Houston Texans 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Texans played 7 different quarterbacks in 2014 and 2015 combined, but won 9 games in both seasons thanks to a strong defense. They thought they found their solution at the quarterback position and their missing piece last off-season when they signed ex-Bronco Brock Osweiler to a 4-year, 72 million dollar deal, but he turned out to be as bad as any quarterback they played in 2014 or 2015. He completed just 59.0% of his passes for an average of 5.80 YPA, 15 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions in 14 starts and was briefly benched for backup Tom Savage for weeks 15 and 16, before Savage suffered a concussion that ended his season. Osweiler finished the season 32nd out of 34 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus.

The Texans’ defense was excellent again in 2016, as they finished 3rd in first down rate allowed, but their offense finished 2nd worst in first down rate and they were lucky to win 9 games and make the playoffs again. They were arguably the worst team in the league to make the post-season, even though they did win a home playoff game against the Derek Carr-less Raiders. Their 9 wins came by a combined 44 points and they didn’t win a single regular season game by double digits. Their 7 losses, meanwhile, came by a combined 93 points, giving them a -49 point differential, 7th worst in the NFL. They also finished 7th worst in the NFL in first down rate differential and had a -10 offensive touchdown differential, 5th worst in the league. Their 23 offensive touchdowns scored were the lowest in the league by any team, but they were able to make the playoffs thanks to a weak division, a lot of close wins, and a strong defense.

The Texans turned to desperate measures this off-season to get out of the 16 million dollars in guaranteed money they owed Brock Osweiler this season, sending Osweiler, a 2nd round pick in 2018, and a 6th round pick in 2017 to the Browns for a 4th round pick in 2017, effectively buying some of the Browns’ cap space. When the move was made, many saw it as the Texans clearing cap space to try to sign Tony Romo once the Cowboys released him, but Romo ended up retiring and joining CBS, leaving the Texans with Tom Savage atop their depth chart going into the draft.

On draft day, after the Bears and Chiefs both traded up to grab quarterbacks in the top-10, the Texans moved up to 12 in another trade with the Browns to secure their quarterback, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, sending their 2018 1st round pick to the Browns to move up 13 spots. All in all, the Texans used their first round pick this year and their first and second round pick next year to go from Brock Osweiler to Deshaun Watson at quarterback in an effort to hopefully finally solidify the quarterback position. It’s a very risky set of moves.

Despite all they gave up to get him, Watson is far from a lock to be the week 1 starter and is expected to work behind the veteran Tom Savage for most of the off-season. Conventional wisdom suggests Watson will get a shot at some point this season, given how much the Texans gave up for him and given that Savage is probably the least qualified starting quarterback in the league, but head coach Bill O’Brien’s system is not easy to learn and Savage has an advantage having been in the system for 3 years already. The 2014 4th round pick has just 92 career pass attempts and has completed just 60.9% of his passes for an average of 6.39 YPA, 0 touchdowns, and 1 interceptions. He’s a backup caliber talent. Watson, meanwhile, could struggle as a rookie given the complexity of the offense and his tendency to force throws and get intercepted. He has good upside long-term, but isn’t NFL ready.

Grade: C-

Offensive Line

One of the reasons giving up those 3 valuable picks to change quarterbacks this off-season is so risky is because it hurts their ability to address other glaring needs, particularly on the offensive line. Quarterback play was a big part of the problem for the Texans last season, but so was offensive line play and they didn’t address the offensive line outside of using their 4th and 7th round picks an offensive linemen who are unlikely to be able to contribute as rookies. Without a pick in the first 2 rounds next year, the Texans could have issues upfront for a while.

Derek Newton was a capable starter at right tackle for them, but he tore both of his patellar tendons on the same play last season and missed the final 10 games of the season. About as bad of a knee injury as you can imagine, Newton is not expected to play at all in 2017 and his future is very much in doubt. Veteran journeyman Chris Clark took over the starting job after he got hurt and predictably struggled, finishing 73rd out of 78 eligible offensive tackles. He’s best as a swing tackle, but the only competition the Texans have for him is 4th round rookie Julie’n Davenport, who is very raw out of Bucknell and wouldn’t be an upgrade as a rookie.

