As we embark on the fifth season of the Bill O'Brien Era as Houston Texans head coach, the question isn't really "What is the signature win of the Bill O'Brien Era?", but "Does the era even have a signature win at all?" In his four seasons as Texans head coach, O'Brien has led the Texans to five regular season wins against eventual playoff teams. They go as follows:
2014, Week 16: Texans 25, Ravens 13
2015, Week 10: Texans 10, Bengals 6
2016, Week 2: Texans 19, Chiefs 12
2016, Week 8: Texans 20, Lions 13
2017, Week 4: Texans 57, Titans 14
All of these were fun wins, I suppose, but none of them came against teams who made it any further than the divisional round of the playoffs. None of them were world beaters, and all of them were quarterbacked by card carrying members of the "too good to move on from, but not good enough to win at a high level consistently" club — Flacco, Dalton, Alex Smith, Stafford, Mariota. (Yeah, I know Flacco won a Super Bowl. Save it.)
That a win in Week 1 would be, by far, the biggest of the O'Brien Era speaks to (a) how low the bar is right now for that label, and (b) how much clout the opposition carries. In one of the strangest scheduling quirks, trips to New England have become an annual tradition for these Texans, with Sunday being the fourth in less than two calendar years.
Each game has been progressively closer than the last, with the Texans nearly pulling off the upset last season in Week 3. Now, they travel to Foxborough once again, this time with their best and healthiest roster of O'Brien's tenure, set to take on the most dysfunctional and least talented Patriots roster they've faced in any of the O'Brien-Belichick clashes.
In other words, it's time for a signature win, O'Brien. Here are four things to watch for in this Sunday afternoon's game:
4. Attacking Tom Brady
Beating the Patriots begins and ends with putting pressure on Tom Brady, and the Texans, despite the final results on the scoreboard the last few times they've played, have done a pretty good job of that. In the playoff loss back in 2016, the Texans (minus J.J. Watt) had two sacks, eight QB hits, and forced two Brady interceptions. In last season's 36-33 loss, the Texans' defense hit Brady nine times, sacked him five times, and forced three Brady fumbles. Unfortunately, he only lost one of those three (returned for a TD by Jadeveon Clowney), with a fumble in the waning moments of the eventual game-winning drive recovered by one of his teammates.The combination of the healthy three headed monster of Watt, Mercilus, and Clowney to go with Romeo Crennel resuming defensive coordinator duties (bye bye, Vrabel) should make for good pressure on Brady all afternoon.
3. Special teams
The Texans talent level on defense should help them stand in against Brady. Offensively, Deshaun Watson gives them a chance to score 30 points against anybody. Where the Texans can lose games like this one (and have, in part, for years now) is on special teams. The good news now is that with the hire of Brad Seely as special teams coach, along with Brian Gaine's apparent focus on acquiring actual decent special teams players (as opposed to guys who are not very good at football who O'Brien claims are "helpful on special teams"), the Texans should at least be better covering kicks. (The return game was still relatively atrocious in the preseason.) This will be a big game for rookie punter Trevor Daniel, especially if he finds his first career punt to be from the back of his own end zone. The Texans have to play a clean special teams game to help the cause of the other two phases of the team.
2. Running the football
A big part of what makes Deshaun Watson great is his ability off of play action, and in order for that to work at optimum level, the Texans have to run the football capably. They don't need to be spectacular, they just need to show the ability to move the ball forward proficiently. Last year, the Texans had 125 yards on 32 carries, just 3.9 yards per carry, but enough of a threat to, along with Watson's mere otherworldly presence, to freeze the Pats' defense enough for the Texans' signal caller to average 9.1 yards per attempt. If Watson has time on Sunday, he will carve up the Patriots' defense. Getting that time begins with Miller running the football.
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1. Bill O'Brien in crunch time
For O'Brien to get this elusive signature win, he will likely need to do it in a close game that looks a lot like last season's Week 3 loss. This means O'Brien is going to, at some point, be forced to make decisions that will provide definitive "butterfly" effects on how the game plays out. Last season, O'Brien's late-game decision to first use Miller in a vanilla run play on a short yardage situation (behind the worst offensive line in the league) in New England territory, followed by the decision to kick a field goal to go up five points and give the ball back to Tom Brady (and the rest was history) led to the Texans' losing the game. A month later in Seattle, O'Brien had a similar chance to close out that game, and instead his choices led to Russell Wilson carving up the Texans in an easy game winning drive. Until I see that O'Brien is ready to allow Watson to close out games like this for him, I just can't pick the Texans in a spot like this.
I think the Texans compete, I think they show some serious grit, but a solid situational Patriots defense in the red zone, and just enough Brady get the Patriots a nail biter of a season opening win.
SPREAD: Texans +7
PREDICTION: Patriots 24, Texans 23
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.