The early part of the NFL regular season is about positioning, doing enough things on the front end to keep your goals available in the subsequent months. The Houston Texans learned the hard way in 2018 that, if you don't take care of business early on, then you need to be nearly perfect in order to keep your objectives in front of you. The 0-3 start practically necessitated the subsequent nine game winning streak in order for the Texans to win the AFC South.
This season feels so different. Ostensibly the difference between 0-3 and the Texans' current record of 2-1 is just two games with roughly 80 percent of the season still to play. However, instead of clawing and scratching just to get a single win (as we were doing after the 0-3 start last year), this 2-1 record allows you to think about the big picture a little more. All of a sudden, 4-1 heading into Kansas City in a couple weeks feels likely. Anything short of, say, 6-3 heading into the bye week would be a disappointment.
For what it's worth, the oddsmakers have the Texans at even money to win the AFC South right now, which would have been entirely unexpected before the season, and certainly unexpected before the retirement of Andrew Luck in Indianapolis. Now, here come the Carolina Panthers, fresh off a 38-20 win — their first of the season, over Arizona. Here are some things to watch for in Sunday's game:
4. Kyle Allen returns
With the Panthers incumbent starter, Cam Newton, out with a Lisfranc injury, the Panthers age turned to former Texas A&M Aggie and former University of Houston Cougar, Kyle Allen, as their signal caller. The schedule could not have worked out in a more emotional fashion for Allen, whose first start was in his hometown of Phoenix last week, and now he returns to play in front of a crowd full of Aggies and Cougars. Allen was tremendous last weekend against the Cardinals, but going from Vance Joseph to Romeo Crennel as the opposing defensive coordinator is a major step up in weight class. Also, Allen is likely going to have some shuffling going on in front of him, with injuries along the Panther offensive line. Time for Crennel to do that thing he does where he completely flummoxes young quarterbacks with disguised coverages and blitz packages.
3. Christian McCaffrey
Allen's best friend in this game should be the Panthers uber-dynamic, do-everything running back, who is currently second in the league behind Minnesota's Dalvin Cook in all-purpose yardage. I would imagine that the Panthers are watching what Alvin Kamara did to the Texans in Week 1, both on the ground and through the air, and salivating. The McCaffrey burden is probably going to fall on some combination of Benardrick McKinney, Zach Cunningham, and Dylan Cole, who is the best of those three in coverage.
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2. The Brothers Reid
For the second straight week, the Texans will face off against an opponent whose roster contains the sibling of one of their players. Last week, it was the Chargers and Derek Watt, he of the sneaky chip blocks on his older brother and non-threatening carries on short yardage situations. This week, the Reid brothers, Justin and Eric, will compete for Reid Family Picnic bragging rights. The big question here is Justin Reid's health, as he went down with injuries multiple times in the win over the Chargers, and is working with a shoulder that's bothered him since the Lions were in town back in August. The good news is that Reid was a full participant in practice on Wednesday, so that's obviously a great sign.
1. Texans offensive line
For the first time all season, we should be seeing the Texans starting the same five man combination along the offensive line in consecutive weeks. The decision by Bill O'Brien to move Tytus Howard to right tackle (where he should be perched for the next ten years, if he indeed lives up to his draft slot) and insert fellow rookie Max Scharping at left guard may finally be the finishing stroke on an offensive line that, with the big addition of Laremy Tunsil at left tackle, can take the Texans on a deep playoff run. To be sure, Sunday's win agains the Chargers featured the best protection Deshaun Watson has seen since arriving in the NFL. Deshaun Watson with time to throw is a proposition that should terrify the rest of the league.
SPREAD: Texans -4
PREDICTION: Texans 27, Panthers 16
SEASON RECORD: 2-1 SU, 3-0 ATS