Making matters worse at the offensive tackle position, left tackle Duane Brown is going into his age 32 season. A top-24 offensive tackle in each of the past 7 seasons, Brown finished last season 14th among offensive tackles and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, but could easily decline over the next couple seasons. On top of that, Brown is reportedly unhappy with his contract and wants to cash in one more time, despite being owed 19.4 million over the next 2 seasons. So far he’s only missed voluntary off-season activities, but it’s definitely a situation to monitor, given how important he is to this offense.

The Texans have issues at guard as well, where both left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo and right guard Jeff Allen struggled last season, finishing 57th and 65th respectively among 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus. That’s a disappointment because the Texans spent significant resources to bring both players in. Allen signed a 4-year, 28 million dollar deal with the Texans last off-season, coming over from Kansas City. Allen was a second round pick by the Chiefs in 2012 and struggled mightily in his first 2 seasons in the league, before missing most of 2014 with injury. However, upon return from that injury, he finished 16th among guards on Pro Football Focus in 8 starts in 2015, which was apparently enough for the Texans to give him a big contract. It’s not a surprise that he struggled in his first season in Houston given how unproven he is. He could easily continue struggling this season.

Su’a-Filo, meanwhile, was drafted by the Texans with the first pick in the second round in 2014. He was the player the Texans drafted instead of quarterback Derek Carr because they were worried about the optics of selecting David Carr’s brother, given that David was a bust as the #1 overall pick with the Texans in 2002. Passing on Derek proved to be as big of a mistake as selecting David, as Derek has become one of the best quarterbacks in the league in Oakland and Su’a-Filo has yet to develop into a starting caliber player on a team that has struggled for consistency at the quarterback position.

After barely playing as a rookie, Su’a-Filo has made 24 starts in the past 2 seasons, but has been a bottom-20 guard on Pro Football Focus in both seasons. The Texans don’t have another option so they are holding out hope that he can turn into a capable starter in the final year of his rookie deal, but that is far from a guarantee. The Texans do get center Nick Martin back, after the 2016 2nd round pick missed his entire rookie season with an ankle injury, though backup Greg Mancz was serviceable in his absence last season. Martin has more upside though and should have no problem winning his job back. Whether or not he develops into a starting caliber player remains to be seen though. Outside of aging left tackle Duane Brown, the Texans have a lot of problems on the offensive line.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

As bad as the Texans’ passing game played in both 2014 and 2015, with 7 different quarterbacks playing, they were significantly worse statistically in 2016. Their team QB rating of 73.3 was 3rd worst in the NFL ahead of only the Jets and the Rams and was at least 12 points lower than their QB rating in each of the previous 2 seasons. In 2014 and 2015, they were at least able to get the ball to #1 receiver DeAndre Hopkins, but who put up slash lines of 76/1210/6 and 111/1521/11 in those 2 seasons respectively.

In 2016, that fell to 78/954/4. Part of that was the fault of Hopkins, who fell to 25th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, after finishing in the top-12 in both 2014 and 2015, but the Texans need to do a better job of getting the ball to him. They completed just 52.0% of passes thrown to him last season and he’s too talented for that to happen. Even if Tom Savage and Deshaun Watson struggle in 2017, Hopkins is still a good bet to top last year’s numbers. Still only going into his age 25 season, the 2013 1st round pick is going into the final year of his rookie deal and figures to become one of the highest paid wide receivers in the league on his next contract. He’s too valuable to this offense to lose, so the Texans might not have any choice but to pay up.

