It's Friday morning, and I can't put it any more simply than this — this time next week, after the Thursday night game in New England, the narrative will be drying like a coat of paint on the Houston Texans' 2016 season. We will THINK we have a pretty good idea of what this team is. Indeed, it's early in the season, but that five-day period, from this Sunday through next Thursday, is ridiculously crucial, from both a perception and an actual mathematical/standings standpoint.
If you're listing the Texans' most perplexing nemeses over the past few years, it's hard to argue that their next two opponents — the Kansas City Chiefs and the New England Patriots — aren't the two at the top of the list, especially now that the Texans have cracked the "win in Indy" code. The issues with the Patriots date back to the Kubiak era, but this Chiefs issue is a much more recent, acute problem.
Twice in the past 13 months the Chiefs have come to NRG Stadium, and twice the Chiefs have taken the Texans to the woodshed, most recently in the soul-crushing 30-0 playoff loss last January. Brian Hoyer's five turnovers basically provided the Chiefs with the football equivalent of complimentary room service, but also served to heighten the urgency with which the Texans attacked the offseason, an urgency that led to Brock Osweiler's arrival as the savior QB.
So this Sunday, for the third time in about a year, the Chiefs come to town. Perhaps the third time is the charm and this isn't the Texans' third strike. Here are a few things to watch for on Sunday...
4. Max Bullough
Sometimes, the football gods just won't let us have certain nice things, and after watching Brian Cushing regain his form of five years ago this preseason, only to see him sprain his knee on literally the first defensive play of the 2016 regular season, I'm convinced that's the case with Texans fans and Cushing. It sounds like he will be out for the next several weeks, and now Cushing's inside linebacker spot will be manned by Max Bullough, the former undrafted free agent, who's managed to stick with the team on the strength of his guts, guile and special teams play. Fortunately, with so many plus players on this defense, masking any deficiencies Bullough has in his game should be very doable. Specifically with the Chiefs, it will be interesting to see how head coach Andy Reid attacks the Texans with screen passes to the running backs and with tight end Travis Kelce. Last year, in the season opener, Kelce had a huge game, and last week against the Chargers, running back Spencer Ware had more than 100 receiving yards.
3. End of half... end of game...
different Generally speaking, the two head coaches in this game are pretty well respected. Andy Reid had enough pelts on the wall from his time in Philly to quickly get hired again in Kansas City, and he's done a nice job with Alex Smith as his QB. Bill O'Brien is a personality different from Reid, but his work with quarterbacks has been remarkable, including Brock Osweiler's quick grasp of the playbook thus far as a Texan. However, if there's one "blind spot" for both of these coaches, it's game management in end-of-half/game situations, including usage (or, sometimes, lack thereof) of timeouts. O'Brien's decisions in this area were under heavy fire last season during the 2-5 start, and Reid's decision-making in this area is so bad, its pitifulness is just accepted now the same way we accept these thunderstorms that happen at about 3:30 every afternoon here in Houston. Ho-hum. In a game with a Vegas spread that's under a field goal, the "game management" chess game should come into play. Perhaps O'Brien isn't playing checkers. (Perhaps Reid is playing Candy Land.)
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2. Alex Smith's underrated athleticism
It feels weird to think that we are in Year 12 of Alex Smith in the NFL, and one of the oddest career arcs for a QB in NFL history — a No. 1 overall pick who appeared to be a bust, was resurrected and then discarded by Jim Harbaugh, and then resurrected again by Reid. He's probably settled in right about where he should be, a firm seat at the back end of Tier Two of NFL QBs. One thing that Smith has always been able to do, though, is use his legs. A big reason he was drafted so high back in the day was his athleticism. He ran Urban Meyer's offense at Utah, and Urban doesn't deploy cement-footed signal callers. He's older now, but last season, Smith was able to hurt the Texans, at times, on the move, and last week against the Chargers, he ran some option during the Chiefs' comeback. The Texans will need to keep Smith in the pocket on Sunday, which means pressure and discipline from Whitney Mercilus, John Simon and Jadeveon Clowney...oh, and that Watt fellow.
1. Offensive progress
Against the Bears, the Texans only averaged 3.7 yards per carry on the ground, a not entirely unexpected (but still underwhelming) number. However, that number was cobbled together in almost its entirety with a number of short, pile-moving, grinding runs up the middle by Lamar Miller that kept the Texans ahead of the chains for nearly the entire afternoon and greatly contributed to their going 12 for 20 on third downs. (Fifteen of their 20 third downs were 3rd and 7 or shorter.) In other words, this was an ACCEPTABLE 3.7 yards per carry day! Bill O'Brien pointed that out in the postgame, that while it wasn't pretty, the line of scrimmage was moving forward all day, and that allowed the Texans to keep the chains and, late in the game, the clock moving. To that end, Miller had only one negative running play all afternoon, a draw play on which he recovered his own fumble in the backfield. That was all well and good against the Bears, but against the Chiefs, the Texans may need more out of their running game. They didn't sign Lamar Miller to be a hedgehog-style grinder; they signed him for his big-play ability. In this game, the long play on the ground can't be a 12-yard "give up" draw play on third and forever, as it was against the Bears. My guess is the increased attention Will Fuller will get should open some space for some other part of the offense to thrive, either Miller on the ground or Braxton Miller and Stephen Anderson working the middle of the field.
PREDICTION: Texans 23, Chiefs 20
LINE: Texans -2.5
SEASON RECORD (SU, ATS): 1-0, 1-0
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.