There are a few things that we know about the 2017 Houston Texans, most notably that the defense should be one of the best in the league, the kicker and the punter are pretty consistent, and offensively, well, Bill O'Brien is calling the plays now!
There are also a handful of key questions surrounding this team as it heads into the 2017 season, most notably how J.J. Watt's surgically repaired back will hold up, how much the special teams will improve (because we know they WILL, if only because they can't get statistically worse), and, OH YEAH, that whole quarterback thingie!
There are plenty of folks (most of whom happen to live in 713, 281 and 832 area codes) whose calculus consists of "Hey, they won nine games with Brock Osweiler and without J.J. Watt last season, so how many MORE do they win this season?" This, of course, presumes everything else stays stagnant around the league and in the "random luck" department, which is as shortsighted as it gets.
I, for one, am concerned about the Texans in 2017, mainly because a) I think the division is better overall, and b) they won a LOT of close games last season (all nine regular season wins had single-digit final margins). I've preliminarily predicted 7-9 for 2017 on my radio show.
There will be no shortage of forecasts coming out on the upcoming season over the next few months. Some are subjective, through the eyes of experts, and others are more scientific in nature. The one that ESPN ran over the weekend was about as far to the end of the latter as you can find. The channel ran its Football Power Index rankings for 2017. If you're unfamiliar with those, here is the skinny:
In short, a team's FPI rating combines its efficiency ratings on offense, defense and special teams — based on each unit's expected points added per play — with the sum of all three squad ratings yielding the overall FPI rating. (For more on how FPI is calculated, click here and here.)
Here are the rankings of the 32 teams by division, in the order of the strongest to the weakest divisions as ranked by the sum of the teams' places among the 32 teams. In other words, the lower a total score a division has, the stronger it (theoretically) is:
NFC SOUTH (44)
16. Tampa Bay
17. New Orleans
AFC WEST (48)
8. Kansas City
21. Los Angeles Chargers
NFC EAST (54)
11. New York Giants
AFC NORTH (58)
NFC NORTH (63)
2. Green Bay
AFC EAST (80)
1. New England
30. New York Jets
AFC SOUTH (88)
NFC WEST (90)
29. Los Angeles Rams
32. San Francisco
Now, a few observations...
1. Yeah, Texan fans, it appears as though the numbers are more supportive of my prediction than the flowery "BUT J.J. WATT IS BACK!" predictions. (To be very clear, I'd like nothing more than to be 100 percent wrong in my assessment.) ESPN's FPI has the Texans with 7.8 wins and 8.2 losses, so around .500, which would actually be a step backward for O'Brien, who has made going 9-7 practically his gimmick! For what it's worth, the division appears to be fairly up-for-grabs, as Indy's 8.5 wins are enough to take the crown. (Texans chances of winning the division are 22.5 percent.)
2. Good news for you AFC South fans, though! While it appears to be basically four .500-ish teams in some sort of four-way blindfold match, by my ultra-scientific methodology of adding up the teams' rankings, the AFC South is NOT the worst division! Not even the very-goodness of the No. 4 Seattle Seahawks (they're very good, not great) is enough to pull the NFC West out of the basement. We know the Rams and the Niners are awful, two of the four worst teams in football, but the Arizona Cardinals coming in at No. 25 is a tad surprising. Should it be? Carson Palmer has had far more mediocre seasons than good ones, and he is 37 years old. They lost Calais Campbell, one of their leaders on defense, in free agency. No. 25 is not out of the realm of feasibility. The other bit of good news for AFC South teams is that they cross over with the NFC West on the schedule this season, which is great because the other three divisions are significantly better.
3. The Patriots' FPI rating of +9.2 is by far the best in the league. How much better than everyone else? Well, the +4.4 gap between the top-ranked Patriots and the second-ranked Packers (+4.8) is about the same as the gap between the Packers and the 14th-ranked Bengals (+0.3). FPI has the Pats forecasted at 11.8 wins, but I think there is a legitimate chance this team could match the 16-0 regular season of the 2007 Patriots team.
4. If you're a Patriots fan who doesn't have season tickets at home or an "in" for tickets on a road trip, I wish you the best of luck with finding fairly priced tickets. The five best match-ups, per FPI's matchup quality ratings, are all games that involve the Patriots:
WEEK DATE MATCHUP FPI MATCHUP QUALITY
15 Dec. 17 Patriots at Steelers 92.3
11 Nov. 19 Raiders vs. Patriots (Mexico City) 91.3
10 Nov. 12 Patriots at Broncos 83.8
5 Oct. 5 Patriots at Buccaneers 83.6
2 Sept. 17 Patriots at Saints 83.2
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5. The Texans' postseason slash (playoffs/division/wild card/#1 seed) is 32.2/22.5/9.7/1.5, in case you were wondering. They have a 1.5 percent chance of making the Super Bowl, and a 0.6 percent chance of winning it. So go ahead, say it...
Yep, a chance.
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.