Hopkins would benefit from another receiver stepping up to take some of the pressure off of him, something he hasn’t had since Andre Johnson played opposite him during his rookie year. The Texans drafted Will Fuller in the first round last year with that in mind, but he struggled as a rookie, catching just 47 passes on 92 targets (51.1%) for 635 yards and 2 touchdowns. He finished 93rd out of 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Rookie wide receivers tend to struggle and Fuller still has the upside to become a dangerous deep threat long-term, but he also has small hands and doesn’t make contested catches, so it’s possible he never reaches his upside.

After Hopkins and Fuller, the Texans leaders in receiving yards last season were tight ends CJ Fiedorowicz (54/559/4) and Ryan Griffin (50/442/2) and running back Lamar Miller (31/188/1). Braxton Miller and Jaelen Strong played 379 and 300 snaps respectively behind Hopkins and Fuller and managed slash lines of just 15/99/1 and 14/131/0 respectively. Part of that was a result of quarterback play, but both struggled mightily as well.  Strong was a 3rd round pick in 2015 and Miller was a 3rd round pick in 2016, so they have some upside, but it’s very possible neither ever develops into a useful pass catcher. They’ll compete with Keith Mumphrey, a 2015 5th round pick who has also struggled mightily in limited action in his career, for playing time behind Hopkins and Fuller.

To mask their lack of depth at wide receiver, the Texans will probably use two-tight end sets whenever possible. CJ Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin played 678 and 507 snaps respectively last season. Griffin is a mediocre tight end at best, struggling throughout his career both as a run blocker and a pass catcher and grading out below average on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons in the league, since going in the 6th round in 2013. Fiedorowicz, on the other hand, has developed into a solid all-around tight end.

After a miserable rookie season in which he finished 63rd out of 67 eligible tight ends, the 2014 3rd round pick jumped to 29th among tight ends in 2015, despite just 17 catches, because of strong run blocking ability. In 2016, he improved again, finishing 17th at the position and finishing 2nd on the team with 54 catches. At 6-5 265, Fiedorowicz is an unexplosive athlete, but has developed into a reliable underneath option and can win on the goal line. He’s not the difference making 2nd option this offense needs though, so this underwhelming receiving corps needs a breakout year from Fuller opposite Hopkins.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Texans’ passing game was so bad in 2016 that they struggled mightily to move the ball despite a decent running game complement. The Texans averaged just 4.08 YPC, 19th in the NFL, but that’s pretty impressive considering opposing defenses were stacking the box without fearing the passing game and considering they finished 6th in the league in carries with 456. It’s also a higher average than the Texans have had in any season since 2013. Playing strong defense and running the ball is their most obvious path to success, so the Texans are obviously hoping their running game can remain effective in 2017.

Lamar Miller remains as their lead back, after rushing for 1073 yards and 268 touchdowns on 5 carries (4.00 YPC) in the first year of a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal in 2016. Miller was explosive in the first 4 seasons of his career in Miami, but never had more than 254 touches in a season. In Houston, he had 299 touches in just 14 games and seemed to wear down by the end of the season. He averaged just 3.72 yards per carry after week 7 and dealt with several nagging injuries. The Texans will probably limit his touches more in 2017 in an effort to keep him fresher. Still only going into his age 26 season, Miller should have another solid season as the lead back. He has a career 4.42 YPC average on 906 carries.

The Texans drafted D’Onta Foreman in the 3rd round of the draft and he could be Miller’s primary backup this season. Foreman’s main competition for the job is Alfred Blue, who averaged 4.20 yards per carry on 100 carries last season. Blue is a mediocre runner though, averaging just 3.64 YPC on 452 career carries, since going in the 6th round in 2014. It’s possible all 3 backs see work, but Foreman is a much more talented runner than Blue and should overtake him on the depth chart before the end of the season. It’s not a bad stable of running backs.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

The Texans defense played at a high level again in 2016, finishing 3rd in first down rate allowed and keeping this team competitive in games despite terrible play by the offense. What’s most impressive is their defense played at such a high level despite basically getting nothing from 3-time MVP JJ Watt. Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 3-4 defensive end in every season from 2012-2015, Watt struggled on 157 snaps in 3 games last season upon return from off-season back surgery and then needed another surgery after week 3 that ended his season. Back surgery is nothing to take lightly, but off-season reports have been good and he should be the favorite for Comeback Player of the Year, even if other players are more likely to win Defensive Player of the Year. The 11th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Watt is still only going into his age 28 season, so he theoretically should still be in the prime of his career.

