In his first month and change as a starting quarterback in the NFL, Houston Texans rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson has faced an intriguing variation of opponents and circumstances. Already, in just five starts, he's had a prime time road game (Cincinnati win), a road game against the defending champs (New England close loss), a matchup with a division rival (Tennessee win), a prime time game against an undefeated team (Kansas City loss) and finally a game against a Pop Warner team (Cleveland win).
His record as a starter is 3-2, and I would say that, generally speaking, pundits see Watson as somebody who has most certainly answered the bell overall. After all, through six weeks, he led the league in touchdown passes and is now a prohibitive favorite (1/5 on Bovada) to take home the Offensive Rookie of the Year.
All of that said, this Sunday will be his stiffest combination of opposing defense and opposing venue to date, and quite honestly, it probably won't be surpassed during this regular season, as the Texans travel to Seattle to face the Seahawks. It's the beginning of a stretch of six games during which they will see all four NFC West teams, and travel to the West Coast twice over three Sundays.
Let's examine the keys to Sunday's game...
4. Winning the first quarter
In Watson's two losses as a starter, the Texans have fallen behind and spent most of the afternoon (evening, in the case of Kansas City) playing catch-up. In the Patriots game, they were able to actually seize a late-game lead before Brady went Brady on them. Even in the win over the Browns, the Texans were sluggish to start the game. It goes without saying that they can't afford to fall behind this Sunday, but if they are going to pull off the upset, an early lead to plant some doubt in the collective head of the 12th Man would be absolutely huge. I'll be interested to see how Bill O'Brien and Watson deal with the noise, how audibles and silent snap counts are executed. If there is a young quarterback who's played in enough similar environments in college, it's probably Watson.
3. Return of Duane Brown
So Duane Brown was back this week, sparking all sorts of speculation as to whether or not he would play this Sunday, and next-level speculation on whether or not he will be traded by Tuesday (the NFL's trade deadline). To be clear on a couple of things — if he is playing for the Texans this Sunday, it's not to showcase him. It's because he is their starting left tackle again. Also, if the Eagles, who are now without Jason Peters for the rest of the season, called and said, "Hey, how about our first-round pick for Duane Brown and your third-round pick?" I would do that deal, if I were Rick Smith. That said, the category of trade speculation in which people just want to dump Brown for any old pick is hilarious to me. Um, people, there IS an acute need on this team in the offensive line...HELLO?!?
2. Contain Jimmy Graham
It's strange watching Graham as a Seahawk, because most of the time he is a shell of the tour de force that he was with Drew Brees in New Orleans, where they used a "hotly contested by Graham" franchise tag on him a few years ago. In Seattle, Graham has been, at times, an afterthought, and when he has been targeted, he's been inconsistent. In last week's Giants game alone, he had two huge drops in the first half that could have salted the game away much earlier, if he'd come up with the ball. That said, the Texans defense now has more kill spots than it did before injuries to J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus, and Kansas City's Travis Kelce showed that covering tight ends is back to being an issue (A.J. Bouye, we miss you!). This could be one of those games where a catch and run (or two) from Graham is the difference.
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1. Elite Jadeveon Clowney
I have a hard time even counting the Cleveland game as something to buy into, as it pertains to the Texans defense post-Watt and post-Mercilus. I mean, Kevin Hogan can't throw. He seriously might be the worst quarterback I've ever seen throw a football in an NFL game, and that is coming from someone who watched every Brock Osweiler throw from 2016. So this game should be a better barometer, and the Seahawks offensive line is one that can be had. This will be a game, first of many, where Clowney needs to play like a No. 1 overall pick. If he needs outside help in getting pissed off at Russell Wilson, here you go, JD...
SPREAD: Seahawks -5.5
PREDICTION: Seahawks 23, Texans 16
RECORD: 4-2 SU, 4-2 ATS
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.