Back in January of 2016, in Bill O'Brien's first ever playoff appearance as an NFL head coach, the Houston Texans lost to the Kansas City Chiefs at home by a final score of 30-0. That game was a 60 minute abomination, probably best known for the first time (but unfortunately not the last) that we've ever seen J.J. Watt helped off an NFL field, and for five horrific Brian Hoyer turnovers.
More than anything else, that game served as a reality check on just how phony the Texans' 9-7 record and AFC South division title was that season, that despite making it to the postseason, the Texans were a team with major flaws in key areas, most notably starting quarterback.
Fast forward to Saturday afternoon, and while the Texans' 21-7 wild card round loss to the Indianapolis Colts at NRG Stadium was not a shutout like that loss to the Chiefs, and while thankfully the Texans have actually found their starting quarterback, it had the same distinct feeling where, all of a sudden, an 11-5 record, a division crown, and a franchise-record nine game winning streak all faded from view. None of it seemed to matter. The stark reality of the situation is that every Texans critic who called them "lucky" to win many of those 11 games in the regular season appeared to be correct.
This is a Texans team with some major, major flaws — not notably, the offensive line and the secondary — and they were all on full display for the third time this season against the Colts, a team that happens to have very few, if any, major flaws. They're also a team the Texans will face twice a year in perpetuity, and THAT was really the cold slap in the face of Saturday afternoon — after a handful of seasons where the Colts were beatable or flat out bad, they appear to be on their way to reestablishing the dominance they held over the AFC South in the heyday of the Peyton Manning Era.
And that's scary, and that sucks... let's get to winners of losers from Saturday's game.
4. T.Y. Hilton
We've laid out Hilton's stats against the Texans coming into Saturday's game — 14 games, 76 catches, 1,445 yards, 9 touchdowns. He's basically been peak-season Megatron against the Texans, so many Texans fans probably would have signed up for "just" five catches for 85 yards and no touchdowns on Saturday. Those were Hilton's stats. However, one of those catches was a "here we go again" 36 yard catch to set up the first touchdown of the game, and Hilton's presence certainly helped open things up for guys like Dontrelle Inman (4 catches, 53 yards, 1 TD) and Marlon Mack (24 carries, 148 yards). Beyond all that, Hilton showed up to the stadium wearing a clown mask in response to Johnathan Joseph's insinuation that Hilton was a clown for some of his braggadocios comments throughout the week, and the Texans didn't make him pay for it. The clown got the last laugh.
3. Keke Coutee
We'd all been waiting for weeks for Act III this season from Coutee over the last month of the season, with hamstring injuries befalling the rookie slot receiver in training camp and then twice during the regular season. Coutee was able to get on the field Saturday, and was really the lone bright spot for the Texans, notching his second 11-catch, 100-yard game of the season, both against the Colts. One of the Texans' action items, most certainly, this offseason is to figure out just what the hell went on with Coutee's hamstring throughout the season, and take the necessary measures to make sure it never happens again, as Deshaun Watson for a full season with a healthy DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, and Keke Coutee could be a high octane offense (assuming the offensive line gets upgraded to merely average, at least.)
2. Chris Ballard
To me, the more depressing part about Saturday's loss wasn't the loss itself and the end to the 2018 season. It was the fact that the loss was to a rising juggernaut with whom the Texans share a division. Sure, the Colts finished 10-6 and needed a Week 17 win in Nashville just to GET to the postseason. But now that they're in the playoffs, the following reality is on full display for at least another week — Ballard, the Colts' second year GM, is building a monster, led by a healthy Andrew Luck (more on him in a minute), and a 2018 draft class that includes two first team ALL-PROS (guard Quentin Nelson, linebacker Darius Leonard). That's about as good as it gets for a GM, drafting two players who are literally the best at what they do in the league as rookies. The Colts will head into the 2019 offseason with the most salary cap space of any team in the league (over $121 million) and an extra second round pick from the Jets. Scary times in the AFC South.
1. Andrew Luck
Saturday wasn't the 400-yard aerial fireworks display that the first two Colts-Texans games this season were for Andrew Luck, but mostly because they didn't need to be. Unlike the previous two games, in which the Colts fell behind 28-10 in the second half in Week 4 and 7-0 in the second quarter in Week 14, Luck marched the Colts right down the field on their first two drives of the game to take a 14-0 lead that was never even close to threatened at any time all day. Luck needed just 222 yards passing, in part thanks to 148 yards rushing from Marlon Mack, to get the job done, and the difference in the game was Luck's ability to convert third downs in building a 21-0 lead, converting the first SEVEN third down situations of the game for the Colts.