In Watt’s absence, fellow former first round pick Jadeveon Clowney had a breakout year and picked up a lot of the slack. The #1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Clowney was limited to 17 games in his first 2 seasons in the league by injury, but played 14 games last season and finished 6th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus. Clowney has primarily been an outside linebacker in his career, but has the size at 6-5 270 to rush the passer from the interior in sub packages and did so with regularity last season with Watt out. Even with Watt back, they still have a need for Clowney to play inside in sub packages, though the Texans are thinner at outside linebacker after losing key reserve John Simon. Wherever he lines up, Clowney’s best football could still be ahead of him, still only going into his age 24 season. He has a ton of natural talent and could be a perennial All-Pro if he can stay healthy.

With Clowney playing outside linebacker part-time, Vince Wilfork (507 snaps), Christian Covington (415 snaps), and DJ Reader (404 snaps) led the defensive line in snaps played last season. Wilfork remains unsigned, ahead of his age 36 season, and he struggled last season anyway, but both Covington and Reader played well in limited action, particularly against the run. Covington struggled on 167 snaps as a 6th round rookie in 2015, but graded out above average last season. Reader, meanwhile, was just a 5th round rookie last season, but also graded out above average. In base packages, they will start with Watt on this 3-man defensive line. Fourth round rookie Carlos Watkins could also have a rotational role as a rookie. It’s a much improved defensive line with Watt back from injury and they have some nice situational pieces as well.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Along with Clowney, fellow former first round pick Whitney Mercilus had a big year in Watt’s absence last season, finishing 4th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus. The 26th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Mercilus graded out below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, but has broken out over the past 2 seasons, finishing in the top-8 at his position in both seasons. Mercilus, Clowney, and Watt will wreak havoc in passing situations, but it’s unclear who the 4th player will be rushing the passer with them.

If Clowney rushes the passer from the interior in sub packages, Brennan Scarlett, their new top reserve outside linebacker with Simon gone, will have to rush off the edge opposite Mercilus in sub packages. That’s a very likely scenario though, considering the Texans don’t have another capable interior pass rusher. A 2016 undrafted free agent, Scarlett was underwhelming on just 113 snaps as a rookie, but the organization likes him and he has a shot to win a situational role. He should be a big downgrade from Simon, who was quietly a solid player for the Texans over the past 2 seasons, grading out above average and topping 500 snaps in both seasons. He signed with division rival Indianapolis on a 3-year, 13.5 million dollar deal this off-season.

At middle linebacker, Brian Cushing and Benardrick McKinney remains as starters, though Cushing could be pushed for his job by 2nd round rookie Zach Cunningham. McKinney was also a second round pick, getting drafted in 2015. He flashed on 411 snaps as a rookie and then finished 18th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus last season, while making all 16 starts. The big 6-4 246 pounder was surprisingly impressive in coverage last season. Going into his age 25 season, his best football could still be ahead of him.

Cushing also had a solid season, finishing 23rd among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus. He did miss 3 games with injury, which have always been an issue for him. His worst stretch of injuries came in 2012-2013, when he played just 12 total games in 2 seasons combined. He played 30 games in 2014-2015, but didn’t look like his old self, grading out below average in both seasons. Last season’s solid play was a bit of a surprise, but it’s no guarantee to continue in 2017, given that he is going into his age 30 season and given his injury history.

Owed 8.5 million non-guaranteed in 2018 with Cunningham waiting in the wings, this is likely Cushing’s final season in Houston. Cunningham was a borderline first round talent who slipped to pick #57, so the Texans made the wise decision drafting him, even if he doesn’t fill an immediate need. Cushing will probably hold Cunningham off this season, but Cunningham should be a starter for them at some point. With Watt coming back from injury, this should be an improved front 7, but they still have depth issues in sub packages with John Simon signing with the Colts.

