stepped to the microphone that Monday after practice in Frisco and delivered a speech (not to mention a $1 million donation to aid in Harvey recovery) on behalf of the team.

“Football’s obviously important, but I think the most important thing right now is doing everything we can for our city,” O’Brien said. “I will tell you right now, we’re going to dedicate this season to the city of Houston, the people of Houston. There are no guarantees in football, that’s not what I’m here to say, but I will guarantee that this team will go out every Sunday, Monday, Thursday, whenever they ask us to play, and we’ll play our asses off for the city of Houston. I promise you that.”

The speech was vintage O’Brien, who himself is the perfect mix of authoritarian and player’s coach, a blunt Bostonian who has gradually evolved into a Houstonian, a credit to the city, like the team he coaches.

The thing is, though, that the effort of the Houston Texans under O’Brien has never been the issue. Being better than 9-7, O’Brien’s final record in all three seasons here — that’s been the issue. That, and finding a franchise quarterback.

Fortunately, the quarterback issue appears to be resolved, and this time not by gambling $72 million on another team’s backup. In April, the Texans drafted their future in Deshaun Watson. Unfortunately for those wanting the future to be now, O’Brien will start the season with Tom Savage, a fourth-year amalgam of the other seven starting quarterbacks since O’Brien arrived, under center. O’Brien values Savage’s experience, even if it’s largely been in the film room and on the trainer’s table.

Indeed, if the Texans are to win at a high level, it will be on the surgically repaired back of J.J. Watt (who appears to be his old self again) and a defensive supporting cast that could include a handful more Pro Bowlers — Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and Kevin Johnson, to name a few.

So how does this all come together once the real games begin on September 10? Well, if you’ve read my previews here in the past, you know that I divide the 16-game regular season into three buckets. We call this the Pendergast Method, and the buckets look like this:

These are games that, to have any chance of making the playoffs, the Texans have to cash in on. Worst case, you can have one mulligan, but lose two of these games and you’re probably not a double-digit-win team.
Games that could go either way and will likely be played within one score. To make the playoffs, the Texans need to win more of these games than they lose.

Games in which the Texans will likely be an underdog of five points or more against teams that they have historically struggled with, match up poorly with or have to play in a hostile environment in potentially adverse conditions. If you’re going to be a playoff team, you probably need to win at least one of these along the way. (Fun fact: Last season the Texans actually won two of the three “Steals” on their schedule, at Cincinnati and at Indianapolis.)

So where do the games on the 2017 slate stack up when we start applying the Pendergast Method? Well, let’s take a look:

Must wins, 3: vs. JAC, vs. CLV, vs. SF
Coin flippers, 11: at CIN, vs. TEN, vs. KC, vs. IND, at LAR, vs. ARZ, at BAL, at TEN, at JAC, vs. PIT, at IND
Steals, 2: at NE, at SEA

Now let’s go game by game:

Sunday, September 10 (1-0) — vs. Jacksonville
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans -6
PREDICTION: Texans 23, Jaguars 10
WHY THE TEXANS WILL WIN: Since 2014 the Jaguars have trotted out Blake Bortles as their starting quarterback, a decision that has made 5-11 the same impenetrable barrier for the Jags that 9-7 is for the Texans.
BUCKET RATING: MUST WIN

Thursday, September 14 (1-1) — at Cincinnati
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT:  Texans +2
PREDICTION: Bengals 17, Texans 13
WHY THE TEXANS WILL LOSE: Like last season, the Texans catch their Thursday game early, and given how little starting experience Savage has, this does not serve the Texans well. Prime time road games are not exactly this team’s strength.
BUCKET RATING: COIN FLIPPER

Sunday, September 24 (1-2) — at New England
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans +9
PREDICTION: Patriots 27, Texans 13
WHY THE TEXANS WILL LOSE: The Texans have visited New England five times in their history. They’re 0-5 and have lost by an average score of 37-13. So…
BUCKET RATING: STEAL

Sunday, October 1 (1-3) — vs. Tennessee
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans -3
PREDICTION: Titans 21, Texans 20
WHY THE TEXANS WILL LOSE: The Titans are constructing a nuclear weapon on offense with Marcus Mariota pushing the proverbial red button. Mariota versus Watson should be fun…someday.
BUCKET RATING: COIN FLIPPER

Sunday, October 8 (1-4) — vs. Kansas City
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans -1
PREDICTION: Chiefs 25, Texans 17
WHY THE TEXANS WILL LOSE: The Texans’ best win of the 2016 season, Week 2 over the Chiefs, becomes the loss that makes the drums beat loudest for Watson to replace Savage.
BUCKET RATING: COIN FLIPPER

Sunday, October 15 (2-4) — vs. Cleveland
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans -9
PREDICTION: Texans 24, Browns 10
WHY THE TEXANS WILL WIN: The last time the Texans had to deal with the effects of a hurricane early in the season, Ike sent them on a 1-5 tailspin in 2008. Not this time, Harvey! (Also, the Browns stink.)
BUCKET RATING: MUST WIN

Sunday, October 22 (2-4) — BYE WEEK
PREDICTION: J.J. Watt raises another $5 million for hurricane victims on Twitter, with a decent chance he actually, literally rebuilds a few homes on his own during the week off.

