Sean Pendergast

NFL Week 4: Texans-Bills — Four Things To Watch For

Texans DC Lovie Smith will have his hands full with a prolific Bills offense.
Texans DC Lovie Smith will have his hands full with a prolific Bills offense. Photo by Eric Sauseda
When the Houston Texans take the field this Sunday for their Week 4 matchup with the Buffalo Bills in Buffalo, it will be exactly 20 NFL games, including the 2019 postseason, since these two teams met in the wild card round of the playoffs back in 2019. Even in a league where rosters experience significant turnover both in and out of season, 20 games is not all that long.

The Texans won that day 22-19, largely on the back of Deshaun Watson and some incredible heroics he pulled off to overcome a 16-0 deficit. Little did we know, that would be the last time Bill O'Brien would win an NFL football game as a head coach. Little did we know, less than two years later, Deshaun Watson's situation would be such a mess. Little did we know, the team who lost that game that day would be the Super Bowl contender two years later, and the winner would be a punchline.

Now, here we are, and the Texans will head to Buffalo this weekend as 17 point underdogs, with just 4 of the 22 starters from that playoff win active Sunday, and with exactly zero players who registered an offensive stat in that playoff game still left on the team (other than the inactive Watson). When you're looking for past events to hammer home just how bizarre the Texans' tumble since 2019 has been, that Bills playoff game is a sledgehammer to the temple.

Appropriately, this game on Sunday will likely be a sledgehammer to the Texans' collective temple. Let's give you a few things to watch for (even if averting your eyes is what doctors likely recommend):

4. The Davis Mills elite defensive opponent tour continues
The football gods have not handed Davis Mills easy assignments in his rookie trials here in the National Football League. He was dropped in at halftime of a game in Cleveland for his professional debut against the Browns (10th rated defense, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA metric). His first start came last week against the Carolina Panthers (1st rated defense). His second start will be on the road in Buffalo to face the Bills (2nd rated defense). YIKES. For what it's worth, Mills did not looked overwhelmed against Carolina. When he was pressed to move the team through the air quickly, he did a nice job (end of half, down two scores in the second half) for a rookie making his first start. Mills will get at least two more starts with Tyrod Taylor on the injured reserve list, and if he is going to continue to improve he will need more help from the running game (17 carries, 41 yards versus Carolina), which brings us to.....

3. How do those carries get divided up?
Over the last couple games, it hasn't really mattered. Whoever has carried the ball, things really haven't worked in the running game for the Texans. On the season, the only things that have really worked in the ground game have been (a) Mark Ingram's 26 hard fought carries against Jacksonville in Week 1, and (b) Tyrod Taylor scrambling. Well, Taylor is not walking through that door, we know that. I would love to see Scottie Phillips finally get his first touches of the season, but he missed some practice time this week with an illness, and the staff doesn't seem ready to trust him. I don't really need to see much more of Phillip Lindsay, who according to Next Gen Stats, is the last efficient back in the NFL, running nine actual yards of distance for every one football yard gained. This will likely need to be an efficient Ingram 15-20 carry game for the Texans to have a chance.

2. Special teams, the invisible yards
A Texans victory would be the biggest upset in the history of the franchise, surpassing the 24-6 win over Pittsburgh in the inaugural season of the franchise in 2002, when they were a 14 point underdog. In order to pull this off, the Texans will likely need lots of those "invisible yards" that don't show up in the box score — return yards off of turnovers and kicking game, and Cam Johnston's right leg swinging the field position. To this point, the Texans' special teams are 28th in DVOA, which is an absolute killer for a rebuilding roster trying to overachieve the already low Vegas expectations of 4-5 wins. Sunday, good special teams play is a must just to cover the spread, let alone win.

1. Josh Allen, MVP in the making
When the Texans won that playoff game back in January 2020, Josh Allen was an ascending, but still kind of raw, a little clunky, second year quarterback. He was good enough to nab a 16-0 lead on the road in a playoff game, but not good enough to keep it. Allen finished that game with 264 yards passing, but it was on 24 completions over 46 passing attempts. In the time since that game, he's evolved into one of the four or five most dangerous weapons in the league, a league MVP runner up in the 2020 season, and probably the best starting quarterback the Texans will face this season. Lovie Smith's defense has left gaping holes open in the middle of the field this season, as they try each week to bend-but-don't-break. Allen should feast on Sunday, slinging the ball over the middle to Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, and Emmanuel Sanders.

SPREAD: Texans +17
PREDICTION: Bills 38, Texans 17

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Sean Pendergast is a contributing freelance writer who covers Houston area sports daily in the News section, with periodic columns and features, as well. He also hosts afternoon drive on SportsRadio 610, as well as the post game show for the Houston Texans.
Contact: Sean Pendergast