Fourteen games in, the Houston Texans are 9-5 on the season, and I suppose since I picked them to go 10-6 back in early September, if you'd told me they'd be 9-5 with games against the Buccaneers and Titans remaining, I'd have felt pretty good about that.
However, if you'd told me before the season that the Texans would defeat the Chiefs in Kansas City and the Patriots on Sunday Night Football, without telling their overall record, I'd be somewhat disappointed to find out that they were ONLY 9-5, considering the Patriots and the Chiefs were the two participants in last season's AFC title game.
I say all this to point out, in yet another way, that this has been a really weird Houston Texans campaign, where they've proven they can beat almost anybody and lose to almost anybody, sometimes within mere seven days of each other. As it stands right now, the Texans hold a one game lead over the Tennessee Titans with two games to go. If the Texans beat the Bucs this weekend in Tampa, or the Titans lose to the Saints on Sunday, the Texans will have won the AFC South for the fourth time in six seasons under Bill O'Brien, and for the sixth time in the last nine seasons overall.
This Buccaneers game on Saturday is a tricky one, starting with just that — the fact that the game is on Saturday at noon, making for an odd, short week late in the season. So let's dig into some storylines as the Texans look for back to back double digit win seasons this weekend.
4. Sandwich game
When I picked the Texans to go 10-6 before the season, in my game by game predictions, I actually picked them to lose this game. I hated the matchup — Jameis Winston with Bruce Arians as his head coach against a suspect secondary — but more than that, I hated the spot on the calendar, and this was BEFORE it was given a wonky Saturday kickoff. The fact that this game is against an NFC foe (empirically, the least important games on the schedule because they have minimal on tiebreakers), sandwiched directly in between two games against the Titans makes this a classic letdown spot. The Texans' variance in performance in certain weeks doesn't ease my concern. The team will need the same focus they had in Tennessee last weekend, and not take this one for granted (Texans are three point favorites) as they did the Broncos game.
3. Watt talk
This isn't really a storyline that affects this game, but it's something that needs to be discussed, for the sake of the bigger picture, so what better place than here! Bill O'Brien was asked on Monday about the possibility of J.J. Watt returning from his torn pectoral muscle in time for the playoffs this season, and here is what he had to say:
"I'm going to tell you that J.J. is working very, very hard," coach Bill O'Brien said Monday when asked whether Watt has made enough progress to come back this season. "And he's certainly made progress based solely on his work ethic and who he's working with in the training room. And we'll see how it goes."
So O'Brien was being awfully coy. Watt went on the injured reserve after the Raiders game in Week 8, and needs to be on IR for eight weeks, which would make him eligible to return in time for the playoffs. For what it's worth, returning from a torn pectoral muscle in under three months is practically unheard of, but it's J.J. Watt, and dammit, the Texans sure could use a pass rusher.
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2. Jameis Winston
Winston has had a really strange year. He is leading the league in passing yards, is second in touchdown passes, and is the runaway leader in interceptions thrown. It's like Brett Favre on steroids! Winston is playing for a big contract, and with the Bucs working their way back to .500, and with cutting down on turnovers being the big thing he needs to work on (something more fixable than, say, lacking talent), my guess is the Bucs make him a fairly wealthy man after the season. AS for this game, Winston will be without his two favorite targets in 2019, as WR Mike Evans and WR Chris Godwin are both done for the season with hamstring injuries, which should make life a little bit easier for a Texans secondary that is playing under a ton of pressure, with the front seven unable to generate much of a pass rush. The Buccaneers rely very little on their run game. If they win this game, it will be on the strength of Winston's right arm, and.....
1. Texans rushing attack
.... their defense's ability to slow down the run. The Buccaneers have the top rated run defense in the league this season, giving up just 3.4 yards per carry. We know that Bill O'Brien will try, in some way, to establish the ground game. Last week, it was by pounding Carlos Hyde between the tackles, a successful game plan that yielded 104 yards from Hyde, and a steady flow on offense for most of the game. The Texans scored 24 points in a game where Watson threw two interceptions in the Titans' end zone. I would suspect this could be a game where we see more of Deshaun Watson as part of the rushing attack to keep the Bucs' front seven off balance, or maybe even some pass to set up the run. Hammering Hyde into the line 26 times like last weekend is probably not the way.
SPREAD: Texans -3
PREDICTION: Texans 34, Buccaneers 30
SEASON RECORD: 9-5 SU, 8-6 ATS