There was a dream NFL playoff scenario for Houston in play heading into this weekend of divisional round action. The odds of it playing out were very slim, about 20 to 1 to be exact, but if the Tennessee Titans could pull off the upset of the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday night, and the Houston Texans could pull off the upset of the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, NRG Stadium would be the venue for an AFC title game between the Houston Texans and the artists formerly known as the Houston Oilers.
Well, the Tennessee Titans unexpectedly held up their end of the bargain, in resounding fashion, knocking off the Ravens by a convincing final score of 28-12. Lamar Jackson, this season's likely MVP, was done. So now it was up to the Houston Texans to pull off the upset to complete the exacta, and for about 20 minutes of game time, things looked pretty good.
Through a combination of opportunistic play calling and complete breakdowns by the Chiefs in all three phases of the game, the Texans built a 24-0 lead. But they gave the Chiefs a small opening, allowing a long kick return to Mecole Hardeman, and then a quick score to the Chiefs, and it was 24-7, and before the Texans could blink, the Chiefs had three touchdowns in about three minutes of game action.
A 28-24 halftime lead was mere prologue to a second half ass kicking (and a formality of a final score of 51-31) that will send the Texans into the offseason with more questions than answers, and a fan base wondering if this is the team's ceiling with Bill O'Brien as the head coach. Let's do a very painful version of winners and losers...
4. First quarter special teams
The driving force behind the Texans' early siege against the Chiefs was the team's special teams units, which have been performing at a high level all season. Up 7-0, Barkevious Mingo (a Clowney trade piece, YIPPEE!) blocked a punt, Lonnie Johnson scooped it up and scored a touchdown to make it 14-0. Later in the quarter Keion Crossen recovered a muffed punt, setting the Texans up with first and goal, and eventually a 21-0 lead on a Darren Fells TD catch. On top of that, the coverage units were very good throughout the first quarter. Unfortunately, this would all change in horrific fashion in the second quarter, which we will discuss in about three paragraphs.
3. DeAndre Hopkins
Hopkins still has a few years left in his prime, but he will be 28 years old when next season starts, and is slowly veering into the territory where J.J. Watt is currently, and where Andre Johnson spent his entire career — the territory where are asking ourselves "Is this franchise really going to completely squander the prime of one of the very best Hall of Fame talents in the league?" Hopkins is so good, so reliable, so scintillating to watch, and statistically, he was great on Sunday with nine catches for 118 yards, but accentuating his toughness, he racked up all of his second half numbers with what appeared to be a painful rib injury suffered just before halftime. There is a lot that needs to be addressed with this team in the offseason, but No. 1 wide out ain't one of them. Hopkins is one of the very best.
2. Tyrann Mathieu
Even though he piled up the accolades for his 2019 season, being named to the Pro Bowl and first team All Pro, I would imagine that Mathieu came into this game with a chip on his shoulder, after the Texans failed to match the Chiefs' market setting offer for his services this past offseason. (Mostly, I think he had a chip on his shoulder because Mathieu ALWAYS has a chip on his shoulder.) He was solid throughout the game on Sunday, confusing Watson at times pre-snap, and knocking down a couple passes. Now, Mathieu is 60 minutes of football against the Titans away from a Super Bowl.
1. Travis Kelce
On the offensive side of the football for the Chiefs, the game changer was Kelce, who spent the week on the injured report with a banged up knee, but you'd have never known it watching him run through the Texans' defense, especially during the second quarter, when he was on the receiving end of three Patrick Mahomes touchdown passes. Nothing the Texans tried with Kelce worked, and he finished with 10 catches for 132 yards and those three touchdowns. Some fans may point out that the Texans were without their tight end coverage specialist, safety Tashaun Gipson, but Gipson probably would have been just another notch on Kelce's tight end bedpost the way he was rolling yesterday.
