Houston Texans (0-0) at San Diego Chargers (0-0)
This is the annual week 1 absurdly late game. In order to kick off the football season, ESPN crams two NFL games into Monday Night Football Week 1. The second game usually starts after 10 PM ET and features West Coast teams, which, recently, has meant East Coasters have to watch crappy teams play football until well past Midnight. Last year’s San Diego/Oakland game was one of the worst games of the season, a game in which the Raiders botched 3 separate long snaps. The year before featured a riveting Kyle Orton/Jason Campbell battle.
This year, the Chargers are featured again, but they will be facing a Texan team that comes from 2 time zones over. That matters to this analysis. The Chargers will be playing this game from 7:15 until after 10 their time, but it’ll run until past Midnight on the internal clocks of the Texans. They could have lower energy than normal late in this game for that reason and that puts them at a disadvantage.
The Texans are an overrated team, as well. The Chargers aren’t good, but, considering the circumstances, I don’t think the Texans deserve to be favored by more than a field goal here on the road. They were much worse last season than their 12-4 record would suggest. They had a less than stellar scoring differential, going +85 on the season, including +9 in their final 11 games, +2 if you include the playoffs. Overall, they had a Pythagorean Expectation of 10 wins, despite a weak schedule. They ranked 11th in the NFL in DVOA, 19th in weighted DVOA (weighs later games more heavily). They also were very reliant on winning the turnover battle, with a +12 turnover margin, with 29 takeaways and 17 turnovers.
That tends to be unsustainable on a year-to-year basis. For example, teams with 20 or fewer turnovers on average turn the ball over 25.5 times the following season, while teams that turn the ball over 35 or more times turn the ball over 28.1 times the following season. Teams with 20 or fewer takeaways take the ball away an average of 25.3 times the following season, while teams with 35 or more takeaways take the ball away an average of 27.3 times the following season. Teams with a turnover differential of +15 or higher have a turnover differential of +3.6 the following season, while teams with a turnover differential of -15 have a turnover differential of +1.5 the following season.
Turnovers and takeaways are incredibly hard to predict on year-to-year and even a game-to-game basis (teams with a turnover differential of +4 or higher and teams with a turnover differential of -4 or lower both average a turnover differential of +0.0 in the following game). The Texans were actually just +2 in interceptions, but were +10 in fumbles, thanks to a fluky 64.1% fumble recovery rate. It’s not hard to see how the Texans’ turnover margin will even out in 2013. If it weren’t for this unsustainable turnover margin, the Texans would have been even worse in 2012.
Of course, they were off to a great start last year, before Brian Cushing got hurt. Without him, they ranked 18th in opponents’ scoring and 13th in opponents’ yardage, after starting the season as the top yardage and scoring defense in the NFL. They were 5-0 with him, including a win in Denver. The year before they were also a “what could have been team.”
They won 10 games in 2011 despite having their starting quarterback and top receiver only play together in 4 games. Before Matt Schaub went down with injury and missed the final 6 games of the season, the Texans were 7-3, scoring 27.3 points per game and allowing 16.6, which would have been 5th and 3rd respectively over the course of the season. Those numbers translate to a Pythagorean Expectation of 12.2 wins, which would have been second in the league that season. And all of that was despite Andre Johnson playing in just 4 of those 10 games, and Arian Foster missing 3 of those games.
Even after Schaub got hurt, they finished 10-6, going 3-3 without him and a 4th ranked scoring defense (17.4 points per game) and a 2nd ranked rushing offense (2448 yards) carried this team to the AFC semis, winning a playoff game. I could say that the Texans will be one of the best teams in the NFL this season now that Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson, Arian Foster, Brian Cushing are all healthy at the same time (it’s happened just 6 times in the last 2 seasons, all wins), but the NFL is messy. Nothing will ever be a perfect world. I’ve given up projecting them as that top, top level team. They’ll never be completely healthy and it’s not like they’ve had an absurd amount of injuries, ranking 8th in adjusted games lost in 2012 and 11th in 2011.
They just don’t seem to be able to take hits and keep on going and it’s very possible they’re just an above average team which flashes elite ability in the perfect scenario. This game isn’t a perfect scenario either as Antonio Smith, a talented starting defensive end, is out for this game with suspension. Furthermore, Brian Cushing might not be quite his usual self to start the season. As long as I’m getting more than a field goal with the Chargers, I’m somewhat confident in their ability to cover.
Also, one note, I’m changing how I do picks this year. I’ll be grouping my picks into high confidence, medium confidence, low confidence, and no confidence picks. I’ll also have one pick of the week.
Houston Texans 17 San Diego Chargers 16
Pick against spread: San Diego +4