Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs: 2019 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Houston Texans (11-6) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)

These two teams met back in week 6, with the Texans pulling off the upset in Kansas City by score of 31-24. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Texans will pull the upset again this week though, or even keep this game close. Teams are 32-20 ATS over the past 30 years in the playoffs in a same-site rematch against a team that beat them in the regular season. Of those teams, 10 were favorites in the rematch and they outscored their opponents by 7.5 points as an average of 5-point favorites, covering 6 out of 10 times. 

That alone isn’t enough reason to pick the Chiefs, but the Chiefs are also in a completely different injury situation than they were in the first game. On offense, quarterback Pat Mahomes was playing at far less than 100% through injury and had his worst game of the season according to Pro Football Focus, top wide receiver Tyreek Hill played just half of the snaps in his return from injury, fellow wide receiver Sammy Watkins was out, and the side left of the offensive line, Eric Fisher and Andrew Wylie, was out as well. 

On defense, cornerback Kendall Fuller was playing through a broken thumb, defensive end Frank Clark was playing through a neck injury and, while the Chiefs did have safety Juan Thornhill and defensive ends Alex Okafor and Emmanuel Ogbah healthy back then, they did not have late-season addition defensive end Terrell Suggs, nor did they have injured defensive tackles Xavier Williams and Chris Jones, the latter of whom is one of the best players in the league at his position. Jones tweaked a calf injury at practice this week, but is still expected to play and even if he’s at less than 100% he could easily have a huge impact on the rematch.

Of course, having Mahomes healthy is also a pretty big deal. Mahomes was limping through an ankle injury back in week 6 and eventually ended up missing two games with a knee injury that he suffered the following week in Denver, but he returned in week 10 and has led the Chiefs to a 40.00% first down rate in 7 games since, 4th among playoff qualifiers over that stretch, and should be as close to 100% as he’s been all season after the first round bye. 

Mahomes’ injury might have actually ended up being a blessing in disguise for the Chiefs, as the Chiefs started playing much better defensively around the time he got hurt. It’s possible the Chiefs’ defense would have started to click around then even if Mahomes hadn’t gotten hurt and certainly the Chiefs’ improved health on defense is part of the reason for their improvement, but whatever the reason, the improvement has been very noticeable. Since week 7, they rank 3rd among playoff qualifiers in first down rate allowed at 33.28%, after ranking 29th in the NFL in first down rate allowed at 40.91% through the first 6 games of the season. This is a much more complete Chiefs team than they were in the post-season last year, when they finished dead last in first down rate allowed at 42.20%.

Meanwhile, the Texans are going in the opposite direction injury wise, as right tackle Tytus Howard is out for the season, JJ Watt is playing at far less than 100% and coming off of an underwhelming performance in the playoff opener, and wide receiver Will Fuller is highly questionable and would be at risk of limited snaps or an in-game setback after missing much of the past couple months, including last week, and not getting in a full practice all this week. Since their week 10 bye, the Texans have a first down rate differential of just -3.50% (excluding the week 17 game in which they rested starters). 

Their struggles are in large part due to key players being injured or playing at less than 100%. Even at full strength though, the Texans weren’t a great team and they are the only playoff qualifier with a negative point differential at -7. They barely beat the Bills, arguably the worst playoff qualifier, in Houston last week. They might not be able to even keep it close this week in Kansas City. This line is high at -9.5, so there’s not enough here to bet on the Chiefs, but they should be the right side. If Jones ends up being out for the Chiefs, I will revisit this pick.

Update: Jones is surprisingly out for this game, unable to get the green light after his pre-game workout. That makes a huge impact on a Chiefs defense that is also missing talented rookie safety Thornhill. Despite that, this line has moved up to 10 in all places. This is a no confidence pick, but this should be a closer game with the Chiefs at less than 100% injury wise.

Kansas City Chiefs 31 Houston Texans 23

Pick against the spread: Houston +10

Confidence: None

Buffalo Bills at Houston Texans: 2019 AFC Wild Card Round Pick

Buffalo Bills (10-6) at Houston Texans (10-6)

The Bills and Texans both went 10-6 in the regular season, locking in their seeding at 10-5 with a week left to go in the season and resting starters in an eventual meaningless week 17 loss. The Texans faced a much tougher schedule though, with an opponents winning percentage of 53% (6th in the NFL) vs. 47% (28th in the NFL) for the Bills, who didn’t fare well against tougher competition in general. 

The Bills went just 1-4 against playoff qualifiers and that one win came over the Marcus Mariota led Titans back in week 5, a game in which the Titans missed 4 field goals in a 7-point loss. All in all, the Bills had just a -2.05% first down rate differential against opponents who finished with a .500 or better record. The Texans, meanwhile, went 3-3 against playoff qualifiers (3-2 if you exclude a meaningless week 17 loss to the Titans), including wins over the Chiefs and Patriots.  

