In his five-plus seasons as head coach of the Houston Texans, this is the closest we'd come to believing that Bill O'Brien had constructed and was overseeing a potential contender. Not during any of the 9-7 seasons, and not even during last season's nine game winning streak, did we feel as cautiously confident that this might be a group, even without J.J. Watt, that was capable of competing against anybody.
Surely, we knew that the three games coming out of the bye week would provide the truth — a road game in Baltimore followed by two prime time home games against the Colts (this Thursday) and the Patriots (next Sunday). Well, one game into the Truth Tour, and the truth hurts. It hurts like a railroad spike right through your torso, and the truth is this —- the Texans are still firmly entrenched in the middleweight class of the AFC, alongside teams like the Colts, Raiders, Steelers, and Titans.
The Ravens made sure that message was sent Sunday in a 41-7 win that was close for a while, through a scoreless first quarter, and felt over about the time Ka'imi Fairbairn was shanking (another) field goal attempt that would have drawn the Texans to within a 14-3 score heading into the locker room at halftime. This was a beatdown to the nth degree, an embarrassment coming out of the bye week that dropped the Texans from a possible 2-seed in the AFC to hanging on for their playoff lives. All of a sudden, the Colts game on Thursday is massive.
Let's start this week's winners and loser with Fairbairn....
4. Ka'imi Fairbairn
You're probably wondering why exactly Fairbairn is in this category, winners, since all he did was miss a crucial 43-yard field goal attempt and bang through an extra point. He's now missed ten kicks (five field goals, five extra points) this season. He is a winner because this egregious miss happened in a game that wound up with a 41-7 final score, and it can fly under the radar since it didn't really decided anything, ultimately. At some point, Bill O'Brien needs to bring in some kickers for a Tuesday workout (probably not this week, with a short week), because it sends a horrible message to the rest of the team that Fairbairn has operated without any level of competition throughout 2019, including training camp.
3. Mark Ingram
Statistically, Ingram didn't destroy the Texans defense on the ground, with just 48 yards on 13 carries. but he seemed to always be moving things forward, putting Jackson in favorable down and distance situations. Through the air, Ingram had three crucial catches for 37 yards and two touchdowns. Ingram turns 30 this season, and is past the key age of 28 for frontline running backs. In other words, he is on the back side of his career, but may have discovered a way for older backs to stay fresh — finding your way onto a team with a mobile quarterback, who can loosen up a defense and take some of the heat off.
2. The Colts
So the upside for the Texans if they had won on Sunday was the 2-seed in the AFC. They'd have been 7-3 and tied with the Ravens, while owning the head to head tie breaker, and trailing only the 9-1 Patriots. Instead, with this loss, combined with the Colts' 33-13 win over the Jaguars, the Texans sit at the 6-seed, hanging onto the second wild card spot by a thread (and a head to head tie breaker over the surprising Raiders). The Colts can really put the clamps on the AFC South with a win here in Houston on Thursday, sending the Texans to a 6-5 record, an 0-2 head to head record with them, and a date the following Sunday against those Patriots. The Colts own a three game winning streak over the Texans, including two games in NRG Stadium.
1. Lamar Jackson, MVP
Statistically, Jackson had not faced a rush defense in the realm of the Texans' run defense (granted, much of that was accumulated with J.J. Watt healthy, but still). Statistically, it didn't matter. Jackson made the Texans look foolish all afternoon, with nine carries for 86 yards and adding 222 yards passing with four touchdowns. The damage Jackson did with his arm was the most impressive part. After going 1-6 on his first five throws, he finished by completing 16 of his last 18 attempts, and showed he can certainly do enough in the passing game to keep a defense honest. Beyond that, he's now beaten the Seahawks, Patriots, and Texans in three of the last four games by margins of 12, 17, and 34 points. (The other win was over the Bengals by 36 points, but they don't really count.) If the NFL playoff brackets were decided like college football's playoff, with a subjective committee assessment, the Ravens might be the one seed overall.
4. First drives
It's a broken record at this point, but a record we must play. With Deshaun Watson's inexcusable fumble following an all too familiar extending of the play on Sunday's first Texans drive, here are the numbers on first drives of the game for the Texans:
* 57 plays for 123 yards
* 6 punts
* 3 turnovers
* 3 points scored
So they now have as many turnovers on opening drives as they have points scored, a massive indictment of Bill O'Brien and whatever the hell it is he is scripting throughout the week, although to be fair, yesterday's failure was more on Watson than O'Brien.
3. The pass interference challenge rule
So that was the first drive. On the second drive, the Texans once again worked their way into Ravens territory, and after choosing to go for it on 4th and 2 from the Baltimore 33 (a decision I love, and wholeheartedly agree with), Watson was pressured and threw a ball into the end zone looking for DeAndre Hopkins. Here's what happened:
O'Brien chose to challenge this no-call — again, a decision I agree with, given the upside and the apparent egregiousness of the uncalled foul — but the replay folks let this call stand, to which I demand to know "Why even have pass interference as a challengeable call, if THAT is not an overturn?" To all these alarmists who wanted replay review for interference based on one crucial missed call in the NFC title game last year, congrats! You've created a challenge wrinkle that has basically served one purpose — to sap timeouts from coaches who have working eyeballs. Way to go!
2. Whitney Mercilus
With the trade of Jadeveon Clowney before the season, the hope was that much of the Clowney slack would be taken up by a rejuvenated Mercilus, moving back to his familiar edge rusher spot. Through five games, it looked like that strategy had merit. Here are Mercilus splits, first five games and the last five games:
FIRST FIVE GAMES: 5 sacks, 5 TFLs, 7 QB hits, 4 forced fumbles, 1 INT
LAST FIVE GAMES: 0.5 sacks, 0 TFLs, 2 QB hits, 0 forced fumbles, 0 INT
Basically, in a contract year, Mercilus was looking like he might be pricing himself out of the Texans' cost structure for 2020 to, in the last month or so, becoming a guy who they can absolutely keep on a hometown discounted deal, if they want to. He has a lot to prove over the final six games of the season.
1. Bill O'Brien
In the week leading up to this game, O'Brien made a point to remind the media just how daunting this Ravens offense looked on film, and he looked almost beleaguered as he hammered home the problems Lamar Jackson creates. I guess it was for good reason. Look, if you're O'Brien, and you're already working on a thin thread with the fan base, you can probably afford to lose a game where your team looks competitive in a tough place to play, like Baltimore. What you cannot afford is looking like you spent the entire bye week in Cabo with your players. This performance was an embarrassment that only served to give O'Brien's harshest critics more nuclear fodder, and took any potential fans O'Brien had converted during this recent stretch of 4-1 football in Weeks 5 through 9, and, at best, put them back in the "I'm skeptical" or "It's complicated" category.
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Also, one bonus in this category.... I don't like this even one tiny little bit:
Maybe I'm old school, but when you lose by 34, save the smiles and jersey trading for the off-season. That is all. See you Thursday night, everybody.