The Must-Win Games of the 2016 Houston Texans Season

The Texans are ready to kick things off this year, firing up with a new quarterback.EXPAND
The Texans are ready to kick things off this year, firing up with a new quarterback.
Eric Sauseda

As the Houston Texans limped off their home field back on January 9, victims of a complete playoff football ransacking at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs, it was nearly impossible to see the forest for the trees. In the moment, in the midst of the miserable aftermath of a 30-0 shellacking that exposed the team as fraudulent and revealed J.J. Watt (and his shredded groin muscle) to be mortal, there were no positives. It’s hard to find silver linings while your eyes are swollen shut.

Eventually, though, the blood and tears subsided, and in going through the painful process of self-evaluation, it turns out that the embarrassment of that lopsided playoff loss may have given the Texans two stupendous gifts — urgency and clarity.

For two seasons during the Bill O’Brien era, the Texans had cobbled their way around deficiencies at quarterback and a dearth of speedy playmakers. Their inability to address those areas in O’Brien’s first two seasons would’ve been even more frustrating if going 9-7 both seasons hadn’t also been so damn admirable. However, the shameful loss to Kansas City was more than just the next painful reminder of these needs — it was a flag-in-the-ground, Vito Corleone “This war stops now” moment.

Indeed, four days after the loss, Bob McNair was telling the Houston Chronicle these exact words: “We need a franchise quarterback.”

The process of scouting and vetting the next (some would argue, the first) franchise quarterback for the Texans came to a swift conclusion in early March, as Rick Smith and Bill O’Brien managed to snatch Brock Osweiler out from underneath the nose of Denver Broncos general manager John Elway with a four-year, $72 million ($37 million guaranteed) deal. In doing so, they found an immediate starter who allowed them to forgo the drafting and likely glacial development of a rookie quarterback.

From there, over the course of the next two months, the goal became fulfilling that second need — acquiring speedy weapons for their new signal caller. The signing of Osweiler was followed hours later by the signing of running back Lamar Miller away from the Miami Dolphins. Several weeks later, the Texans would use three of their first four draft choices on wide receivers Will Fuller (and his 4.3 40-yard dash) and Braxton Miller and running back Tyler Ervin.

Those four players, the first three in particular, represented a speed infusion that rendered the Texans barely recognizable, in a good way. It was like Hollywood plastic surgery, and the Texans went from resembling an Irish wolfhound to a dead ringer for Olivia Munn.

In that interview following the playoff loss, McNair lamented that, when it comes to quarterbacks, “this isn’t a department store where they have them on the shelf, and you just pick one up.” However, it appears that’s precisely what the Texans have done. If indeed the Osweiler-plus-speed-galore experiment works, the Texans will have essentially been the guy who suffers from a head cold (for two years!) who finally decides to go purchase some cough medicine. Can it really be that simple?

The transition to the Osweiler era has generated cautious optimism. In weeks two and three of the preseason, Osweiler looked every bit what the Texans envisioned when they cut his signing bonus check, completing 23 of 32 passes for 270 yards and a couple of gorgeous touchdown throws to Fuller.

“I think that we’ve made improvement every week,” O’Brien said when asked how it’s gone so far in training camp. “That’s what I’ve asked those guys to do. There’s been some things that have to be better than they are right now. There are areas to improve upon. But as a whole unit, they’re a lot better today than they were three weeks ago.”

So how does this all come together once the real games begin on September 11? 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:

Must wins: 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.
Coin flippers: 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.
Steals: Games in which the Texans will likely be underdogs of five points or more against teams that they’ve historically struggled against or match up poorly with, or that they 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 2016 slate stack up when we start applying the Pendergast Method? Let’s take a look:
Must wins, 5: vs. CHI, vs. TEN, vs. DET, vs. SD, vs. JAC
Coin flippers, 8: vs. KC, at MIN, vs. IND, at JAC, at OAK, at IND, vs. CIN, at TEN
Steals, 3: at NE, at DEN, at GB

Now let’s go game by game. Buckle up…

Sunday, September 11 (0-0) — vs. Chicago
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans -5.5
PREDICTION: Texans 28, Bears 13
WHY THE TEXANS WILL WIN: Bears QB Jay Cutler has a perpetual “Mom, why did you cancel my Netflix account?” look plastered to his face. There’s a decent chance a teammate punches him out before the fourth quarter. The Bears are a truly horrible football team. This game should have a festive atmosphere, with Texans fans dorking out for their new offense the way tech geeks dork out for the iPhone 7.
BUCKET RATING: MUST WIN

