The Houston Texans have clinched a playoff spot, and they are almost assuredly going to be the fourth seed. The Chiefs, playing early in the day, have everything to play for — they can still gain a first-round bye if the Patriots lose, and even if they can’t, they’ll play the sixth seed instead of the fifth seed. The Chargers have played Kansas City tough, but they also have imploded this year any time they come close to winning a game. The Texans will know before they play if they can even change their seed — and I very much doubt they’ll have the opportunity.
Meanwhile, the Texans are 10-5, but they aren’t really a good team and, despite beating the Titans in Nashville two weeks ago, I would argue they didn’t really win it in a convincing fashion. They played an uninspiring game in losing to Tampa last wee — oh, they won? Well, I guess they did. But my point is that, purely on run of play of late, I have my doubts that Tennessee shouldn’t be favored to beat the Texans even with Houston’s starters playing.
The numerical output of that is quite simple: The Texans have an 8.5% chance to gain the No. 3 seed per Football Outsiders’ numbers. Now keep in mind that even if they DO get the No. 3 seed, they aren’t necessarily knocking the Titans out of the playoffs. Baltimore is resting starters, but the Steelers literally can’t throw — that’s hardly a given. The Broncos have a higher weighted DVOA than the Raiders do. Plenty of that 8.5% is still tied up in playing the Titans rather than an empirically weak opponent. It could work out, but the number is so small that I don’t believe it is worth pursuing even if the Chargers win.
Well, it doesn’t matter what I think, because I don’t coach the Houston Texans and all signs from Bill O’Brien on Monday were that the Texans would play to win:
Let me lay out four more reasons why I think trying to win the Titans game is idiotic even beyond the ridiculously small chance the Texans could actually grab the third seed:
2 — The Bills are locked in to the No. 5 seed. The Texans could actually game plan for playing the Bills for two straight weeks.
One of the major reasons that no NFL team has made the Super Bowl without a first-round bye since the 2012 Ravens is that those teams, obviously, tend to be better than most teams. But another major reason is that those teams get to take the first-round bye to study their opponents. They get a major jump in game planning that matters a lot when you’re already likely to be better than your opponent.
Bill O’Brien? He thinks his scouts know what to do. They’ll worry about it Sunday night:
Now, the Texans can’t win a first-round bye, but they can take almost exactly the same tact as a team that had a first-round bye here — they can lose on purpose, not playing their best players, and spend all the collective effort they’re going to spend trying to beat the Titans on trying to beat the Bills. Scouting resources, mental brainpower. That could be quite a significant edge in a home game that should be close.
It could be the difference between advancing or not.
3 — Deshaun Watson’s health is more important than anything else this franchise has
I know Deshaun Watson says he’s fine. I know Bill O’Brien said he’s good. I don’t care. After watching him limp around for most of the second and third quarters against Tampa Bay, I’d rather he gets a rest on Sunday. Obviously, there’s no way you can unhurt someone in the middle of the season. We don’t know how banged up he actually is and I’m sure the Texans aren’t going to reveal any more than they have to.
But, you know what the Texans can do with this week? Make sure their franchise quarterback is as healthy as he possibly can be for the playoffs. Maybe J.J. Watt comes back, and maybe he doesn’t, but either way this defense can’t be counted on. If the Texans are going to win playoff games, it is on Watson’s shoulders.
Making sure he’s as rested as he can be for that burden should be a priority for the Texans in my view.
4 — All things being equal, I’d rather play the Bills than the Titans anyway
I’m sure this is going to be worth at least a miniature fisking from #BillsMafia, and let me be up front: I don’t think the Bills are a bad team and I think they’ll have a good chance to win on the road in Houston in a playoff game.
But Josh Allen is perhaps the weakest non-Pittsburgh quarterback situation you can see in the first round. He’s capable of brilliant moments, but he falls apart when he’s blitzed and the Texans have been transitioning towards that more and more towards the end of this year. I think that is the best-case scenario for Houston’s defense.
Houston’s offense is going to have their big plays limited, but given where Will Fuller is, they may have been limited either way. Buffalo can be run on — they allowed 143 on the ground to the Patriots in Week 16 and have allowed at least 103 rushing yards in seven of their 10 games since their Week 6 bye.
I, again, say this and want to say that the Bills probably are a better team than the Texans. They could win either way. But I think this is probably the best-case scenario the Texans could ask for in the first round: Second-year quarterback who has looked bad in some big games making his first road playoff start, and a defense that has been run on at times. The O’Brien Texans have looked hopeless when they can’t run.
5 — Attrition
Football is a violent sport. Players get hurt. Even if you get away with playing Deshaun Watson through what’s ailing him, what if DeAndre Hopkins goes down? What if it’s Duke Johnson? What if it’s Laremy Tunsil? What the Texans can gain by winning isn’t worth the cost of even one of their good players getting hurt.
We don’t know if we’re responding to a real crisis or not — I suspect the Texans will play their starters in Week 17, but I am hopeful O’Brien is just okey-doking us all. I desperately want him to just be pretending to be competitive or for this to be coach speak. But it’s been so thorough through so many interviews and so constant that I think we have no choice but to treat it seriously.
Quick responses to other sentiments sent to me
“Bill O’Brien couldn’t get the team ready off of a bye against the Ravens, so I don’t want to chase one now.” — OK, but that’s a head coach problem, not a game theory problem.
“The offense needs to get some momentum after a bad day.” — What about this team has ever been consistent this year and why would you think one more good day would change that?
“But yo, I really want to play the Steelers!” — Cool. I want someone to buy advertising on this website. Neither of those are happening.
“But what about avoiding Baltimore in the second round?” — You’re going to have to go through them either way, and you’re not exactly locked in to playing them with a win.
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