If you dig one layer below the final score, the box score will never be pretty with this Houston Texans team. (And seven times this season, the "final score" part has been ugly, too.) It's just the way it is.
When you have a quarterback that you're having to manage like a grade schooler, and a head coach whose mentality in the second half of games with a lead can best be described as "let's get the hell outta here!" that's how it's gonna go. That's how Lamar Miller has 31 carries for 73 yards in a win. That's how your quarterback throws for 168 yards in a win. That's how you punt NINE times in a game where you score 27 points in a win.
Because the fact of the matter with the 2016 Houston Texans is this — if they gain around 300 yards in total offense (291 yards on Saturday night) and don't turn the ball over, their defense is great enough to carry them to a win over about 90 percent of the teams in the NFL. The Oakland Raiders, with a rookie (Connor Cook) making his first start at quarterback, are in that 90 percent and found this out on Saturday at NRG Stadium, as the Texans got their first postseason win since January 2013 by a score of 27-14.
For as often as we discuss Texans head coach Bill O'Brien's game management gaffes in this space, he is self-aware enough about what his team can and, more important, CAN'T do offensively to keep them out of harm's way when they get up on a team. As boring as it may be to watch predictable series of play calling that go run-run-pass, run-run-pass, and sometimes even run-run-run, there's a reason O'Brien's teams are now 19-0 when leading at halftime in his three seasons — O'Brien knows when to turn the music off and close the bar.
"Last call" on Saturday came early in the second half. The Texans were never coughing up a 20-7 halftime lead, not to these Raiders, not with this defense. The problem now for the Texans is that the team they play next week is in that "other 10 percent." They'll need more than 300 yards in total offense, or something otherworldly on defense and special teams, in order to win.
But for now, savor the win, Texans fan. The Houston Texans are one of eight teams still standing. Now for a few winners and losers...
4. Shane Lechler
I don't know that we've recognized Lechler in this space all season, but it's worth doing here. On a special teams unit that has been shoddy, at best, throughout the season, Lechler, at the approximate age of 97, has been a shining bright spot. He punted nine times yesterday, but there are three in particular to point out:
* 1st quarter, 30-yard punt, fair caught OAK 7 — I thought the Texans should have gone for it on fourth down here on their opening drive, but Lechler's punt pinned Connor Cook deep early. One Raider three-and-out-and-punt later, the Texans needed only eight yards of offense to get into range for Nick Novak to get them their first three points of the game.
* 3rd quarter, 56-yard punt, swinging field position 52 yards — the Texans were punting here from their own 10 yard line, up 20-7. The Raiders were hanging around, and this was a massive swing in field position. The defense forced a three and out on the next series and steadied the game for the Texans.
* 4th quarter, 55-yard punt, one-yard return — on the series following the Raiders' second TD, cutting it to 27-14, the Texans went three and out at their own 27 yard line. You could sense Oakland's last gasp getting some life. Then Lechler booted a 55-yard punt to set the Raiders all the way back at their own 19 yard line. Six plays later, Corey Moore's interception pretty much ended the game.
3. Jadeveon Clowney
Was this the most dominant one-tackle game a defensive end has ever had in the post season? (Man, does that feel like a really fabricated "First Take" question or what?) Clowney had only one tackle, but he was disrupting the pocket all day long (two registered QB hits), had the interception to set up the first TD, and was drawing double teams from about the first quarter on, which allowed Whitney Mercilus (two sacks) and others to go to work. Clowney is becoming a superstar right before our very eyes. His last month of the season looks eerily similar to the last month of J.J. Watt's rookie season, up to and including interceptions in home playoff games.
2. A.J. Bouye
Bouye's game-sealing interception to give Brock Osweiler the chance to kneel on the ball at the end was a solid symbol of what he's meant to that secondary all season. Oddly enough, with Kevin Johnson out for the year, Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson are the two solid-but-at-times-shaky second and third corners, and Bouye has become the shutdown guy. The Texans can worry about this after the playoff run has ended, but their priority list after the season has to have signing Bouye at or near the top. Even with just a one-season body of work at THIS level of play, at a position where GMs get a little nutty with the cash, he is going to command big money.
1. Brock Osweiler
As if the guy who is getting $37 million guaranteed for being the worst starting quarterback in the NFL weren't lucky enough, it appears as though Osweiler has solidified his hold on the starting job once again, just three weeks after losing it to Tom Savage. At this point in the season, you have to put aside Osweiler's salary as a talking point (you can reprise it in the offseason), and focus on what this team needs from him in order to win a road playoff game — protect the football, first and foremost. Unfortunately, we've found out that there are only certain throws Osweiler can make with any degree of proficiency (anything requiring touch, forget about it), so you call those plays, implore him not to do anything stupid, and hope your defense and running game can do the rest. That's it. This team WILL need to draft a quarterback in the first two rounds this offseason, without question, because Brock Osweiler will never, ever, ever be an above-average starter in the league, but that's a worry for, likely, about eight days from now.