Sunday, September 18 (1-0) — vs. Kansas City
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans -1.5
PREDICTION: Texans 17, Chiefs 13
WHY THE TEXANS WILL WIN: In a nip-and-tuck affair between two of the NFL’s most questionable clock managers, Bill O’Brien will misuse one less timeout than Andy Reid…and that, my friends, will make all the difference.
BUCKET RATING: COIN FLIPPER

New England has always been tough for the TexansEXPAND
New England has always been tough for the Texans
Eric Sauseda

Thursday, September 22 (2-0) — at New England
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans +3.5
PREDICTION: Patriots 27, Texans 20
WHY THE TEXANS WILL LOSE: We all have a place that gives us a horrible, Pavlovian, anxiety-laden pit in our stomach anytime we walk in. Mine is hospitals. For some, it’s a courtroom. For Antonio Cromartie, it’s the pregnancy test aisle at Walgreens. For the Texans, it’s Gillette Stadium. I think Belichick has a carpet in his office made out of those damn letterman jackets. Even with no Tom Brady for the Pats, I still can’t pick the Texans here.
BUCKET RATING: STEAL

Sunday, October 2 (2-1) — vs. Tennessee
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans -8.5
PREDICTION: Texans 30, Titans 14
WHY THE TEXANS WILL WIN: Titans HC Mike Mularkey is hell-bent on building a pound-between-the-tackles offense with über-athletic Marcus Mariota as his quarterback. God bless, Mike Mularkey. Please, never fire him, Titans.
BUCKET RATING: MUST WIN

Sunday, October 9 (3-1) — at Minnesota
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans +1
PREDICTION: Texans 20, Vikings 15
WHY THE TEXANS WILL WIN: We all laughed at the scout who said in 2014 that Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater has “skinny knees.” Last Tuesday, Bridgewater’s knee basically snapped in half at practice. Who’s laughing now? Not the Vikings. (Not anybody, I hope. If you are laughing, you’re a bad person.) I had the Vikings winning this game before Bridgewater’s injury, but with the Vikings now basically rendered into the 2015 Texans — no QB, but hey, check out our defense! — I’ll take the 2016 Texans here.
BUCKET RATING: COIN FLIPPER

Sunday, October 16 (4-1) — vs. Indianapolis
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans -3
PREDICTION: Texans 24, Colts 23
WHY THE TEXANS WILL WIN: The Colts made Andrew Luck the highest-paid player in the league this offseason, but still have him playing behind a picket fence of an offensive line. Luck must now know what it felt like for Steve-O to get paid a handsome sum to mutilate himself in those Jackass movies.
BUCKET RATING: COIN FLIPPER

Monday, October 24 (5-1) — at Denver
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans +5.5
PREDICTION: Broncos 19, Texans 10
WHY THE TEXANS WILL LOSE: Damn, it’s so tempting to take the Texans here, but Gary Kubiak’s winning a Super Bowl has completely recalibrated the “bet against Kubiak in big games”-o-meter and rendered it useless. Right now, that device sits on a dusty shelf in between my old turntable and a VHS copy of Bill Cosby: Himself.
BUCKET RATING: STEAL

Sunday, October 30 (5-2) — vs. Detroit
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans -6.5
PREDICTION: Texans 33, Lions 14
WHY THE TEXANS WILL WIN: When Matthew Stafford came into the league, he was a wildly gunslinging, side-arming, chubby-faced quarterback. Seven years later, Stafford is a wildly gunslinging, side-arming, chubby-faced quarterback…with more than $100 million in the bank. Stafford is the “bro” version of Andy Dalton or Ryan Tannehill, just good enough to fool you into thinking he is worth all that jack.
BUCKET RATING: MUST WIN

Sunday, November 6 (6-2) — BYE WEEK
PREDICTION: J.J. Watt spends his bye week rescuing a pack of ducklings while walking an old lady across the street on his way to putting out a five-alarm fire with his own spit, all broadcast on Facebook Live. Highlights on Instagram, if you missed it live! Somehow, his foundation raises $3 million in the process. (Moral of the story — we all “HEART” J.J. Watt.)

