NFL Week 5: Texans-Vikings — Four Things to Watch For

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We are now one full game and more than a week removed from the announcement that J.J. Watt would be done for the 2016 season, so for now, we've all officially moved on (I hope...if you haven't, do it, please. J.J. would want it that way.).

So with a 3-1 record and a two-game lead on everyone in the AFC South, the Texans can now fully focus on the matter at hand without the smattering of life-without-J.J. questions. They are off limits until the season is over, and that's a good thing, because the matter at hand this weekend is for Bill O'Brien to do something that, save the Cincinnati Monday night game last season, he's been deficient in accomplishing in his time as head coach of the Texans — beating superior teams in road games. 

Here are O'Brien's road wins as head coach of the Texans (hat tip to my producer Matt Hammond for running the query on pro-football-reference.com):

2014, Week 2: at Oakland, 30-14
2014, Week 8: at Tennessee, 30-16
2014, Week 11: at Cleveland, 23-7
2014, Week 14: at Jacksonville, 27-13
2015, Week 6: at Jacksonville, 31-20
2015, Week 10: at Cincinnati, 10-6
2015. Week 15: at Indianapolis, 16-10
2015, Week 16: at Tennessee, 34-6

Those are eight wins over Zach Mettenberger (twice), Derek Carr (in his second game as a pro), Brian Hoyer (yay!), Blake Bortles (twice), Matt Hasselbeck (age 40) and Andy Dalton (who the Texans own). Other than the win over Cincy, who was undefeated at the time, nothing really impressive. All the other teams wound up at or below .500 for the season, many significantly so. 

Now, here are O'Brien's nine losses on the road as a head coach:

2014, Week 3: at New York Giants, 30-17
2014, Week 5: at Dallas, 20-17 (OT)
2014, Week 7: at Pittsburgh 30-23
2014, Week 15: at Indianapolis, 17-10
2015, Week 2: at Carolina, 24-17
2015, Week 4: at Atlanta, 48-21
2015, Week 7: at Miami, 44-26
2015, Week 13: at Buffalo, 30-21
2016, Week 3: at New England, 27-0

That résumé is a mix of eventual playoff teams and teams the Texans caught on the wrong Sundays, but probably the most disturbing thing is how embarrassing some of these losses were — the Monday night debacle in Pittsburgh, where they gave up 21 points in the last two minutes of the half, the Atlanta and Miami games, where they were run out of the building by halftime, and last Thursday's New England fiasco. 

In their last seven losses overall, including the playoffs, the Texans have been outscored 233-94, an average score of 33-13. They trailed at the half in those seven games by a combined score of 143-29. In other words, when the ball has started rolling downhill on the Texans, even after their wretched 2-5 start last season, it has buried them. They have a hard time pulling the plane out of a nosedive.

That is really scary, considering the Minnesota Vikings come into Sunday's game with the third-rated defense in football by Football Outsiders' DVOA measurement and a +10 turnover margin, nails on a chalkboard to an offense and QB that have had a difficult time protecting the football (six picks for Brock Osweiler). So what needs to happen for the game in Minnesota this Sunday afternoon to be the Texans' exception rather than their rule?

Let's examine...

4. Offensive line (likely under siege)
The Houston offense, according to Football Outsiders, is the worst in the NFL (30th rush, 31st pass, 32nd overall). The issues stem, in large part, from an offensive line that's had issues keeping the pocket comfortable for Brock Osweiler and, more than that, opening holes for Lamar Miller. Now here come the Vikings, who have 15 sacks on the season. Left tackle Duane Brown expects to play on Sunday after rehabbing all the way back from a nasty quad tear in Week 17 last season. Honestly, if you say you know what to expect from Brown, you're guessing, if not lying. I'm most intrigued to see a) what kind of game shape Brown is in (mostly because a rusty Brown could get Brock Osweiler killed by an edge rusher), and b) how they handle him from a snap count standpoint. It goes without saying that it will be hard for the Texans to score in this game, and if they're fortunate enough to get a lead, it'll be hard to grind out the clock in the fourth quarter and sustain drives. This Viking defense is just so good. 

3. Will Fuller, punt returner cheat code
On Wednesday, wide receiver Will Fuller picked up the most efficient piece of weekly hardware in NFL history, riding his one punt return for a 67-yard touchdown in the Titans game to an AFC Special Teams Player of the Week award: 

That was Fuller's only play on special teams in the entire game. In a game like Sunday's, it would be wise to seek out other opportunities to get Fuller's speed on the field returning punts or kicks since the Texans may need a big play on special teams to find a way to win. 

2. A.J. Bouye, tight end-stopping ninja
With Watt out for the season, the title of "Best Texans Defensive Player" for 2016 is wide open, four games into the season. Whitney Mercilus has already won a Defensive Player of the Week award. Vince Wilfork has turned back the clock. Bernardrick McKinney has taken a huge leap forward. But the best position group has undoubtedly been the secondary, and crazy as it sounds, the best player in that group has been cornerback A.J. Bouye, who has nearly as many passes broken up (four) as he has completions allowed (six) on the season. He's also found a key niche as a defender O'Brien and Romeo Crennel can use one on one against tight ends, as Bouye has had his best games covering Travis Kelce and Delanie Walker. Vikings TE Kyle Rudolph comes into this game with touchdown catches in his past three games, and brings a size and strength dimension that will be a tough matchup for Bouye. 

1. Brock Osweiler, promise keeper (hopefully)
Brock Osweiler has thrown six interceptions this season, and it seems like after each game (he's thrown at least one pick in every game so far), he literally says the words "I promise to eliminate these mistakes." He needs to stop doing this. All it does is serve to magnify the problems when they don't get fixed. He needs to realize that sane people know he won't be perfect, and that eliminating mistakes altogether is unrealistic. Now, being accountable for and reducing mistakes? Very doable. So just do that, Brock. And start doing it this Sunday in Minnesota. Honestly, this is a pretty winnable game if Osweiler protects the football and keeps from missing on easy throws (accuracy's been an issue the past of couple games), and when a drive ends without points, better it end with a Shane Lechler punt than a Minnesota pick.

The Vikings are far from an offensive juggernaut, and their strengths match up well with the Texans' strengths defensively. (The Vikings are 32nd in rushing DVOA.) In fact, if you need a YouTube metaphor for what this game is going to look like, here you go....

Total Junk Juice game...

Prediction: Vikings 16, Texans 9 
Spread: Texans -6 
Season Record (SU, ATS): 3-1, 3-1

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.  

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