4. Second quarter special teams
OK, we gave the Texans their props for a stellar first quarter of special teams. That ended quickly in the second quarter. It started with Hardeman's 58-yard kickoff return to the Texans' 42 yard line, giving the Chiefs their first good field position of the afternoon. From there, the Texans were stopped on a fake punt on 4th and 4 from their own 31 yard line. Then, after another short field and Chiefs TD made it 24-14, DeAndre Carter fumbled the ensuing kickoff, setting up a five yard touchdown drive that made it 24-21. At this point, a Texans' three point lead felt like a two touchdown deficit, because you know what was coming. The Chiefs would take a 28-24 lead before halftime, and the final special teams snag would be a 51-yard field goal miss by Ka'imi Fairbairn. The game was over at halftime.
3. The fat men along the Texans' defensive front
Part of the reason that you just knew there was no coming back at halftime was because, with the Chiefs taking the lead in the game, and getting the ball to start the second half, the Texans would need multiple stops to regain the lead. They had no answers on defense, in large part because the pass rush was completely anemic. J.J. Watt was not the same player this week that he was last week, and that left Whitney Mercilus and the three fat men that affectionately call themselves the Lunch Pail Crew — D.J. Reader, Angelo Blackson, and Brandon Dunn — to put heat on Mahomes. They got nothing. More disturbing is the fact that Mercilus begins a four year, $54 million extension next year, which is pricy for a guy whose impact seems dependent on a top level J.J. Watt being on the field at the same time.
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2. Romeo Crennel
This is going to be a tough one for Romeo Crennel to come back from. The Texans' defense allowed touchdowns on seven straight possessions and scores on eight straight possessions (the Chiefs mercifully kicked a field goal while up 48-31), and looked completely overmatched. Any hope of Crennel dialing some exotic things to mess with Patrick Mahomes was scuttled by halftime. Look, Crennel might be the biggest individual victim of the Texans going "pawn shop" on their handling of a Jadeveon Clowney trade, but there will be changes on the staff (my guess), and I doubt O'Brien is firing anybody on the offensive side of the ball, mostly because I think O'Brien himself is the head coach, offensive coordinator, play caller, and every offensive assistant. (The actual people with titles on the offensive staff are just cardboard cutouts.)
1. Bill O'Brien
So, here we are, six seasons into the Bill O'Brien Era, and not only have they not progressed any further as a franchise than in any of their previous postseason, but they were run off the field by a 51-7 margin after being gifted a 24-0 lead. If O'Brien survives this loss with all of his powers — de facto GM, head coach, play caller — still intact then I completely understand Texan fans feeling a sense of hopelessness. There is no evidence to point to that would indicate O'Brien is capable of maximizing the offensive talent on the roster. To the contrary, the team's wild inconsistencies seem to indicate that they're stuck firmly in the top of the third tier of teams in the league. On a more granular level, O'Brien's decision making in this game was haphazard and lacking sense. Within the same five minute window of the game, he chose to kick a field goal on 4th and 1 at the Chiefs' 13 yard line — SUPER CONSERVATIVE decision that ran contrary to how he's played all season — and then chose to attempt a fake punt on 4th and 4 from his own 31 yard line, an unsuccessful, overly aggressive decision. Have a code, man! Perhaps the most infuriating, ultimately insignificant O'Brien moment was when he chose to punt the football, down 48-31, on 4th and 4 from the Chiefs 42 yard line with 11:45 left in the game. This was a ridiculous decision, even if it were the SECOND QUARTER and the Texans were in a close game, given how important points would be against the Chiefs. It was utterly stupid, essentially a white flag, down 17 with 11:45 to go. It took Deshaun Watson pointing this out to O'Brien, and O'Brien using a timeout to go for it. The attempt was unsuccessful, but it was the RIGHT decision to try to convert that fourth down. That O'Brien was ready to punt there SEEMS like a small thing, but it's been six years of this.
How do we get excited about a team with O'Brien pushing all these buttons in 2020? I don't know the answer to this question, and THAT is the most disturbing thing about Sunday, even more disturbing than blowing a 24-0 lead. That's where we are with this team.