Sunday, November 13 (6-2) — at Jacksonville
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans -1.5
PREDICTION: Jaguars 22, Texans 17
WHY THE TEXANS WILL LOSE: The Texans can’t go 4-0 against the Jags and Titans every year of the O’Brien era, as they have the first two years. Eventually, O’Brien will lose one of these games. So we will pick the one of those four games that’s closest to a toss-up. How’s that for analysis?
BUCKET RATING: COIN FLIPPER

Monday, November 21 (6-3) — at Oakland (in Mexico City)
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Pick ’Em
PREDICTION: Raiders 31, Texans 27
WHY THE TEXANS WILL LOSE: In 2016, I’m not sure what’s weirder — Donald Trump as a presidential nominee or the Oakland Raiders as a viable Super Bowl dark horse. The two entities have their similarities, not the least of which are the frequent riots at their respective events. Ironically, the Raiders have to travel all the way to Mexico City to make America great again by winning the AFC West.
BUCKET RATING: COIN FLIPPER

Sunday, November 27 (6-4) — vs. San Diego
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans -6.5
PREDICTION: Texans 34, Chargers 31
WHY THE TEXANS WILL WIN: This has all the earmarks of an upset alert — capable QB on the other side, short week coming back from a foreign country, a trip to Green Bay on the look-ahead…I’m taking the Texans, but I’m drinking a lot of whiskey during this game.
BUCKET RATING: MUST WIN

Sunday, December 4 (7-4) — at Green Bay
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans +6
PREDICTION: Packers 31, Texans 17
WHY THE TEXANS WILL LOSE: Remember how I compared the revamped Texans’ offense to the beautiful Olivia Munn? Well, the Packers’ quarterback dates the actual Olivia Munn! Checkmate. (Also, have you been to Green Bay in December? The answer is no, because if you had, you’d be dead from frostbite.)
BUCKET RATING: STEAL

Sunday, December 11 (7-5) — at Indianapolis
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans +3
PREDICTION: Texans 17, Colts 10
WHY THE TEXANS WILL WIN: Honestly? This is no joke; I think the Texans’ finally winning a game in Indy (after 13 unsuccessful tries) and not having to answer questions about “getting the monkey off their back” increases their percentage chances of winning by 25 to 30 percent, which is enough to beat a QB with an absurd neckbeard and an even more absurd offensive line.
BUCKET RATING: COIN FLIPPER

Sunday, December 18 (8-5) — vs. Jacksonville
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans -6.5
PREDICTION: Texans 38, Jaguars 20
WHY THE TEXANS WILL WIN: I said earlier that eventually the Texans would lose a game to the Jags or the Titans in the O’Brien era. I didn’t say they’d lose two.
BUCKET RATING: MUST WIN

Saturday, December 24 (9-5) — vs. Cincinnati
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans +1.5
PREDICTION: Bengals 16, Texans 14
WHY THE TEXANS WILL LOSE: If I’m right on the other home games (yeah, I know…what are the odds?), then this game would be for a clean sweep of the home schedule. Great teams sweep their home schedule. The Texans have a chance to be good, but I don’t think they’re great. (Also, this game is on the night of Christmas Eve. I will be on the postgame show on SportsRadio 610 until 1 a.m. Tune in for Santa Claus travel updates!)
BUCKET RATING: COIN FLIPPER

Sunday, January 1 (9-6) — at Tennessee
SPREAD IF THEY PLAYED TONIGHT: Texans -3.5
PREDICTION: Texans 24, Titans 17
WHY THE TEXANS WILL WIN: By Week 17, the Titans should have around a 3-12 record, which means this game will have the home field advantage of a controlled scrimmage. In fact, New Year’s in Nashville is probably pretty enticing to traveling Texans fans. Just saying.
BUCKET RATING: COIN FLIPPER

So if we do the math and add up our buckets, the 2016 season shakes out as follows:

Must wins: 5-0 (wins vs. CHI, vs. TEN, vs. DET, vs. SD, vs. JAC)
Coin flippers: 5-3 (wins vs. KC, at MIN, vs. IND, at IND, at TEN…losses at JAC, at OAK, vs. CIN)
Steals: 0-3 (losses at NE, at DEN, at GB)

SUMMARY: The last time the Texans finished with a 10-6 record was in 2011, and they finished that season with a stout defense, a damn good running game and a divisional-round playoff loss in Baltimore. That team was the precursor to the best team in the history of the franchise, the 12-4 AFC South champs in 2012. Unfortunately, the following season, in 2013, the Texans got swallowed up in the quicksand of Matt Schaub’s personal implosion and went 2-14, which begat the hiring of O’Brien and brings us to where we are today.

I see this season ending similarly to 2011, with a 10-6 record and a ton of optimism for the future. If that happens, it means the Texans have likely found their quarterback and offensive weapons for the long haul. It means that bigger and better things could be in store in 2017, and perhaps no QB implosion lurking around the corner beyond that.

It’s the NFL, so you never know. Seventy-two million dollars buys you a lot of things, but peace of mind in that league is not among them.

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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