The Texans have been underwhelming in recent weeks, but they get a much needed boost on defense with JJ Watt returning from an 8-game absence. With Watt back in the lineup, I have the Texans 3 points better in my roster rankings than the Bills, so we’re getting good value with the Texans being favored by just 2.5 points at home. The Bills are also starting a first time playoff starter under center in Josh Allen. First time playoff starters are 14-32-1 ATS since 2002. 

Houston’s Deshaun Watson is in just his 2nd playoff start after losing at home to the Colts in his playoff debut last season, but even that one game of experience seems to matter, as there isn’t a similar trend for a quarterback’s second start. Watson struggled in his debut last season and could watch Josh Allen, a lesser quarterback, do the same this year. I would expect the Texans to win and it might not be close depending on how badly Allen struggles, so the Texans are worth a large bet in a game they basically just need to win to cover.

Houston Texans 24 Buffalo Bills 17

Pick against the spread: Houston -2.5

Confidence: High

Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Tennessee Titans (8-7) at Houston Texans (10-5)

The Titans lost last week at home to the Saints, but because it was a non-conference game and division and conference records are tiebreakers for playoff qualification, that was a completely meaningless game for them in the standings. As a result, they rested running back Derrick Henry and defensive end Jeffrey Simmons to get them closer to 100% for this much more meaningful week 17 divisional game against the Texans. The Saints are also one of the top teams in the league, so there’s no shame in losing that game, especially since it was close for most of the game before the Saints pulled away at the end. 

That was just the Titans’ 3rd loss in 9 games since switching to Ryan Tannehill at quarterback, after losing 4 times in 6 games started by Marcus Mariota. The previous two losses could have gone either way, with the Titans losing by 10 to the Panthers in a game in which they missed 3 makeable field goals and had a couple fluke giveaways (+3.95% first down rate differential) and losing by 3 to the Texans in a game in which they had a field goal blocked and allowed a long interception return (-0.97% first down rate differential). Some of the Titans’ wins have been close, but they’ve undoubtedly been a better team since switching quarterbacks. Through the first 6 games of the season, they ranked just 12th in the NFL in first down rate differential at +1.76%. Over the past 9 games, they have ranked 7th at +3.21%. 

Tannehill isn’t just game-managing this team to victory either, as their defense has actually been pretty underwhelming over that stretch due to injury absences, ranking 27th in first down rate allowed at +38.31%, after ranking 4th at 30.93% through the first 6 games of the season, and 4th at 32.77% in 2018. The offense, which ranks 2nd in first down rate at 41.52% since Tannehill became the starter, has carried this team, after ranking 26th at 32.69% through the first 6 games of the season, and 24th at 34.12% in 2018. 

The Titans’ offense might not be quite that good going forward, as it’s unlikely Tannehill has suddenly become a top level quarterback in his 8th season in the league, but they have plenty of talent around the quarterback, especially with feature back Derrick Henry back in the lineup this week, so this is one of the better offenses in the NFL. Their defense is still missing key players like cornerback Adoree Jackson, cornerback Malcolm Butler, and edge rusher Cameron Wake, but I still have the Titans’ 8th overall in my roster rankings. 

The Titans have a rematch this week with the Texans, who narrowly defeated them a couple weeks ago, but the Texans have been pretty underwhelming overall this season, entering this game just 17th in the NFL in first down rate differential. They’re 10-5 on the season and have the AFC South locked up, but 8 of their 10 wins have come by a touchdown or less and they’ve undoubtedly been a worse team than the Titans since the Titans changed quarterbacks, especially with stud defensive end JJ Watt out with injury. 

One thing complicating this pick is the uncertainty over whether or not the Texans will play their starters. The line, favoring the Titans by 5 points on the road, suggests the Texans will rest starters, even though Bill O’Brien has shot that idea down during the week. I would expect the Texans to at least rest starters like quarterback Deshaun Watson, left tackle Laremy Tunsil, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, and cornerback Bradley Roby, who have been limited in practice this week with injury, assuming the Texans are locked into the 4th seed when this game begins, but that’s dependant on the Chiefs winning earlier in the day and locking up the 3rd seed. The Chiefs are favored by 9 points at home over the Chargers, but the Chiefs winning isn’t a lock and the Texans could play this like a real game if they’re still alive for the 3rd seed at gametime. 

