What a difference a week and a change at quarterback can make.
A week ago, heading into their Week 15 home game with the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Houston Texans were tied for first atop the AFC South at 7-6, but the entire season (along with whatever sense of accomplishment the team felt from hanging in the division race without J.J. Watt) was adorned in caveats about how low the ceiling was for this team overall. Optimism was not high.
The ceiling for the Texans seemed to be proportionally tied to the distance their starting quarterback could throw the ball down the field with any semblance of confidence, bad news considering Brock Osweiler has struggled to average more than five yards per pass attempt this season. After another two it-was-his-fault interceptions for Osweiler on Sunday, the second one about as egregious as murder in broad daylight, Texans head coach Bill O'Brien had seen enough.
Into the game went Tom Savage, up went the hopes of the Texans faithful, and if we're all being real about all this, likely up went the hopes of Osweiler's teammates, for whom I'm guessing refraining from publicly giving up on Brock has been like holding in a sneeze.
Savage lived up to his surname, and brought the Texans back from a two-score deficit to eke out a 21-20 win. More important, he threw all of the caveats, constraints and conditions under which this team was functioning into complete upheaval. The next two weeks should be fun, and it begins Saturday night in a Christmas Eve game with the Cincinnati Bengals, a team the Texans have had good success against since 2011 (4-1, including playoffs).
Let's look at a few things to watch for on Saturday night...
4. The scoreboard
Truth be told, any scoreboard watching done by Texans fans or the Texans themselves will be finished on Saturday by the time the game kicks off. The Texans and the Bengals have the stage to themselves on Saturday night, with a nearly full slate of games taking place during the day, including the Titans and Jaguars playing in Jacksonville, noon kickoff our time. This is the game that has the clearest, most profound impact on the Texans' postseason fortunes. Simply put, if the Titans win on Saturday afternoon, then the game in Nashville next weekend is for the AFC South title. For purposes of the division title, a Titans win makes a Texans win over the Bengals worthless. Now, there are a couple of extreme scenarios in place, along with one more subjective aspect, that make the Bengals game meaningful for the Texans regardless of the Titans-Jags outcome:
1. There is still a scenario in which a 9-7 Texans team that loses to the Titans in Week 17 could nab the last wild card spot in the AFC — it would require the 9-5 Dolphins (@ BUF, vs NE), 8-6 Ravens (@ PIT, @ CIN) and 8-6 Broncos (@KC, vs OAK) to each lose both of their final two games. As big a long shot as that sounds like, I do think that the Dolphins, Ravens and Broncos will be underdogs in all six of those games, for what it's worth.
2. There is still a scenario under which a 10-6 Texans team could be the No. 3 seed in the AFC against a 10-6 Steelers team. (The tiebreaker would come down to strength of victory!) The difference between the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds in the AFC — the difference being the avoiding of the AFC West runner-up in the first round and the Patriots in the second round — is substantial.
3. As big of a home makeover as the Texans are doing offensively — changing starting quarterbacks in Week 16! — creating momentum and continuity is essential, at least on that side of the ball. I could see a Titans win making O'Brien pause on using a damaged player who would play in a more meaningful game, but make no mistake, most of the Houston Texans you're expecting to see will play either way Saturday night.
3. Andy Dalton
In a career in which he's piled up some impressive regular-season numbers, Andy Dalton has seen some of his most ignominious moments against the Houston Texans. There was the playoff loss in 2011 (J.J. Watt... PICK SIX!), the playoff loss in 2012 (Matt Schaub beat you, bro!) and the Monday night loss in 2015 where J.J. Watt got this TOTAL BURN ON DALTON AFTER THE GAME....
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2. Tom Savage, Chapter 2
Did the air seem fresher this week? Did food taste better? How was the sex? EVERYTHING was better, right? Yes, THAT'S what happens when your hometown team benches a quarterback who's played like a nervous second grader all season, and replaces him with someone who can at least play like a calm sixth grader. I am legitimately intrigued by Tom Savage. More intrigued by him than any of the seven quarterbacks who have started games while he's been in the building (except Osweiler, for obvious reasons). By the way, this is the third straight Week 16 in which Bill O'Brien is starting a quarterback who is making his first start as a Texan.
1. Jadeveon Clowney, Pro Bowler
I will admit, I was mildly surprised earlier this week when Jadeveon Clowney was named to his first career Pro Bowl, not because I don't think he deserved it, but because the things he was doing TO DESERVE IT — being stout in the run game, pressuring QBs but not really sacking them, general disruption and drawing of attention — are not really "box score" things that the lazy process of Pro Bowl selection lends itself to. Good for the voting constituency in getting it right, and good for Clowney in coming all the way back from microfracture surgery to become a force. Now he must continue building on weeks 14 and 15. If the Texans are going to accomplish anything significant over the next month, he must become a poor man's version of what Watt had become for this defense from 2012 through 2015.
Prediction: Texans 19, Bengals 16
Spread: Texans -2.5
Season record (SU, ATS): 10-4, 9-4-1
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.