Don't underestimate O'Brien's Texans

The line was set. The No. 4 seed Texans would be laying 1.5 points, getting a home game against the No. 6 seed Titans in an all-AFC South conference title game none of us was expecting. 


A week earlier, the Texans had led 21-0 and were driving.The game seemed over. On fourth-and-inches, with the Texans gashing the Chiefs’ defense and averaging 7.5 yards per play, coach Bill O’Brien took his foot off the gas pedal and kicked a short field goal. Within an hour, the car was totaled. The field goal was good, but everything that happened to the Texans after that was not. A long kick return after the field goal set up a quick Chiefs touchdown. A failed fake punt attempt set up another ... then another ... and another. 


Similar to a No. 1 seed playing an undersized and overmatched No. 16 seed in the first round of March Madness, the Chiefs hit the Texans with a 51-7 avalanche of a run. The Chiefs trailed by double digits and won by double digits, a feat they remarkably achieved in all three postseason victories last season. 


Collateral damage from that onslaught has been O’Brien’s reputation. Being on Twitter for this game, you’d think he was ill-equipped to coach a junior varsity team, much less one in the NFL. The loss seemed to wipe away the fact that the Texans were + 400 to win the division most of last summer, a bet on which they made good. In ’18 they were + 200, in ’16 they were + 190 and in ’15 they were + 400 again. O’Brien was at the helm for all those seasons, capturing those division titles as underdogs. 


In ’17 the Texans were well on their way to another division crown when Jacksonville, at + 2500, became the beneficiary of a Deshaun Watson injury and stole the division. Had Watson not gotten hurt, it’s likely that O’Brien and the Texans would be going for their sixth consecutive AFC South banner. It is unusual that a team can win four of five divisions and do so as a sizable underdog each time. Surely the books have caught on and will make the Texans favorites this season? Nope. At + 325, ahead of only the lowly Jaguars, the Texans remain under the radar. The Colts are favored at + 115, with the Titans at + 185. 


Why are the Texans such heavy dogs? What are the oddsmakers looking at? Well, the answer is the odds. The Texans’ first four games are a gauntlet, with visits to K.C. and Pittsburgh and home games against the Ravens and Vikings. They are favored in none of those games. If given truth serum, they would likely admit they’d be thrilled to manage a 2-2 split. Their season win total is set at a very humble 7.5. They will be seeking to once again silence naysayers and earn more of the January game checks they’ve become accustomed to under O’Brien, despite his unpopularity. 


On to the best bets. 


Texans + 10 vs. Chiefs Week 1. Although a trip to Arrowhead is as tough a draw as anyone can have, the timing of this game favors the visitors. A lack of fans will negate what would have been a raucous bunch celebrating their first title in a lifetime. Also, part of the difficulty of traveling is the fatigue and the time it takes from preparation. Doing so in the first week will mitigate those obstacles. Furthermore, health is one of the Texans’ big concerns. J.J. Watt, Brandin Cooks, Will Fuller, Randall Cobb and David Johnson are all good players who struggle to stay on the field. They should never be healthier than in the opener. The Texans played twice in K.C. last year. They led 24-0 in one game and won by a touchdown in the other. With no offseason and perhaps a very abbreviated preseason, 10 points is too many to lay for a game fraught with so much uncertainty.  


Colts to make playoffs: Yes -175. Wouldn’t lay a number like this unless I had a ton of confidence that it was the right side. So much went wrong for them last year — quarterback retiring late in the summer, backup quarterback getting injured midseason and kicker making kicks like Shaq made free throws. Even so, they were 5-2 with a lead In Pittsburgh and a home game against the Dolphins on deck. They were on their way to 7-2 and likely the playoffs before Jacoby Brissett got injured and the season went off the rails. They add Philip Rivers and introduce him to much better working conditions than he left (and struggled under) last season. He gets a very highly regarded offensive coach in Frank Reich and a very good offensive line, both of which can mask flaws that may trouble Rivers in the twilight of his career. The Colts get two gimmes against the Jaguars and have the luxury of hosting their three toughest opponents — Vikings, Ravens and Packers. Spending high picks on Jonathan Taylor and Michael Pittman Jr. should give this offense some much-needed juice. While the ceiling might be low in terms of winning a championship, the floor is relatively high, and this ticket will cash before Santa comes down the chimney. 


Titans to make the playoffs: No -110. The ’19 Titans were a fantastic story and one that seems attainable for just about every fan base. Sneak out a 9-7 season, find your way into the playoffs and get hot once you’re there. When I study them, however, the same word continues to pop up: sustainability. Derrick Henry had 428 touches, an astounding 120 of which came from Week 17 on. That type of workload is almost always a precursor to regression. Ryan Tannehill had a 9.6-ypc mark and was second in touchdown percentage. Has he turned a corner? I have my doubts. QB injuries for the Colts and Steelers were a major reason the Titans even had an opportunity to qualify for a wild-card spot last year. I see a step back in ’20. 


Jaguars most losses + 375. Seems like a gift. Very rarely do teams break camp with losing as the goal. Careers are too short, as are the contracts for coaches and executives. But Sam Hinkie would be proud of the Jags’ “process” this offseason. Washing out the bad taste Tom Coughlin left in everyone’s mouths, they traded Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye and showed no interest in signing Cam Newton, Jameis Winston or Andy Dalton. When the trade deadline approaches, I think they will continue to shed any veteran who can fetch an asset. Gardner Minshew was up and down but had an overall solid season. However, he did miss time with an injury, and he does run quite often (344 rushing yards in just 12 starts). A smaller running QB without a solid backup is a recipe for a lot to go wrong (or right, if losing is the goal). The Jaguars are the fourth team in a three-team battle for the division, meaning each opponent will really need to beat them. They will comply. This looks like a two- or three-win team.


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