Seeding isn’t a huge deal in the first round, but in the second round I imagine the Texans would rather face the Patriots, who they’ve already beaten, than the Ravens, who absolutely destroyed them earlier this season, and if both the Texans and Chiefs advance to the AFC Championship, the Texans would obviously want to have homefield advantage in that matchup. If the Chiefs win as expected this week, I wouldn’t expect the Titans to have too much trouble with the Texans’ backups and we’re getting line value with the Titans as 5-point favorites if the Texans are somewhere around the 22nd best team in the league or worse with key players missing, which would almost definitely be the case, but I’m going to hold off on placing any sort of bet on this game until the Chiefs’ game is decided.

Update: The Texans are resting starters in this game locked into the 4th seed, but the line has skyrocketed to -10, so I can’t take the Titans with any confidence.

Tennessee Titans 27 Houston Texans 16

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -10

Confidence: None

Houston Texans at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2019 Week 16 NFL Pick

Houston Texans (9-5) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-7)

The Texans got a huge win in Tennessee last week against a Titans team that was previously tied with the Texans for the division lead. However, that game could have gone either way, as both teams were about even in first down rate (Houston +0.97%) and the game swung on a blocked field goal and a long interception return by the Texans. The Buccaneers, meanwhile, got a big blowout win over the Lions on the road last week even without injured wide receiver Mike Evans, but fellow stud wide receiver Chris Godwin also got hurt in that game, so between that and the Texans’ win last week, this line has shifted from Houston -1 on the early line last week to Houston -3 this week, a big swing considering about 20% of games are decided by 2-3 points.

I think this line is pretty far off and would be off even without the big line movement. Even without Evans and Godwin, the Buccaneers are still a better team that most people realize. They actually rank above the Texans in first down rate differential on the season, ranking 12th at +2.14%, while the Texans rank 14th at +1.31%. That gap is more pronounced when you look at recent weeks. While the Buccaneers have been a legitimately tough opponent since their week 7 bye, losing only to the Saints, the Seahawks (in overtime), and the Titans (by 4) and ranking 8th in first down rate differential at +3.73% over that stretch, the Texans have gone the opposite direction, ranking 21st in first down rate differential since week 7 at -1.35%, in large part due to the absence of JJ Watt on defense in recent weeks.

With the Buccaneers missing a pair of dominant wide receivers, I have the Texans slightly ahead in my roster rankings, but the Texans definitely aren’t at full strength either, missing talented middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney in addition to Watt, and my calculated line favors the Buccaneers at home by 2.5 points. Given that, we’re getting significant line value with the Buccaneers as 3-point home underdogs. 

The Buccaneers are also in a better spot as this game is sandwiched between last week’s matchup against the Titans and a rematch next week, a game in which the Texans can clinch the division even if they lose this week. The Texans still have incentive to win this game for seeding purposes, but they might not take the Buccaneers totally seriously this week in a trap game spot. I’m going to bet on the Buccaneers either way, but if we get confirmation that both cornerback Carlton Davis and left tackle Donovan Smith are playing this week, I’ll probably bump this up to a high confidence pick.

Final Update: Both Davis and Smith are playing for the Texans. After looking at other games this week, I’ve decided I’m actually going to bump this up to my Pick of the Week, for lack of another strong option. Much has been made of the Buccaneers missing their dominant wide receiver duo, but quarterback Jameis Winston has independently been playing good football since the bye, as has the Buccaneers’ defense, thanks to the return of Jason Pierre-Paul from injury and the improvement of this young secondary. Meanwhile, the Texans are arguably missing their two best defensive players in Watt and McKinney and yet are favored by 3 points on the road. I have these two teams about even and my numbers suggest the Buccaneers are actually the better team, so this line is way off. I’d be surprised if the Buccaneers don’t at least push this week, barring a meltdown performance from Winston.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31 Houston Texans 27 Upset Pick +150

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +3

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Houston Texans (8-5) at Tennessee Titans (8-5)

The Titans saved their season by switching from Marcus Mariota to Ryan Tannehill at quarterback. Sitting at 2-4 after week 6 when they made the switch, the Titans have won 6 of 7 games to get to 8-5 and climb into a tie for the AFC South lead with the Texans, who they will play twice in the next three weeks in games that would decide the division if either team managed to sweep both. 

Tannehill isn’t just game managing the Titans to victory either, as Tannehill’s run at quarterback has actually coincided with a significant decline on defense. After finishing last season 4th in first down rate allowed at 32.77% and ranking 4th in the NFL in first down rate allowed at 30.93% through 6 games this season, the Titans have allowed a 37.37% first down rate in Tannehill’s 7 starts, 24th in the NFL over that stretch, due to injuries to players like linebacker Jayon Brown, cornerback Malcolm Butler, defensive end Jurrell Casey, and cornerback Adoree Jackson. This offense is carrying the team, ranking 2nd in first down rate at 42.50% since Tannehill entered the starting lineup, giving them the 3rd best first down rate differential over that stretch at +5.13%.

