The 24-hour period from kickoff of the Texans's 26-23 win over the Colts last Sunday through the following evening (a couple hours after I got off the air for my Monday afternoon show on SportsRadio 610) was one of the strangest periods of Texans football consumption that I can remember in my decade of covering the team.
On the surface, here's what happened last Sunday — the Texans maintained their one-game lead in the AFC South with one of the most exciting wins and biggest comebacks in franchise history, with their huge free agent acquisition at quarterback pitching a near perfect fourth quarter and overtime, and getting the duke over their arch nemesis QB, who'd won five starts in a row against the Texans. Hell, if you bought the half a point down to -2.5, the Texans even covered the spread for you!
That SEEMS like a pretty good Sunday night, right?
Yet afterwards, much of the talk was about what Osweiler did to put the Texans in a 23-9 hole than what he did to actually dig them out of it. I was guilty of it, too, citing how some of the big chunk plays against the Colts have zero chance of replication against the Broncos because Indy's defensive mistakes were SO bad. (Solid analysis by me, I know.)
So let's lead into the preview of this Broncos game with a look at the ultimate dashboard of where a team sits — the actual STANDINGS. If the 2016 season ended after Week 6, the playoff picture in the AFC would have gone as follows:
1. New England
Yes, for all the times where we think "Damn, it'd be nice to have J.J. Watt," and all the overt attempts by Jason La Canfora to torpedo the Texans from a lawn chair in Baltimore, and all the Osweiler interceptions (eight total!), the Texans would have a bye in the first round of the playoffs after six weeks of football. Considering where they were after six weeks of football in 2015 — 2-4 and six days away from getting massacred in Miami — this is progress.
Now, if they pull off the upset tonight in Denver, we go from progress to "I'm feelin' somethin' else here, Jerry!" territory...
Now, things to watch for tonight...
4. Brock Osweiler's homecoming
All week long — quite honestly, all season long — Osweiler has done a commendable job of saying all the right things, especially when the topic of his former employer is brought up. This week was no different. Osweiler continued to downplay the emotional aspect of this game, even though we know, from comments he made in the preseason, that he was not thrilled with his being replaced by Peyton Manning in the Broncos Week 17 win over the Chargers and the subsequent playoff run. It's hard to imagine that Brock's actual emotions will match the indifference of his words to the situation for him personally tonight. A fast start in this game, for so many reasons, is crucial, and Borkc needs to settle in QUICKLY. The Texans can't let this game snowball on them like Minnesota, New England, the playoff game last season, Miami, Atlanta... (I could keep going, but I'll stop.)
Hey along those lines...
3. Bill O'Brien
This is a really, really important game for O'Brien. He was seven minutes of fourth quarter football and overtime away from having his third season as head coach start to spin wildly out of control. Repairing what's wrong with the Texans — and make no mistake, there is still plenty — is much easier at 4-2 and in first place, than in a three way tie at 3-3. O'Brien, though, MUST find a way to get his team to believe in themselves and in him and his staff in these games against superior opponents on the road. For a guy who I sense prides himself on toughness and the toughness of his team, they've been the opposite of tough, physically and even more so mentally, in these prime time, road game matchups where the Texans step up in weight class. If Denver punches them, they need to punch back tonight. I honestly think that most of the Texans fans would be all right with dropping to 4-3, so long as they do it with some pride in a game where they trade blows as opposed to turning into a 46-man tackling dummy.
2. Lamar Miller, playmaker
There's no overstating this — Lamar Miller saved the Texans season with this catch and run in the comeback against the Colts on Sunday night:
That play was amazing, and Miller was sublime in that game. It will be much tougher sledding for Miller and the Texans ground game on Monday night, but at least this season, you feel like the Texans have enough playmakers where they can pop a few big plays to mask any deficiencies they're having in putting long drives together. We saw Will Fuller do that for them in the first two games of the season and again versus the Titans, and Miller was that guy last Sunday. Think about last season's Texans team heading into a game like tonight's — where was the offense coming from? Who were your playmakers? DeAndre Hopkins, then who? Who was the Texans next-best playmaker after D-Hop? ANSWER: NOBODY.
Back to Miller, briefly. Teams that have had success against Denver's defense this season are teams that have been able to keep them in their base defense, and to do that, you must run the football. If the Texans get 100 yards from Miller, they should win this game. In part because, over on the other side of the football...
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1. Texans defensive health
The focus on this game has been so heavy on Osweiler's return to Denver and what that Bronco defense has in store for the Texans, that we haven't spent a ton of time talking about the elephant in the room — the Broncos aren't exactly a pinball machine on offense either (23rd in DVOA on Football Outsiders). On paper, this game should be the quintessential "slobber knocker." The biggest question mark for the Texans is how they'll hold up health wise (before even adding in altitude). The secondary will be missing CB Kevin Johnson (broken foot) for the first time all year, but they get back Kareem Jackson. Johnathan Joseph will play, but he's looked more like 2013-2014 Joseph (constantly banged up, inconsistent) than 2015 Joseph (near Pro Bowl level). A.J. Bouye's improvement has been a godsend. It's ironic that the most reliable player on defense for the Texans this season — other than Whitney Mercilus, who should be in Pro Bowl conversations if he keeps this up — is a guy who couldn't stay healthy for two years, and is now replacing a guy who was an iron man for five seasons. Last Sunday, Romeo Crennel was using Jadeveon Clowney the way he used Watt, moving him around, playing inside, playing outside, standing up on occasion. It's hard not to pray for J.J. Watt's back to heal fully every day and then think ahead to what this defense could look like in 2017.
For now, a swing at going 5-2 in 2016 will have to do...
Prediction: Broncos 20, Texans 10
Spread: Broncos -8
Season Record (SU, ATS): 4-2, 4-1-1
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.