Sunday, October 29 (2-5) — at Seattle
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans +7.5
PREDICTION: Seahawks 21, Texans 10
WHY THE TEXANS WILL LOSE: The Seahawks are 34-6 at home since Russell Wilson arrived in 2012. Maybe O’Brien’s holding off on the QB change until after this game is a good thing, although Watson making his debut after the bye in this spot would be fascinating.
BUCKET RATING: STEAL

Sunday, November 5 (3-5) — vs. Indianapolis
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans -3
PREDICTION: Texans 27, Colts 17
WHY THE TEXANS WILL WIN: Andrew Luck’s shoulder is apparently made of some sort of stringy pasta, and it is not prepared al dente.
BUCKET RATING: COIN FLIPPER

Sunday, November 12 (4-5) — at Los Angeles Rams
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans -3
PREDICTION: Texans 16, Rams 10
WHY THE TEXANS WILL WIN: On Hard Knocks last season, Rams QB Jared Goff didn’t know whether the sun rose in the east or the west. That’s not a metaphor. He literally did not know. You can’t lose a game to that guy.
BUCKET RATING: COIN FLIPPER

Sunday, November 19 (5-5) — vs. Arizona
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans -2.5
PREDICTION: Texans 28, Cardinals 17
WHY THE TEXANS WILL WIN: It’s Andre Johnson “Ring of Honor” Day. Of course, given the injuries in the Texans’ receiving corps, by November Johnson might be starting at wide receiver.
BUCKET RATING: COIN FLIPPER

Monday, November 27 (5-6) — at Baltimore
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans +3
PREDICTION: Ravens 19, Texans 13
WHY THE TEXANS WILL LOSE: The Texans are 0-4 in their history at Baltimore. This is not a great Ravens team, but again…prime time, on the road, yeah.
BUCKET RATING: COIN FLIPPER

Sunday, December 3 (5-7) — at Tennessee
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Titans -2.5
PREDICTION: Titans 27, Texans 23
WHY THE TEXANS WILL LOSE: Mariota’s mobility is the kryptonite for what is otherwise a great Texans defense.
BUCKET RATING: COIN FLIPPER

Sunday, December 10 (6-7) — vs. San Francisco
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans -9
PREDICTION: Texans 34, 49ers 13
WHY THE TEXANS WILL WIN: We meet again, Brian Hoyer!
BUCKET RATING: MUST WIN

Sunday, December 17 (7-7) — at Jacksonville
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans -1
PREDICTION: Texans 30, Jaguars 13
WHY THE TEXANS WILL WIN: At this point in the season, there’s a chance that the Jaguars are starting a JUGS machine with an upside-down bucket for a head at quarterback. Still, it’d be an improvement over Blake Bortles.
BUCKET RATING: COIN FLIPPER

Monday, December 25 (7-8) — vs. Pittsburgh
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans +3
PREDICTION: Steelers 24, Texans 17
WHY THE TEXANS WILL LOSE: The Steelers on Christmas Day, like opening up your big gift and getting physics textbooks.
BUCKET RATING: COIN FLIPPER

Sunday, December 31 (7-9) — at Indianapolis
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans +2
PREDICTION: Colts 24, Texans 21
WHY THE TEXANS WILL LOSE: When you’re 7-8 and it’s New Year’s Eve, you want to get the hell out of Dodge.
BUCKET RATING: COIN FLIPPER

So if we do the math and add up our buckets, the 2017 season shakes out as follows:
Must wins: 3-0 (wins vs. JAC, vs. CLV, vs. SF)
Coin flippers: 4-7 (wins vs. IND, at LAR, vs. ARZ, at JAC…losses at CIN, vs. TEN, vs. KC, at BAL, at TEN, vs. PIT, at IND)
Steals: 0-2 (losses at NE, at SEA)

SUMMARY: Putting aside all the positional analysis and fretting over Savage as the starting quarterback, the one thing the Texans did exceedingly well in 2016, even with Brock Osweiler under center, was win close games. They were 8-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less. That’s remarkable. There is a skill to that, but analytics folks will tell you there is luck involved as well, and that performance tends to regress to the mean year to year.

Last season the Texans were 5-3 in games I deemed “coin flippers.” Quite simply, my putting them at 4-7 in those games this coming season is the virtual difference between 9-7 and 7-9. In a sense, I don’t think the Texans will be a worse football team in 2017. I just think their luck in close games will flip.

When it does flip, the seat underneath O’Brien will heat up, and the drumbeat for the Watson era will pound early and often. And as with the city’s digging out from underneath Harvey’s carnage, brighter days will lie ahead.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanCablinasian or email him at sean.pendergast@cbsradio.com.

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