4. Connor Cook
Man, talk about being fed to the wolves. We all know Cook's draft story from last year — after essentially being branded an asshole by every scout, draft expert and media member because he wasn't voted captain of his college team at Michigan State, Cook fell to the fourth round (35 picks BEFORE Dak Prescott, in case the entire NFL wants to kick itself in the nuts again). Saturday night was his first start, subbing for injured starter Derek Carr and injured second stringer Matt McGloin. It was predictably ugly. Eighteen of 45 for 161 yards (3.6 yards per attempt!), THREE picks and a microscopic 5.5 QBR. We hope Cook stayed "in character" by being a jerk to all of his teammates and kicking a few puppy dogs on his way out of the stadium.
3. Tyler Ervin
If there is one Texans rookie who is ready for the football calendar to flip — truthfully, there are probably several — it's Ervin. He's been pretty much handed the kickoff and punt return jobs, and has done nothing with them. He's had more negative plays than positive plays (New England fumble, anyone?), and on Saturday, he had the most hard-luck sequence of his rookie season. In the third quarter, Ervin returned a Marquette King punt for a touchdown that would have given the Texans a three-score lead. Only one problem — Whitney Mercilus ran into the punter and got flagged for a five yard penalty. So the Raiders punted again. This time the ball bounced off Ervin's face (his second muffed punt of the game) and was luckily scooped up by Eddie Pleasant. The Texans, quite simply, cannot afford to have Ervin on the field next weekend. He is too mistake prone for the nonexistent upside he brings.
2. This Cowboy fan (who looks a little like me)
For anyone who hates the fact that the Cowboys are 13-3 this season...
1. O'Brien buzz extinguisher
Okay, so we've made it this far, and haven't discussed the biggest Texans story of the weekend not involving a final score — the continued smoke swirling around Bill O'Brien's future as Texans head coach. To recap, FOX's Jay Glazer tweeted this last week before the Tennessee game...
Surprise opening could be Texans, if they lose early in playoffs I can see O'Brien/team agreeing to part ways -- good candidate on market— Jay Glazer (@JayGlazer) January 1, 2017
And then on Saturday morning, Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network posted an article that said this:
While the Texans face the Raiders today in a playoff game at 4:35 p.m. ET, six teams are engaged in a competition to find a new head coach.
And many of them appear to be waiting on the future of Houston coach Bill O'Brien, according to several sources.
The third-year Texans coach has won the AFC South two years in a row — with a revolving door at quarterback — and is searching for his first playoff win today. But there is a real chance, based on several factors, that he will be coaching another team next year.
If that happens, O'Brien may soar to the top of the list.
For their part, O'Brien and Bob McNair were both asked about it after the game on Saturday. O'Brien deferred to the two years remaining on his contract, while McNair said there's no way O'Brien was getting fired. While both answers kept a focus on the here and now (i.e., playoff football), neither addressed O'Brien's overall happiness in Houston. That's still a variable here. Rick Smith ain't goin' anywhere, kids.
I think the more germane question to all of this is "Do we believe O'Brien would be as highly sought after as Glazer's and Rapoport's reports would indicate?" I do think that, via his agent, O'Brien probably has a fair grasp on what the owners of the teams with the six head coaching openings think of him, so maybe this smoke, likely agent-generated, has some leverage behind it.
O'Brien is an interesting test case because you can make firm arguments both for and against his status of "hot candidate" (or even "moderately desirable candidate"). Spun one way, his three straight 9-7 seasons with sludge and grime at quarterback are indicative of solid crisis management chops, if nothing else, and he's hired a good to great staff in most areas. That matters, too. Players seem to like him and play hard for him. That's the good.
Now the bad — the one area of his staff that has failed has been the part he's most in tune with, namely, offensive coordinator George Godsey and anybody having anything to do with overall offensive output. An offensive "guru" going from 21st to 24th to 31st in offensive DVOA is a horrible look, any way you slice it. Also, O'Brien remains one of the most suspect game managers in the league, with no apparent grasp on the value of timeouts, challenges and when to use them. Play calling is an issue, too, although calling plays with Brock Osweiler as your quarterback is a little like trying to walk a balance beam with vertigo.
At any rate, O'Brien's future and job satisfaction will be one of several fascinating Texans story lines this offseason. For now, there is still playoff football...as O'Brien would say, SEE YA TUESDAY!
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.
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