Grade: B+

Secondary

Simon wasn’t their only off-season loss on defense, as AJ Bouye and Quintin Demps signed with the Jaguars and Bears respectively. They finished last season 3rd among cornerbacks and 12th among safeties respectively, so they will be big losses for the Texans. While their front 7 should be better with Watt back, their secondary could easily be a lot worse. The Texans don’t have an obvious replacement for Demps at safety, but Corey Moore was their 3rd safety last season, so I would expect the 2015 undrafted free agent to get the first crack at the job.

Moore didn’t play well last season though, finishing 60th among 90 eligible safeties on Pro Football Focus on 392 snaps, in the first significant action of his career. He’s a weak starting option. He will face competition from KJ Dillon, a a 2016 5th round pick who played just 19 underwhelming snaps as a rookie before tearing his ACL. Eddie Pleasant (1 start in 5 seasons in the league) and Robert Nelson (0 starts in 3 seasons in the league) are also options. Whoever starts figures to be a major downgrade from Demps.

Andre Hal is locked in as the other starting safety, but largely by default, as he finished 55th among 90 eligible safeties in 11 starts last season. The 2014 7th round pick has made 22 starts over the past 2 seasons, but has graded out below average in both seasons. He’s unlikely to be much better in 2017. He wouldn’t be starting for a lot of teams, but he’s the Texans’ best safety with Demps gone. Safety figures to be a real position of weakness in 2017 on a defense that will have to be good to make up for the lack of talent on offense.

Fortunately, they are deeper at cornerback, even without AJ Bouye. Bouye played so well last season that they’re obviously going to miss him, but he was actually just their 4th cornerback at this time last year and only saw starts because their top-3 cornerbacks, Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson, and Kevin Johnson, all missed time with injury. Johnson’s injury was the most severe, as he played just 286 snaps in 6 games before breaking his foot and missing the rest of the season. He was probably the best of the trio too, grading out the highest among the three on Pro Football Focus in limited action. A 2015 1st round pick, Johnson graded out slightly below average as a rookie, but looked on his way to a breakout season in 2016 before the injury. He’ll probably open the season as the 3rd cornerback, but he has a ton of upside and could push both Jackson and Joseph for their starting jobs.

Jackson missed just 2 games with injury, but he hasn’t played more than 14 games in a season since 2012, always missing time with nagging injuries (13 games missed in 4 seasons). He finished 35th among cornerbacks last season, but has also graded out below average in 4 of 7 seasons in the league, so he’s been inconsistent throughout his career. Now going into his age 29 season, he’s in the tail end of his prime and could begin to decline soon. He could also have another couple solid seasons as a starter left in him though.

Joseph has had the better overall career, grading out above average in 8 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus, but he’s also going into his age 33 season and finished behind Jackson in 2016, ending the year as Pro Football Focus’ 45th ranked cornerback. He also missed 3 games with injury. That was a big dropoff from 2015, when he finished 9th in one of the best seasons of his career. Joseph is going into his 12th season in the league in 2017 and will be a free agent after the season, so he could easily decide to retire next off-season. He and Jackson could both have solid seasons again, but that’s far from a guarantee, so they will need Jackson to be healthy and continue developing. Their secondary could be a lot worse this season.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Texans get JJ Watt back from injury and getting rid of Brock Osweiler was addition by subtraction, but their quarterback situation still isn’t good and they sold 3 key defensive players in John Simon, AJ Bouye, and Quintin Demps, none of whom were properly replaced. They also didn’t add much in the draft or free agency in terms of players who are actually going to help them this season. They have major issues in the receiving corps, on the offensive line, at quarterback, and in the secondary and lack sub package depth upfront after Mercilus, Watt, and Clowney. They still have a disruptive front 7 and should have a strong defense once again, but not strong enough to make up for their offensive issues. Their division should be tougher this season and they’re unlikely to be as good in close games as they were last season (8-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less). I think it’s unlikely this team makes it back to the post-season in 2017. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.

