The Houston Texans went to bed on Saturday night as winners over the Oakland Raiders, but not entirely sure who their opponent would be in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs next weekend. Their destination would depend on the outcome of Miami playing Pittsburgh in Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon, admittedly a bit of a foregone conclusion, with the Steelers favored by 11.5 points at kickoff.
Sure enough, the Steelers mopped the turf with the Dolphins by a score of 30-12, and thus the Texans would travel to New England to take on the 14-2, top seeded Patriots. Once the Steelers-Dolphins game was in the books, I was asked by several listeners and colleagues, "What do you think the spread will be on the Texans-Patriots?" (I am the go-to for literally thousands of people on the topic of degenerate wagering. It's great to be loved!)
My answer was multilayered, since betting spreads are a fluid, nuanced thing:
1. It would not open below two touchdowns. If it opened at Patriots -13.5, the sports books would get bludgeoned with early Pats betting.
2. It would probably open around Pats -14.5, and slowly go up.
3. I could see it getting to Pats -17.5 before any significant Texans action began to roll in.
Sure enough, depending on where you look, the spread on the game opened anywhere from Pats -14.5 to -15.5, and it seems to have settled in, as of Monday afternoon, at around Pats -16. (Word is that the MGM was offering a more aggressive 17-point spread to try to get some Texans action.) Once the opening lines were hastily adjusted to reflect all of the market's confidence in New England, the next question I got from my degenerate compadres out there was "Is this the biggest spread in postseason history?"
Great question! Since the postseason is, by definition, the upper crust of the NFL, you would think that double-digit spreads would be few and far between. Here's the thing — they are. But this Texans team is an extreme outlier when it comes to teams that manage to win a playoff game and stay standing into the round of eight teams.
In short, offensively, the Texans are a tandem bicycle operating in a league of Ferraris. Their quarterback is the 29th-rated QB in the league, and that rating looks generous if you've watched him all season. And while the Texans' defense has been otherworldly for most of the year, defense doesn't drive radical betting spreads. Tom Brady does! Ask Denver, which had the best defense in the league last season, and yet was a three-point underdog AT HOME in the AFC title game against New England last postseason.
So, to answer the original question about this 16-point spread up against history, here's that answer, and the answer to a few more questions you may have about the magnitude of the perception-chasm between these two teams:
So, Patriots -16, where does that stack up against other postseason spreads?
Well, according to handicapping expert R.J. Bell of pregame.com, who was a guest on my nationally syndicated Sunday night radio show on CBS Sports Radio, this 16-point spread is the largest for any postseason game since divisional realignment in 2002, coincidentally the Texans' first season in existence. As for the remainder of history, according to pro-football-reference.com, there have been three other instances of spreads 16 points or greater:
* In the 1998-99 postseason the Jake Plummer-led Arizona Cardinals upset the Dallas Cowboys in the wild card round, and then went to Minnesota to take on a 15-1 Vikings team led by Randall Cunningham and a rookie named Randy Moss. The Cardinals were 16.5 point underdogs and lost by 20.
* In the most famous upset in the history of the NFL, the New York Jets were 18 point underdogs to the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. Jets QB Joe Namath famously called his shot, and the Jets upset the Colts by a score of 16-7.
* Finally, in the largest spread in NFL playoff history, the San Diego Chargers (led by Stan Humphries!) were 19 point underdogs to the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIX. The 49ers, behind six Steve Young touchdown passes, won by a score of 49-26.
The Texans played the Patriots back in September, and it sure as hell wasn't a 16-point spread...what's changed?
Indeed, the Texans played the Patriots on a Thursday night in Week 3, and that line hovered anywhere from Texans -2 to the closing line of Patriots -1. (It was a PICK EM in some books, too.) Yes, there was a time a few months ago that the Texans were FAVORED to beat the Patriots in New England! As we all know, the Patriots, quarterbacked by rookie Jacoby Brissett (with Brady serving his four-game Deflate-Gate suspension), shut out the Texans 27-0. So why the swing of nearly two touchdowns? Well, a huge chunk of that is that return of Tom Brady, who is probably worth six to seven points more than Brissett to the Pats, on a wagering basis. Beyond that, the remaining touchdown or so is a combination of a full season of (largely ugly) data on Osweiler, the Texans' penchant to get rolled in these types of situations (road game, at night, great opponent), and the focus that the playoffs bring to elite teams versus the ebb and flow of a 16-game regular season.
So wait, the Jets were a 17-point underdog to the Pats on Christmas Eve, and now the Texans are basically the same degree of dog three weeks later....why are the Texans being treated like the Jets?
I asked this same question to R.J. Bell when we discussed these lines on Sunday, and that's where he brought up the aforementioned "playoff focus:"
"In the regular season, the motivation of a heavy favorite isn't to win the game by 20 or 30. It's just to get out with the win. There are 'lookahead spots' and 'flat spots' with the week-to-week schedule. This is the playoffs. New England is three games from another Super Bowl championship. You know we are going to get 100 percent focus."
Where does this spread stack up against other spreads in Texans history?
According to covers.com, the Texans have been underdogs of 14 points or more four times in the team's history. All four times were in either their inaugural season in 2002 or the horrific 2-14 season in 2005:
2002, Week 4: +19 @ Philadelphia (PHI, 35-17)
2002, Week 14: +14 @ Pittsburgh (HOU, 24-6)
2005, Week 7: +14.5 vs Indianapolis (IND, 38-20)
2005, Week 10: +17.5 @ Indianapolis (IND, 31-17)
So the Texans historically are 3-1 against the spread when catching 14 or more points as an underdog. Hey, it's something!
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The last time the Texans played in a game as an underdog of greater than 10 points? Ironically, the opponent was the New England Patriots, the game was in New England and the Texans got throttled as 13-point underdogs by a score of 40-7 in Week 15 of the 2006 season. (If you're having Pavlovian nausea, perhaps it's because your body recalls David Carr's four interceptions that day.) It's remarkable that the Texans haven't been an underdog of more than ten points in more than a decade, when you consider that they've fielded some mediocre to bad teams in that timeframe, including a 2-14 outfit in 2013.
Finally, what's the largest spread a Texans team has faced during the Bill O'Brien era? Well, it was the one and only time, before this week, that an O'Brien-coached team has been a double-digit underdog — the Monday night game following the bye week in 2015 at Cincinnati. The Texans were a ten point underdog. They won that game, 10-6.
So if you're clinging to any shred of positive history, just know that Bill O'Brien as a head coach is undefeated straight up AND against the spread as a double-digit underdog. Yes, the record is 1-0, but at this point, we will take anything!
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.