Tannehill probably won’t continue playing this well going forward, but the Titans have a strong running game too and a good supporting cast around the quarterback, so the Titans’ offense is legitimately a strong unit. Defensively, they’ve gotten Casey and Brown back from injuries, though the two cornerbacks Butler and Jackson remain out, leaving them very thin at a key position. They’re still a couple points better than the Texans in my roster rankings though, ranking 11th, while the Texans rank 14th. 

Deshaun Watson leads a strong Houston offense that ranks 4th in first down rate at 39.47%, but their defense ranks 27th at 38.12% and has been even worse in 5 games without JJ Watt, with a 39.51% first down rate allowed in those 5 games. We’re not getting a ton of line value with the Titans, but this line favoring them only by a field goal at home suggests these two teams are about even, which isn’t the case. I like the Titans for a small bet as there’s a good chance this game at least pushes.

Tennessee Titans 30 Houston Texans 24

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -3

Confidence: Medium

Denver Broncos at Houston Texans: 2019 Week 14 NFL Pick

Denver Broncos (4-8) at Houston Texans (8-4)

The Texans got a big win over the New England Patriots last week, but even with that game included, they haven’t played as well as their record would suggest in recent weeks. Dating back to week 7, the Texans rank just 23rd in the NFL in first down rate differential at -0.80%, in large part due to their defense struggling without the injured JJ Watt. They could also be a little flat this week, facing a 4-8 Broncos team, in between a big home upset victory and a key divisional matchup against the Titans next week.

The Broncos are better than their 4-8 record, led by a defense that ranks 4th in first down rate allowed at 32.40%. Their offense ranks just 30th in first down rate at 30.64%, but they still rank 22nd in first down rate differential at -1.76%, which is better than their record suggests, and they are starting a new quarterback in Drew Lock who has the most upside of any quarterback they’ve started this season. The second round rookie is raw in only his 2nd career start, but Joe Flacco is washed up and Brandon Allen is barely an NFL caliber passer, so it wouldn’t be hard for Lock to be their best quarterback yet this season. 

With a defense as good as theirs has been, the Broncos won’t be an easy matchup going forward if they can get decent quarterback play. Given that, I like the Broncos this week as 9-point underdogs in Houston, against a Texans team that has just one win by more than a touchdown all season. I’d need confirmation that Von Miller will play before locking in a bet on the Broncos, but Miller seems more likely to play than not, after missing last week with a knee injury, and they showed they’re still a strong defense without him last week in their win over the Chargers, so I like the Broncos for pick ‘em purposes even if Miller can’t go.

Final Update: Miller will play for the Broncos, while Will Fuller will be unable to go for the Texans. The line has moved down to 8, but neither 8 or 9 are key numbers, so that’s not that big of a deal. The Texans have just 2 wins by more than 8 points and the Broncos have just 3 losses by more than 8 points, so this should be a relatively close game. The Broncos aren’t in a great spot with a big game against the Chiefs on deck, but the Texans are probably in a worse spot, facing an 4-8 team in between a huge home upset victory and a key divisional matchup. My calculated line is Houston -6.5, which crosses the key number of 8, so I like the Broncos for a small bet this week.

Houston Texans 22 Denver Broncos 17

Pick against the spread: Denver +8

Confidence: Medium

New England Patriots at Houston Texans: 2019 Week 13 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (10-1) at Houston Texans (7-4)

Much was made early in the season about the Patriots’ weak schedule, but their schedule has definitely gotten tougher in recent weeks and their overall opponent’s winning percentage is now a respectable 48%. Despite the tougher schedule, the Patriots still rank very highly in first down rate differential at +6.81%, only behind the 49ers and Ravens, and they only have one loss, a 17-point loss in Baltimore that looks less embarrassing every time the Ravens take the field. The Patriots’ offense is a work in progress, but their defense is legitimately dominant and they’re clearly one of the top few teams in the league overall. 

The Patriots face another opponent with a winning record this week, but the Texans are not the same team without JJ Watt on the field and he’s out for the season with a torn pectoral. Without Watt, I have the Texans just 14th in my roster rankings. I have the Patriots calculated as 5.5 point favorites, so we’re getting line value with them at just 3.5. I would need this line to fall to an even field goal before gametime for the Patriots to be worth a bet, but it seems to be trending in that direction, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up updating this writeup before gametime.

New England Patriots 23 Houston Texans 17

Pick against the spread: New England -3.5

Confidence: Low