With the rapid ascension of Deshaun Watson as the starting Texans quarterback and focal point of Bill O'Brien's retooled playbook, there is little debate that he is now the most valuable player on the Houston Texans, and I mean that more merely anecdotally than I do as some sort of label where he will get a shiny trophy at the team dinner at the end of the season.
If there's one player who goes down and the season goes down with him, it's not DeAndre Hopkins, it's not Whitney Mercilus and it's not J.J. Watt. Unfortunately, the football gods determined that they are going to do as much as they can to test this hypothesis. That much was evident on Sunday night, as the Kansas City Chiefs wore the Texans down to a nub in a 42-34 win at NRG Stadium.
In the process, during an eight-minute drive that set the tone for the entire evening, the Texans lost Watt for the season with a tibia fracture and Mercilus with a chest injury. What was setting up as a glorious sports day in Houston turned into a disaster, especially when you add the Astros' 10-3 loss to the Red Sox in Game 3 of the ALDS.
Let's try to sift through the carnage...
4. Dylan Cole
In the absence of Brian Cushing, Cole (along with Zach Cunningham) continues to gain valuable playing time, and Cole showed up several times in defending the run, and showed outstanding sideline-to-sideline speed on on a couple of occasions. Watson is the clear-cut best rookie in this class, obviously, but with D'Onta Foreman still working his way into the mix offensively and Cunningham still learning, too, the undrafted Cole is one of the three or four most productive rookies on the squad.
3. Deshaun Watson fantasy owners
Statistically, it wasn't a great night for Watson, as he completed only 50 percent of his passes and had his usual handful of risky plays/throws where he tries to maybe overextend plays. However, it's that same daring style that makes Watson so dangerous, and there is little doubt that his deep ball, escapability and scrambling are making teams have to defend the entire field far more than with any other quarterback in the O'Brien era. The Chiefs were just too much for a depleted defense to stand up to on Sunday, but Watson keeps flickers of hope alive in games like last night's, which, four starts in, is a huge compliment. Also, it can't be ignored that he threw for FIVE touchdowns in a game where the Texans were behind by double digits all night (move over, Blake Bortles.)
2. Will Fuller
In his rookie season, Will Fuller's two best games were his first two games, going more than 100 yards in each game. This season, two games in, he is again off to a fast start, with four touchdowns, and on Sunday he mixed in a nice end around and a gigantic chunk play on punt return. Most important, Fuller is showing much more consistency with his hands this season, making tough catches and proving to be a reliable target so defenses can't key on DeAndre Hopkins.
1. Alex Smith
Before the season, the Chiefs (along with the Texans and the Bears) were one of three teams to move up to draft their quarterback of the future. The difference between them and the other two teams is that the Chiefs had their quarterback of the present on the roster, Alex Smith, who had led the Chiefs to multiple playoff appearances since arriving in Kansas City in 2013. So good for Smith for being a frontrunner for the league's MVP award five games into the season. He looks in complete control and is pushing the ball down the field, at the very least, adequately, which is a big jump from previous seasons where his downfield throwing could be categorized as "practically nonexistent."
4. Texans front seven
When Whitney Mercilus went down with the chest injury on the excruciating opening drive by Kansas City, my first thought was "Okay, well, if Mercilus is done for a while, at least they still have Watt and Clowney." And then Watt's knee buckled a few plays later, and it was very evident that the sports gods don't want any of us here to have nice things. Also, given the severity of this injury, along with multiple back surgeries, it's a foregone conclusion that we've probably seen the best of J.J. Watt. How will spending two consecutive off-seasons rehabbing drastic injuries affect him going forward? Huge question for 2018.
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3. Texans special teams
The Texans were still within shouting distance at 32-20...and then they punted the ball to Tyreek Hill...and then he returned it 82 yards for a touchdown...and then the Texans weren't within shouting distance anymore. The Texans coverage teams stink. The end.
2. Situational Texans
When you see the word "situational," you might think I'm talking about things like third down defense, and while the Texans were awful in that particular situation — the Chiefs converted 9 of 16 — I am actually talking about situations like after the end of the game, when the Texans scored a touchdown on the final play of the game. So with the clock reading 0:00 and the scoreboard reading "CHIEFS 42, TEXANS 34, FINAL," the Texans production folks played the Clay Walker song, fired off the cannon and had the Texan flag dudes running around with six Texan flags...because they scored a touchdown. The optics of the situation, with players and coaches filing onto the field, made it look like the Texans were celebrating an eight-point loss. Time and place, flag dudes. Time and place.
1. Texans in the AFC South
With Cleveland on the horizon next week, this loss to the Chiefs wasn't a complete disaster, but I will say that the AFC South is shaping up to be oddly competitive. Odd because sitting atop the group at 3-2 are the Jacksonville Jaguars, who forced five Ben Roethlisberger interceptions on Sunday in a 30-9 thumping of the Steelers. The Titans and the Colts are running without their starting quarterbacks right now, but when Marcus Mariota and Andrew Luck return, we will have the makings of a highly competitive division.
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.