So I get to write this reminder one last time this week before this divisional round playoff game between the Houston Texans and the New England Patriots becomes a reality — the Texans are a more than two-touchdown underdog in this game, and saying this is an historic uphill climb they face is no exaggeration. They're one of the four or five biggest underdogs in NFL playoff history.
(Checks wagering app on smartphone to see what the latest spread is...where is it here...Texans, Texans, Texans...ah, THERE IT IS!)
Texans +15.5. (Or Patriots -15.5, if you choose to view it from that side.)
So in analyzing a game like this, there are certain things we should accept as givens, things we absolutely can't count on (knowing full well that some crazy, outlandish, "WHAT IN THE BLUE HELL JUST HAPPENED?!" things will NEED to happen in order for the Texans to pull off the upset). Let me just say that I think the Texans keep the game inside the number. I was not ready to be on that side of the bet when the number came out, but it's a gut feeling based on how they've played defense over the second half of the season. So, there ya go.
However, I think the biggest thing they'll need in order to WIN the game is the exact thing they can least count on — Tom Brady mistakes. It took the Patriots until the ninth game of the season (four games of backup QBs, five games of Brady) to throw a pick, and for as good as the Texans defense has been, they're one of the least effective defenses in terms of turning over the opposition (23rd in turnover margin), and the worst of the remaining playoff teams (Seattle is closest at 15th; New England is 3rd).
So if the Texans are going to win this thing, what do they NEED to have happen? Well, here are four (from a list that could admittedly be about ten times longer, but I don't think the Houston Press will pay me ten times as much to list all of them, so take your four and run along):
4. Play splits
It sounds basic and obvious to say "less of Brock Osweiler and more of Lamar Miller is a good thing," but it really hits home when I put some numbers behind it for you. Brock Osweiler threw the ball 40 times or more four times this season — the Texans were 0-4 in those four games (NE, MIN, DEN, TEN). Meanwhile, in the nine wins that he played in, Lamar Miller averaged 22 carries, and they were 4-1 the five times he went for 24 or more carries. The play splits in the wild card game were EXACTLY what the Texans need in order to win a game — 25 passes, 44 runs. A low-scoring game in which they win time of possession by about ten minutes is the ONLY way they win a game like this.
3. Return game
Another thing that we must accept as a practical given is that the Texans will be abysmal in the red zone, assuming they get to the red zone a few times. In other words, they will need some huge "chunk" plays in order to win this game. I don't know that they'll come defensively, since we just said we can't count on Brady mistakes, and fumbles are sort of random, so the return game is one gray area. I said this on Extra Points on Channel 13 — I would have Will Fuller returning kickoffs and punts in this game. He is proven to be capable in that area (at least with punts, and I think he'd be fine on kickoffs, too), and he is easily your most explosive player. You have to go outside the box, and Fuller's returning kicks and punts is an "all hands on deck" move that a big underdog should implement in order to pull off the upset.
2. Threes not sevens
While Brady probably isn't going to make a backbreaking mistake in turning the ball over, it is possible for him to make some smaller mistakes that keep the Texans hanging around. The Texans will try to force him to string a bunch of plays together to get into the end zone (like they do with every team), and he is going to move the ball, at times. He is Tom Brady, for God sakes. However, tightening up in the red zone, executing your coverages down there, tackling in space, those things will be critically important when the Patriots get into scoring position. Holding them to field goals on all but one trip into the red zone (you get ONE mulligan, Romeo!) must happen in order to pull this off.
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1. Jadeveon Clowney
Clowney has been the best player on the field in the last four games he's played in. Last Saturday, against Oakland, he had the most emphatic one tackle game that I've ever seen an NFL player pull off. He will need to be the best player on the field again this Saturday for the Texans to win. This is nonnegotiable. The Patriots absolutely must be operating for a reasonable chunk of the game in bad down and distance situations, and Clowney — both defending the run and with the occasional sack — is the trigger for that. If he's ever single blocked, he has to make a play. If he gets a good look at Brady, especially EARLY in the game, he has to not only hit him; he has to DRILL him. Forcing a turnover, something he's done a couple of times now singlehandedly over the past month, would really, really help. J.J. Watt made his announcement to the world that he'd arrived with an eye-popping 2011 postseason. This needs to be Clowney's "I'm here to show the world" moment. It's the only way.
And even if all of this stuff happens, it still may not be enough. I think the Texans hang around, but Brady puts together a "dagger" drive in the fourth quarter, and the Texans go down in a respectable manner...
Prediction: Patriots 24, Texans 13
Spread: Patriots -15.5
Season record (SU, ATS): 12-5, 10-6-1
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.