Prediction: TBD

Houston Texans at New England Patriots: 2016 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Houston Texans (10-7) at New England Patriots (14-2)

The Patriots are 16 point favorites here in this matchup with the Houston Texans, the first time a team has been favored by that many points in the playoffs since the 1998 Minnesota Vikings blew out the Arizona Cardinals 41-21 as 16 point home favorites in the divisional round of the playoffs that season. Not only are they the largest playoff favorites in two decades, it’s also hard to argue that they don’t deserve it. The Texans snuck into the playoffs because of close wins and a weak division, winning the AFC South with just 9 wins (4-6 in non-divisional games), despite a -49 point differential that was easily worst among playoff teams (7th worst in the entire NFL). They lucked out in their first playoff matchup, getting to host the Oakland Raiders and 3rd string quarterback Connor Cook, but now they enter the round of 8 as easily the worst team left facing arguably the best team in the entire NFL.

The Patriots had easily the most impressive regular season of any team in the league. They have the best point differential (+191) and first down rate differential (+5.90%) of any team in the post-season, despite not even having Tom Brady for the first 4 games of the season. One of those 4 games was against these Texans, who they defeated 27-0 week 3, despite being down to 3rd string quarterback Jacoby Brissett. With Brady back, the Patriots have obvious advantages on both sides of the ball. I mentioned earlier that almost all of the Texans regular seasons wins were close (9 wins by a total of 44 points). In addition to that, a lot of their losses were not close (7 losses by a total of 93 points).

I also mentioned earlier that they struggle outside of the division. That was especially bad on the road outside of the division, losing all 5 road non-divisional games, by an average of 15.6 points per game. These Patriots are better than any team they’ve faced this year though and should be able to win this one easy. I’ve flipped back and forth between Houston +16 and New England -16, but I’ve ultimately decided on New England, though I could see this being a 14-point game that isn’t as close as the final score suggests. The Patriots played a weak schedule in the regular season and are more vulnerable than most people realize, but the schedule isn’t really getting any harder this week. It’s a no confidence play either way because I have no interest in betting on Houston here, but I don’t really want to lay 16 points either.

New England Patriots 27 Houston Texans 10

Pick against the spread: New England -16

Confidence: None

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Oakland Raiders at Houston Texans: 2016 NFL Wild Card Round Pick

Oakland Raiders (12-4) at Houston Texans (9-7)

The Texans won the AFC South and will host a home playoff game, but they had probably the worst regular season of any team that made the playoffs. Their 9 wins came by a combined 44 points with their biggest margin of victory being 9 points, back in a 23-14 week 1 victory over the Chicago Bears, who ended the season with 3 wins. Their 7 losses, meanwhile, came by a combined 93 points, giving them a -49 point differential, 7th worst in the NFL, right between non-playoff teams Carolina and Jacksonville. They also enter the post-season 7th worst in the NFL in first down rate differential and with a -10 offensive touchdown differential, 5th worst in the league. Their 23 offensive touchdowns scored were the lowest in the league by any team, but they were able to make the playoffs thanks to a weak division and a lot of close wins, as well as a capable, but far from elite defense.

The Texans luck out again though, as they get probably the easiest playoff matchup they could have gotten. The Raiders won 12 games, but enter the playoffs in about as bad of an injury situation as possible. After hardly having any injuries to starters this season, the Raiders are now without starting quarterback Derek Carr and probably Donald Penn, their valuable blindside protector and one of the best left tackles in the league. Those are two major blows to their offense. Connor Cook will make the start for the Raiders this week, even though he’s a 4th round rookie who has never made a start in his career, making him the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to make his first NFL start in the post-season.

