January 3, 2016
Defense Last Hope for Division Champs
by Bob Hulsey
The old cliché says that defense wins championships. The Houston Texans will be a good test for that this weekend. The NFL's top defense will decide if the Texans, defending AFC South champions, can move forward in the post-season or settle for another early exit.
Having lost All-Everything J.J. Watt early in the season to back surgery and CB Kevin Johnson mid-season to a knee injury, the remaining squad under Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennel have been able to hold the fort over a 9-7 season despite little help from an oft-sputtering offense.
Houston was tops in the league in yards-against, limiting opponents to 301.3 yards per game (note that non-playoff teams Arizona, Minnesota and Denver ranked second, third and fourth respectively, so the old adage is already on life support). They are 11th in points allowed at 20.5 points per game. By comparison, the Oakland Raiders, whom they will host in Saturday's AFC Wild Card Playoff, rank 20th in points allowed per game (24.0) and 25th in yardage allowed (375.1) per game.
With Derek Carr out for the Raiders, the quarterbacking in this one is a grab bag. Matt McGloin and rookie Connor Cook may split time under center while the Texans must pray for good production from Brock Osweiler to get the offense moving.
Both clubs have adequate running games. Oakland's Latavius Murray and Houston's Lamar Miller both averaged four yards per carry. Murray finished 24th in the NFL in rushing yardage. Miller finished tenth, despite sitting out the season's final week nursing a sore ankle.
Just as it happened when the two teams played in Mexico City in November, the game should be close with the winner being the team that can shut down the other at the end (or get help from the officials). The Texans (7-1 at home) have specialized in winning it close and ugly at NRG Stadium this year.
The Texans will be hungry to legitimize a rocky season, both collectively and (particularly Osweiler) personally. This is a chance to put behind them all the insults and slights that have built up while the ship's crew has been busy plugging leaks all year. The Raiders, meanwhile, will be satisfied to have made the playoffs and will have the easy excuse of an injured starting quarterback to use if they come up short. That's why the Texans are a slight favorite but it shouldn't be an easy afternoon for either squad.
The winning team extends their season one week before likely hibernating in frosty Foxboro for the winter. However, winning Saturday will mean a lot to Head Coach Bill O'Brien in his quest to show continued progress in his career track. Last year, they were crushed by Kansas City in the opening round of the playoffs. A repeat of that will not look good.
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