It's getting down to it in this 2018 NFL season. It seems like just yesterday, the weather was sweltering outside, and everyone wanted Bill O'Brien's head on a spit after the Texans 0-3 start. Now, the calendar flips over to December, and we are vetting various playoff scenarios for the Texans, who sit at 8-3, having won eight straight, and if the season ended today, they would be the three-seed in the AFC.
Pretty heady stuff, and for the first time all season, the belief in the Texans nationally is beginning to catch up to their record, with ESPN and NFL.com both putting the Texans in the top eight in their respective power rankings. In short, in just eight weeks, the Texans have gone from "biggest disappointment in the NFL" (at 0-3) to "luckiest team in the NFL" (at 3-3) to "lucky to be in such a crappy division" (at 6-3) to "OK, now they're on the Super Bowl radar" (where we sit right now, as you read this).
This week will be a fascinating test for just where this team stands, as the Cleveland Browns, who are much friskier than their 4-6-1 record would indicate, having won two in a row in blowout fashion, come to town. Let's examine four things to watch for this Sunday afternoon:
4. Energy level, tough spot
The Texans are coming off about as emotional a Week 12 victory as a team could have, 34-17 against a division rival who beat them earlier in the season, three days after the death of the owner of the team. If you want to re-live the energy in the building that night, then watch this video from the Texans, which deserves an award (if there is such a thing for three minute Twitter videos). It is awesome:
Monday night was for Mr. McNair. pic.twitter.com/EDtj5QntiE— Houston Texans (@HoustonTexans) November 28, 2018
So how will the Texans' energy level be on a short week of prep, as a decided favorite (the spread is Texans -7), and with a more important game lurking the following week against the Colts? This, to me, is the biggest question about Sunday's game — which Texans team shows up, the one that let the woeful Bills hang around for an entire afternoon, or the one that took the Titans to the woodshed on Monday night? For his part, Bill O'Brien has been doing EVERYTHING possible to diffuse any sense of great accomplishment with this eight game winning streak. In fact, this is a good time to pivot to the next bullet point...
3. Bill O'Brien, Coach of the Year?
O'Brien has been abundantly clear this week — the Texans may be 8-3, but they don't give out trophies for being 8-3 after 12 weeks of the season. I've spent thousands of words in this space pointing out O'Brien's mistakes and flaws when they've cost the Texans. It's only right that I point out that he's been doing more than a solid job during this winning streak. Offensively, as a play caller, he's found a happy medium on how to properly use "Deshaun Watson, the weapon" while protecting "Deshaun Watson, the franchise's only hope for a deep playoff run". (We will talk more about that in just a second.) As a game manager, O'Brien's difficulties were a weekly topic through the first month of the season. I'm not sure what's changed, if anything, with respect to their internal process, but we've gone several weeks without even mentioning poor use (or lack thereof) of timeouts or challenges. In fact, at the end of the half of the Titans game, O'Brien managed it perfectly, squeezing another three points of offense out of a situation where the Titans had first down with about 90 seconds to go in the half. At this point, O'Brien is probably a win or two away from being one of the top half dozen or so candidates for Coach of the Year. That's not a reach. This week, to accentuate my earlier point, will be a stiff test of his "team emotional management" skills, on the short week, in a game sandwiched between division games.
2. Attacking Baker
One thing O'Brien and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel have come to count on is the Texans' front seven (and secondary via blitz packages) putting immense pressure on opposing quarterbacks. As good as Baker Mayfield has been in his rookie year — he was named AFC Rookie of the Month for November — I'm guessing Crennel has a few exotic blitzes and disguised coverages loaded up for him. Against the Titans, the Texans got to QB Marcus Mariota for six sacks. Sunday, they will be going against an offensive line that has kept hits on Mayfield to literally the lowest minimum in the NFL:
QUARTERBACK HITS ALLOWED IN THE MONTH OF NOVEMBER:— Johnny Kinsley (@Brickwallblitz) November 27, 2018
NE, NYG: 14
CIN, DEN, HOU, SF: 15
ARI, CAR, JAX: 16
BUF, CHI, LAR: 18
LAC, TEN: 25
DAL, WAS: 27
NYJ, TB: 28
DET, OAK: 31
Same formula for the Texans this Sunday — shut down the run, putting the opposition in bad down and distance situations, and then let Watt and Clowney (and Mercilus and Covington and Reader) go eat.
1. Deshaun Watson, 25 is a magic number
Here are Dehsaun Watson's dropback, sack, and QB hit numbers for the first six weeks of the season:
WEEK 1: 37 dropbacks, 3 sacks, 12 QB hits
WEEK 2: 36 dropbacks, 4 sacks, 11 QB hits
WEEK 3: 43 dropbacks, 3 sacks, 11 QB hits
WEEK 4: 49 dropbacks, 7 sacks, 11 QB hits
WEEK 5: 45 dropbacks, 1 sack, 10 QB hits
WEEK 6: 32 dropbacks, 7 sacks, 15 QB hits
Here are Deshaun Watson's dropback, sack, and QB hit numbers for the next six weeks of the season:
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WEEK 7: 25 dropbacks, 1 sack, 5 QB hits
WEEK 8: 20 dropbacks, 0 sacks, 1 QB hit
WEEK 9: 28 dropbacks, 4 sacks, 4 QB hits
WEEK 10: BYE
WEEK 11: 27 dropbacks, 3 sacks, 4 QB hits
WEEK 12: 28 dropbacks, 4 sacks, 6 QB hits
No surprise that the formula for how to deploy Watson changed drastically the week that he was forced to take a bus to Jacksonville for the game, because flying would have endangered his bruised lungs. Twenty-five is the magic number — keep Watson under 25 pass attempts, keep him healthy, win the game.
SPREAD: Texans -5.5
PREDICTION: Texans 27, Browns 21
RECORD: 7-4 SU, 4-7 ATS
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.