Cook played about a half last week against Denver, in relief of Matt McGloin, a veteran backup who struggled before leaving the game with a shoulder injury. Cook outplayed McGloin, but only by default. He’s also only seen practice reps the past two weeks because he was the 3rd string quarterback until Carr went down and 3rd string quarterbacks don’t practice during the week. He even admitted after last week’s game that he was calling plays he didn’t know. He’ll get a full week with the first team in practice this week, but he’s still in a very tough situation. McGloin is expected to be active this week as the backup, meaning we could easily see both quarterbacks in this one if Cook struggles early.

Even before the injury, the Raiders were not as good as their record.  Eight of their 12 victories have come by 7 points or fewer, including a 5-0 record in games decided by a field goal or less and they have a point differential of just +31, just behind non-playoff teams in the Eagles and Ravens (both at +36). That’s despite the fact that the Raiders have a league best +16 turnover margin. Turnover margins are incredibly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and, if we assumed turnover neutral football for them going forward, which we always should, it was hard to see them advancing deep in the playoffs even with Carr. I’m taking them as 4 point underdogs in Houston because of how many close games the Texans have played this year (4 wins by 4 points or fewer), but the Raiders, without Carr and Penn, are one of the worst teams in the league, so I can’t take them with any sort of confidence, even as bad as Houston is.

Houston Texans 16 Oakland Raiders 13

Pick against the spread: Oakland +4

Confidence: None

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Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans: 2016 Week 17 NFL Pick

Houston Texans (9-6) at Tennessee Titans (8-7)

The Titans had a week from hell last week. Not only did they suffer their biggest loss of the season, losing 38-17 in Jacksonville of all places (previously their biggest loss this season was by 9), but they also lost starting quarterback Marcus Mariota with a broken leg that figures to sideline him well into the off-season. It’s really a shame because a healthy Titans team could have been some noise in the post-season. Even after last week’s loss to an admittedly underrated Jaguars team, they still rank 8th in first down rate differential as they have 2 more first downs and a whopping 10 more offensive touchdowns than their opponents on the season. Only New England, Dallas, and Atlanta have a better offensive touchdown margin on the season than the Titans. The only reason they’re just 8-7 is they have a league worst -8 margin in return touchdowns, but that’s more bad luck than anything. Outside of those 8 snaps, they’ve outplayed their opponents for the most part this season, which is why they rank 8th in first down rate differential.

The Texans, meanwhile, have already won the division, despite ranking 26th in first down rate differential and allowing 10 more offensive touchdowns than they’ve scored. Their 21 offensive touchdowns are the fewest in the entire NFL. Their 9 wins have come by a combined 44 points and their 6 losses have come by a combined 86 points, giving them a point differential of -42, 7th worst in the NFL and easily the worst among playoff teams or potential playoff teams. Even with veteran backup Matt Cassel under center instead of the promising young Mariota, the Titans are at least a comparable team to the Texans. Cassel might even still be the best quarterback in this game, as Tom Savage is starting for the Texans and his biggest accomplishment through 2 games is being just a little bit less terrible than free agent mega-bust Brock Osweiler was.

The problem is this line only moved from 4.5 to 3 for the big Tennessee loss and Mariota injury, because the odds makers seem to think the Texans are going to rest starters, given that they’re locked into the #4 seed regardless of the outcome of this game. They’ll rest injured starters like running back Lamar Miller and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, but they didn’t rest any starters last year when they were locked into the 4th seed and they need to give quarterback Tom Savage all the reps he can get with the first team anyway, given that this is just his 3rd game of the season, so I don’t see them taking it easy on Tennessee. I’m taking the Titans even at 3, but I’m not confident enough to bet anything on it.

