Sean Pendergast

NFL Week 16: Chargers-Texans — Four Things To Watch For

David Culley's game management skills have been a big topic lately.
David Culley's game management skills have been a big topic lately. Photo by Eric Sauseda
Of all the things the Houston Texans needed to (and still to) accomplish over the final five weeks of the season, the most important, by far, was finding out if they have a competent NFL starting quarterback for 2022 in Davis Mills. We are two games into his second stint as the named starter for this team — the first six game stint was due to Tyrod Taylor's hamstring injury, this one is more performance based — and so far, so good. For the most part.

First, the good — In his two games since resuming the starter's role, Mills has protected the football pretty well (just one interception), thrown for 540 yards, and has a passer rating in those two games of 92.8, which over a full season would be in the middle of the QB pack. Most importantly, he's WON A GAME! That hadn't happened in his first seven starts.

Now, the concerning — the Texans still go into long lulls offensively, mostly in the second half of games, and if it had not been for Brandin Cooks ' 43-yard catch and run to close out the Jaguars game, we would still be waiting for the Texans' first second half touchdown since Week 11. Overall, though, very solid performances from Mills, considering all that comes with leading this Texans offense.

Now, the level of competition steps back up, with the Chargers coming to town. It's not a great Chargers' team defensively, though, so perhaps Mills can keep things going in the right direction. Let's look at the storylines for this one.

4. COVID ousters
As we discussed in detail in this space yesterday, these are two teams that have been hit hard with this latest wave of COVID-19. The Texans are clearly the more decimated of the two, having places (as of this writing) 18 players on the COVID reserve list, with Wednesday being a particularly devastating day with their best player (Brandin Cooks) and placekicker (Ka'imi Fairbairn) ending up on the list. The Chargers' lead RB, and the linchpin for a lot of fantasy teams out there, Austin Ekeler was placed on the COVID reserve list on Wednesday, as well. The Chargers were going to be a safe bet to put up at least 35 points even without all the COVID shuffling going on, but now? Yikes.

3. Justin Herbert, chosen one
And the biggest reason for "Yikes" is the Chargers' second year quarterback, Justin Herbert, who just found out yesterday that he was named the starting QB for the AFC in the Pro Bowl. When you're named the starter in a conference with Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, and Josh Allen, you're doing something right. Like Allen in 2018, Herbert was actually the third quarterback selected in his draft class, behind a first overall pick who's been good but not elite (Baker Mayfield for Allen, Joe Burrow for Herbert) and a second quarterback who he is clearly better than (Sam Darnold for Allen, Tua Tagovailoa for Herbert). Herbert's arm talent, and the talent of his teammates out wide, combined with the Texans' COVID-depleted defense give this game all the earmarkings for a game like Russell Wilson had two weeks ago at NRG Stadium, with a half dozen or so explosive plays on the menu.

2. Run the ball, Texans? Maybe?
Now, if we look over at the Texans' offensive side of the ball, Davis Mills will get his third start of his second stint as the starting quarterback of the Texans. The first two starts since coming back, versus Seattle and Jacksonville, have been solid enough, especially when you consider he has had the worst rushing game I've ever seen in my life supporting him. I guess Rex Burkhead will continue to be the workhorse lead back, and that is the most depressing sentence of all time to type. Hey, the Chargers are 31st in the league in run defense, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, so maybe the Texans can put Mills in some easier down and distance situations. I'm just looking for a few 2nd and 5, 2nd and 4 type situations throughout the game. Baby steps.

1. Head coach game management
With three weeks left in the season, we are going to begin to see head coaches around the league get whacked, especially with the new rule allowing teams to interview candidates from other teams with two weeks left in the regular season. For what it's worth, rumors are swirling about David Culley being "one and done" as the Texans' head coach. From ESPN.com this week:

"One-and-done head coaches are rare, but there is at least some chatter in NFL circles about David Culley's future in Houston. This has been going on for a few weeks now. The Texans are immersed in a lengthy rebuild and will need to sort out who will lead it. Culley has shown promise, to be sure, and let's be honest — a 3-11 record with this roster is an overachievement. So maybe he gets a second year to get comfortable. But this job might be one to watch in January."
I would be very surprised if Culley were fired, if for no other reason than this job is still at least another rebuilding year away from attracting an actual QUALIFIED candidate. For now, Culley can just continue to improve in managing the game, like he did last week in Jacksonville, where there were no brain fart time outs used, and he actually managed the end of the first half flawlessly to maneuver and pick up a field goal after getting the ball with just 21 seconds remaining in the half.

SPREAD: Texans +10.5
PREDICTION: Chargers 35, Texans 17
SEASON RECORD: 11-3 SU, 7-7 ATS

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.
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Sean Pendergast is a contributing freelance writer who covers Houston area sports daily in the News section, with periodic columns and features, as well. He also hosts the morning drive on SportsRadio 610, as well as the pre-game and post game shows for the Houston Texans.
Contact: Sean Pendergast