4. Texan running backs
Among the many things that Texans GM Brian Gaine will need to fix this offseason, the running game ranks close to the top. That obviously goes hand in hand with what should be at least a couple of upgrades along the offensive line, but the Texans running back position is going to be an interesting watch these next few months, as well. Lamar Miller had his best season as a Texan, and yet it still was just decent, not great. Alfred Blue, well... I've given up trying to predict what happens with Alfred Blue. They seem to love him, I think he's a swell guy who's barely an NFL running back. Barely. The x-factor will be D'Onta Foreman, who will be two off-seasons removed from Achilles surgery next season. The bottom line Saturday was these three guys combined for 29 yards on 8 carries, and were rendered largely useless by about the 5:00 mark of the first quarter thanks to the Colts' building an early 14-0 lead.
3. J.J. Watt
Let me be very clear — J.J. Watt is not one of those in the "LOSER" category for anything he did or didn't do on Saturday. Watt had two tackles for loss, and a couple of passes defended, including one that turned into a huge interception by Brandon Dunn (that the offense proceeded to do nothing with). I put J.J. here because I listened to his post game media session, which lasted all of a minute and twenty seconds, and it sounded like a guy who (1) was depressed over another team playoff failure, and (2) realized that he is going to be 30 in March, and that it appears he may never even play in a conference title game, let alone a Super Bowl. Kudos to Watt for coming back from multiple horrific injuries to be an All Pro again, but I do wonder after losses like Saturday's if he wonders what his chances are of ever competing for a Super Bowl here.
2. Deshaun Watson
It's always hard to consider Deshaun Watson for the "LOSER" label, as well, because simultaneously in a game like Saturday's, he made so many mistakes and poor throws that contributed to the loss, yet was clearly one of the only reasons the game wasn't, say, 30-0 like that aforementioned loss to the Chiefs. With a banged up wide receiving corps and a sieve for an offensive line, the only plays that gave the Texans any juice or life were Watson's improvised scrambles after the pocket collapsed and/or nobody could get open. And yet there are several throws in that game Watson would probably complete on a normal Sunday that he just missed on Saturday, most notably a slant route to Hopkins in the end zone on 4th and 1 inside the Colts 10 yard line right before halftime that would have cut the deficit to 21-7, and would have given the Texans some momentum. Watson seemed off all day long, as the 20 incompletions he threw were a career high, and the most since Week 1 against the Patriots. Watson's future is bright, but his first foray into the postseason as a pro was a major disappointment.
1. Bill O'Brien
For a head coach who won 11 games and a division title, this is going to be about as long an offseason as you could conjure up for O'Brien. Even while this team was winning games, literally all of them, in October and November, O'Brien's most staunch supporters knew that he would be judged by how this team looked come January. To O'Brien's credit, he seemed fully aware of that throughout the season, reminding the assembled media weekly that the team had really not accomplished much in merely winning some regular season games. Point blank, Saturday was an awful look for O'Brien. His team came out slow on both sides of the ball, staked the Colts to a 21-0 lead (that almost assuredly would have been 28-0 without Brandon Dunn's tip drill interception), and then he was the steward of an offense that showed questionable urgency in trying to dig out in the second half. The bottom line from a performance standpoint can be summed up here:
Fewest points by home team in playoff game in last 10 postseasons:— Nick Mathews (@Nick_Mathews) January 6, 2019
2015 wild card - Texans 0 (KC)
2018 wild card - Texans 7 (Indy)
Both coached by Bill O’Brien. You know what, Bill, I think you’re right. It is on you.
O'Brien is already on shaky ground with much of the fan base, and now he's sitting on a postseason record of 1-3, with the three losses by scores of 30-0, 34-16, and 21-7, with two of those at home. This is not how you win hearts and minds of people.
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This is a huge offseason for O'Brien and for Brian Gaine. The narrative on this team will be that, yes, it was a disappointing loss to the Colts, but they have their franchise quarterback, and they get some pieces back from injury next season (well, really, Will Fuller, and that's about it). The trajectory will be painted as a green arrow pointed upward, and the draft and free agency should help (stress SHOULD — no more Aaron Colvin signings, Brian!). The reality is that, if this secondary doesn't get fixed and fixed fast, there is a storm brewing in 2019 that will make Andrew Luck's three game aerial circus against the Texans feel like a Swedish massage.
The Texans will face Luck again twice in 2019, but also on the schedule are Pat Mahomes, Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, and Cam Newton, all of whom are former MVP's, soon to be current MVP's, and perennial MVP candidates. Hell, the lower rung QB's on 2019's schedule are guys like Derek Carr, Lamar Jackson, Jameis Winston, and Marcus Mariota. Any of THOSE guys would have easily been in the upper half of QB's the Texans faced in 2018.
Indeed, the ending to the 2018 season was a major disappointment, but the storm clouds may just be rolling in for O'Brien.
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.