Tennessee Titans 20 Houston Texans 16

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -3

Confidence: Low

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Houston Texans at Cincinnati Bengals: 2016 Week 16 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (5-8-1) at Houston Texans (7-7)

The Bengals were expecting to get top wide receiver AJ Green back from injury this week, after a 4-game absence with a hamstring injury. Green even said he was playing this week. However, at the end of a lost season, after getting eliminated in a close loss to the Steelers last week, the Bengals have decided to shut Green down for the rest of the regular season. Green won’t be the only absent Cincinnati player this week either, as he’ll be joined by top linebacker Vontaze Burfict and tight end Tyler Eifert, their top pass catcher in Green’s absence. Despite that, this line has shifted from 3 on the early line last week to 2.5 this week. The Texans could be without starting running back Lamar Miller, but we’re still not really getting any line value with the Bengals anymore. They’re still the pick here, but this is a no confidence pick because a field goal Houston victory is definitely a strong possibility.

Houston Texans 17 Cincinnati Bengals 16

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +2.5

Confidence: None

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Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans: 2016 Week 15 NFL Pick

Jacksonville Jaguars (2-11) at Houston Texans (7-6)

The Jaguars are on an 8-game losing streak and are coming off of one of their least impressive performances of the season, losing at home by 9 despite winning the turnover battle, against a Minnesota team that was missing their best defensive player, safety Harrison Smith. However, typically, it’s a good idea to bet on teams on long losing streaks, especially as road underdogs, as they tend to be undervalued. Road underdogs on a 7+ game losing streak are 56-30 ATS since 1989.

I think the Jaguars are definitely undervalued here as 6 point underdogs in Houston. The Texans are 7-6, but they aren’t winning big. Their 7 wins have come by a total of 41 points (an average of 5.86 points per game), while the 6 losses have come by a total of 86 points (an average of 14.33 points per game), giving them a -45 point differential that ranks just 26th in the NFL. The Jaguars, meanwhile, aren’t exactly getting blown out as their last 6 losses have come by a combined 41 points, an average of 6.83 points per game. The Texans are also probably the easiest opponent the Jaguars have faced in recent weeks. They lost by 3 to the Texans at home week 10, but other than that their last game that was easier than this was their win in Chicago week 6.

Even in that week 10 loss, the Jaguars won the first down battle 23-16 and moved the chains at a 4.74% higher rate. The Jaguars have actually won the first down battle on the season as well, as they rank 14th in first down rate differential, while the Texans rank 28th. Despite their 7-6 record, the Texans are -10 in offensive touchdown differential (4th worst in the NFL), while the Jaguars are just -4. The Jaguars’ -98 point differential is worse than Houston’s, but that’s largely because of a -17 turnover margin and turnover margins are incredibly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis (on average a team with a +3 turnover margin in a game will have a turnover margin of +0.0 the following week, the same average as teams that had a -3 turnover margin). Outside of those 17 snaps, the Jaguars have been the better team this season. I like the Jaguars a lot as 6 point road underdogs.

Houston Texans 17 Jacksonville Jaguars 16

Pick against the spread: Jacksonville +6

Confidence: High

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Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts: 2016 Week 14 NFL Pick

Houston Texans (6-6) at Indianapolis Colts (6-6)

The Colts are coming off of a huge 41-10 win over the Jets in New York on Monday Night Football. Typically, teams carry over strong performances on Monday Night into the following week, as teams are 40-23 ATS since 1989 off of a Monday Night Football win of 21 or more points. However, this line jumped significantly in the past week, from -4 in favor of Indianapolis on the early line last week to now -6.5, following Indianapolis’ huge win. As a result, we’d be getting no line value with the Colts.

With that in mind, I actually like the Texans this week, as they are in their 2nd of two road games. Teams are 140-108 ATS as road underdogs off a road loss since 2008, including 111-74 ATS when it’s their 2nd of 2 road games. This is because teams tend to do better in their 2nd straight road game than their first one, but lines don’t really adjust for this. Teams are 235-252 straight up in their 2nd of two road games since 2008, getting outscored by an average of 0.98 points per game, as opposed to 334-467 straight up in their 1st of one road game since 2008, getting outscored by an average of 3.00 points per game. I’d need at least a touchdown to put money on the Texans, but they’re the pick here.

Indianapolis Colts 24 Houston Texans 20

Pick against the spread: Houston +6.5

Confidence: Low

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