At the end of the first quarter of the Chiefs-Texans divisional-round matchup, Bill O’Brien found himself in an unfamiliar position: leading early in a playoff game. Since he took over as Houston’s head coach in 2014, O’Brien’s teams had played in five postseason games before this weekend. They had led after the first quarter in only one, a January 2017 wild-card bout against the Conor Cook–led Raiders. But here they were on Sunday, up 24-0 early in the second quarter against an excellent Kansas City, seemingly on their way to hosting the Titans in the AFC championship next week.
Turns out O’Brien’s team doesn’t need to fall behind early to find a way to lose in the postseason. The Texans completed one of the most embarrassing defeats in NFL history on Sunday, falling 51-31 to the Chiefs despite that massive early lead. It marked the first time a team that had been up at least 14-0 after the first quarter lost in the playoffs, and it ties the mark for fourth-worst collapse in postseason history. But even those details undersell the Texans’ futility after the first quarter: The Chiefs became the first team ever to win by 20 after trailing by at least 20 in a postseason game.
It’s the type of loss that calls O’Brien’s job into question. The Texans have won the AFC South four times in his six years, but they’ve never advanced past the divisional round, and they’ve never truly lived up to the roster’s potential. Much of the blame for the Chief’s furious comeback will fall on defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, who will turn 73 before next season, but O’Brien’s squad looked wholly unprepared for how to respond once Patrick Mahomes got going.
The worst playoff loss in #Texans history and the worst meltdown in franchise history, all in the same game. Crennel a likely fall guy. The Texans should aim higher and remove their king’s crown.— Brian T. Smith (@ChronBrianSmith) January 12, 2020
The Chiefs woke up in the second quarter, as Mahomes tossed four touchdowns, including three to tight end Travis Kelce—a record for receiving scores in a playoff quarter. The beastly tight end finished with 10 catches on 12 targets for 134 yards and was a problem for the Texans defense for most of Sunday.
Travis Kelce is a grown man @tkelce pic.twitter.com/zqbCb9Zsgw— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) January 12, 2020
There’s only so much that can be done when Mahomes gets cooking—the quarterback ate the Texans’ man coverage alive all afternoon—but O’Brien made plenty of bewildering decisions along the way. Early in the second quarter, with Kansas City on the ropes, Houston faced fourth-and-1 on the Chiefs’ 13. O’Brien opted for a 31-yard field goal rather than trusting his offense to pick up the yard and step on his opponent’s throat, which could’ve been more valuable than the three points. On the Texans’ next drive, with the score 24-7, O’Brien decided to finally go for it—on a fake punt on fourth-and-4 from his own 31. Safety Justin Reid was tackled after picking up 2 yards, giving the Chiefs the ball on the edge of field goal range. Kansas City took three plays and 23 seconds to score their second touchdown.
The Texans go for the fake punt and the @Chiefs defense makes a huge play! #ChiefsKingdom #NFLPlayoffs— NFL (@NFL) January 12, 2020
: #HOUvsKC on CBS
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There were also other odd coaching decisions, like dialing up a reverse option for wide receiver Kenny Stills in the third quarter that led to a loss of 14. (Houston would ultimately score on the drive.) The Texans also had their share of bad luck: A fumble on a second-quarter kickoff bounced right into the hands of Chiefs running back Darwin Thompson, and receiver DeAndre Hopkins—who finished with nine receptions for 118 yards—was limited for most of the game with a rib injury. But a 24-point lead doesn’t turn into a 20-point loss because of one or two things.
“We definitely have to coach better. We didn’t do enough to put our guys in position to make enough plays. We have to do a better job of coaching,” O’Brien said after the game.
It’s a terrible end to a season in which the Texans went all in: O’Brien, who has served as de facto general manager since Brian Gaine was fired in June, traded two first-rounders and a second for Stills and tackle Laremy Tunsil and third-rounders for running back Duke Johnson and defensive back Gareon Conley. The Tunsil move in particular signaled Houston was serious: The team has struggled to protect Deshaun Watson since taking the quarterback in the first round of the 2017 draft; he was sacked a league-leading 62 times in 2018 and was so battered at one point he couldn’t board a flight to an away game. Adding Tunsil and rookie tackle Tytus Howard helped somewhat—Watson was sacked 44 times in 2019, sixth most in the league—but the protection issues largely remained. They reared their head once again in the divisional round: Once the Chiefs took control, Watson faced heavy pressure and was sacked four times. While the third-year pro has been criticized for holding onto the ball for too long, he frequently has to scramble just to try to keep plays alive, like on this sack on Sunday.
Frank Clark's 3rd down sack on Deshaun Watson took 10.8 seconds from snap-to-sack, the 2nd-longest sack this season.@TheRealFrankC_ traveled 42.2 yards of in-play distance, the 2nd most distance traveled on a sack.#HOUvsKC | #ChiefsKingdom pic.twitter.com/mIXHegNvFM— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 12, 2020
These aren’t new problems, and neither are the playoff choke jobs. The last time the Texans met the Chiefs in the playoffs, in January 2016, they were shut out at home, losing 30-0. Hosting the division-rival Colts in the wild-card round last year, Houston didn’t score until the fourth quarter and fell 21-7. Even last week’s game against the Bills nearly turned into a disaster: The Texans were down 13-0 at halftime; they eventually rallied and held a 19-16 lead late in the fourth quarter, but turned the ball over on downs when moving the chains would’ve ended the game. The Bills kicked a field goal to force overtime, and the Texans won, averting disaster for at least one week.
All of this adds up to a problem the Texans have to address if they want to get past the second weekend of the playoffs. O’Brien has consistently proved he’s good enough to win the AFC South, but he hasn’t done much beyond that. The team’s issues remain the same, and he’s been consistently outcoached when the stakes are the highest. Sunday’s loss was the crown jewel in a long line of disappointing January performances. While the Buzzsaw Titans lurk in the AFC South and the Colts still have one of the best young rosters in football, there’s little reason to doubt that the Texans can make it back to this point in 2020. There’s plenty of reasons to doubt, however, whether O’Brien should be the person leading them there.