The Houston Texans come out fo the 2019 bye week with a record of 6-3. If this feels familiar, it's because it should, since they came out of last year's bye week at 6-3, as well. I think it's safe to say, though, that this year's 6-3 feels different than last year's. Even without J.J. Watt, this feels like a team that, through the "eye test" and the more impressive overall results, should be able to beat anybody in the AFC.
Hey, great news! Over the next few weeks, they will get a chance to prove just that, with the top two teams in the AFC (Texans are third, by the way) on the schedule this weekend and in two weeks, and with the chance to snap the following ignominious streaks:
* The Texans are 2-7 in their history against the Ravens, but 0-5 IN Baltimore, so this is a chance to accomplish something they've never done — send Ravens fans home unhappy.
* The Texans have lost three straight to the Indianapolis Colts, and are 0-4 against Jacoby Brissett as a starting quarterback. Four days after the Baltimore trip, they can snap those streaks.
* The Texans are 1-10 in their history against the Patriots, and Bill O'Brien is 0-5 against them since taking over in Houston. This break must end!
It all starts on Sunday at noon with what is easily the sexiest matchup of Week 11 in the NFL, Deshaun Watson versus Lamar Jackson, Houston versus Baltimore, Tex-Mex and barbecue versus crab cakes! Let's give you four things to watch for AND a prediction:
4. Special teams
Much of the hoopla and analysis leading up to this game will be about the two quarterbacks, and rightfully so. They are rapidly evolving into two of the best stories in the league this season, and ultimately might both finish with MVP votes, if not one of them winning the damn thing. However, special teams is an underplayed angle, really in previewing most NFL games, but especially this one. The Texans have improved tremendously on special teams in the two seasons Brad Seely has been here as the coach of that area. That was a great hire, for which Bill O'Brien doesn't get enough credit.
And it's a good thing the Texans are equipped to complete on special teams (7th in special teams DVOA heading into last weekend), because here is where John Harbaugh's special teams have ranked in DVOA in each of his seasons in Baltimore:
2019 — 3rd
2018 — 6th
2017 — 1st
2016 — 4th
2015 — 4th
2014 — 2nd
2013 — 3rd
2012 — 1st
2011 — 30th
2010 — 4th
2009 — 8th
2008 — 16th
The Texans need to play the special teams phase of the game to a standoff on Sunday, in order to get their first win in Baltimore.
3. O'Brien off a bye week
Some good news to get us started off — Bill O'Brien has been cash money coming off a bye week since taking the Texans head coaching job in 2014. Here are the results (with the spreads from a Texans perspective in parentheses):
2014: at CLV (+4.5), Texans win 23-7 (Mallett first career start)
2015: at CIN (+10), Texans win 10-6 (Cincy was 8-0 going into the game, MNF)
2016: at JAC (+3), Texans win 34-21 (Texans 5-3, still 3 pt dogs to 2-6 Jax)
2017: at SEA (+6), Texans lose 41-38 (had lead late, last game of DW rookie yr)
2018: at WAS (-3), Texans win 23-21 (Alex Smith career ending leg that day)
2019: at BAL (—)
So, if you're keeping score at home, that's a 4-1 record straight up, and a 4-1 record against the spread (which matters to us degenerate gamblers out here on these mean streets!). Also, considering the Texans were underdogs in four of the five games — yes, they were underdogs to a Brian Hoyer quarterbacked Cleveland team, and a 2-6 Blake Bortles-led Jags squad — the Texans well overachieved expectations. For what it's worth, the Texans are 4.5 point underdogs on Sunday.
The bye week should manifest itself in two ways, first.....
2. Texans getting healthy
The Texans should be as healthy as they've been in quite some time. The expectation is that CB Bradley Roby and CB Lonnie Johnson will be returning, which means that the Texans are, all of a sudden, somewhat sneaky deep at corner, with Gareon Conley and others holding down the fort. LT Laremy Tunsil was held out of the win over the Jaguars with a shoulder injury, so he should be back, as should safety Tashaun Gipson. (We will see when Will Fuller comes back, but even when he does, it feels like the next injury is always right around the corner.) Add into that the general healing of nagging bumps and bruises that the bye week can help nurture, and the Texans are catching a physical team like the Ravens at the perfect time, physically.
The other reason the bye week is crucial....
1. Watson versus Jackson
In theory, the bye week should give the Texans much more time to prepare for Lamar Jackson than the Ravens have to prepare for Deshaun Watson. It will be interesting to see what Romeo Crennel has up his sleeve, as Jackson is clearly a different challenge than any the Texans have faced so far, with his superhuman running ability to go along with a much improved passing game. I would be surprised if the Texans didn't deploy some of what the Chargers did last postseason, going with a dime package for big chunks of the game to have some quickness and athleticism on the field to deal with Jackson. (Current Texans safety Jahleel Addae was part of that game plan with the Chargers in the playoffs.) The NFL season is funny — when we were stack ranking the daunting list of quarterbacks the Texans would be facing this season, Jackson's name rarely popped into the top half dozen or so. Brees, Rivers, Newton, Ryan, Mahomes, Luck, and Brady always came up first. Oddly, the Texans defeated Rivers, Ryan, and Mahomes, and they've lost to the BACKUPS for Newton and Luck. And now, Jackson might be the toughest challenge of all of them. In short, "believe nothing in August" is the message, I suppose.
SPREAD: Texans +4.5
PREDICTION: Texans 27, Ravens 23
SEASON RECORD: 6-3 SU, 5-4 ATS