As each club is eliminated from the postseason, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Today it’s the Houston Texans, who collapsed against the Chiefs in a wild 51-31 divisional-round loss.
What Went Right
The Texans won 10 games, earned their division crown, won a playoff game, and sent three players to the Pro Bowl. That’s not bad! Oh, and they also held a 24-0 lead over the Chiefs in the divisional round. About that …
What Went Wrong
This was one of the most embarrassing collapses in NFL playoff history. The Chiefs spotted the Texans 24 points, and then ripped off 41 straight to turn the game upside down. There’s never been anything quite like it:
Houston/Kansas City is the first game in NFL history, regular or postseason, where a team led by more than 21 points after the first quarter and trailed at halftime.— Football Perspective (@fbgchase) January 12, 2020
This game was eerily reminiscent of the Titans’ win over the Ravens on Saturday. The Texans got a quick touchdown on a deep pass (a Deshaun Watson bomb to Kenny Stills), got a couple turnovers from the Chiefs (a blocked punt returned for a score and a muffed punt return), and the Chiefs’ receivers were dropping seemingly every Patrick Mahomes pass. The stars were aligning—and soon Houston led by virtually four possessions. Their win probability topped 90 percent.
And then it fell apart so fast. Head coach Bill O’Brien made a couple of ill-advised decisions in the second quarter. First, he kicked a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the Kansas City 13-yard line, foolishly believing that a 24-point lead is an acceptable cushion against Mahomes and Company. A brisk 59 seconds later, the Chiefs were in the end zone. Then, on the next possession, the Texans called for a fake punt on fourth-and-4 from their own 31-yard line, and this happened:
Then things really unraveled. The Chiefs scored again on their next drive. And again on the one after that. And again, and again, and again, and again. Kansas City scored a postseason-record seven consecutive touchdowns to not only complete an incredible comeback, but to do it in such dominating fashion that most of the second half wasn’t interesting.
The result was a reminder that the Chiefs offense is an unstoppable force, and the Texans defense, which ranked 26th in DVOA, is far from an immovable object. The Texans were 10-point underdogs entering this game, but the final score is indicative of the Bill O’Brien era in Houston: consistent underachievement and disappointment.
Houston is stacked with talent. Deshaun Watson is one of the league’s best quarterbacks, and he’s working with DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, and Kenny Stills. The offensive line is still a work in progress, but the defense also has stars in J.J. Watt, Zach Cunningham, and Whitney Mercilus, among others. And yet season after season, the Texans seem to leave potential on the table.
This year, every other AFC South team—the Colts, Jaguars, and Titans—underwent some form of quarterback instability. Andrew Luck retired days before the season opened, Nick Foles broke his collarbone in Week 1, and the Titans swapped Marcus Mariota for Ryan Tannehill after Week 6. The AFC South was, in other words, a shitshow—and the Texans should have dominated it. Yet they went just 10-6 overall and didn’t win the divisional crown until Week 16. Now they’ll watch as the Titans play in the AFC championship game, and O’Brien had no answers after the loss:
O’Brien’s future will be up in the air over the next few days. O’Brien has been the de facto general manager since Houston fired GM Brian Gaine in June 2019, and he gambled away the team’s future to try to win this season. In August he gave up a third-round pick for Browns running back Duke Johnson, who totaled 820 scrimmage yards. On August 31, he gave up two first-round picks and a second-rounder to the Dolphins for left tackle Laremy Tunsil and Stills—both of whom have been decent, but haven’t been quite worth the price Houston paid. Before the October trade deadline he gave up another third-rounder for Raiders corner Gareon Conley, who slotted into the starting role immediately but was far from a difference maker. He also traded away Jadeveon Clowney for pennies on the dollar and gave up a sixth-round pick for reserve defensive back Keion Crossen.
This is the problem with giving a coach—especially one who should be on a warm seat—personnel control. O’Brien made moves that he hoped would save his job, not the ones that were best for the long-term health of the Texans. And all those moves still landed the team in the same spot: another early and bitterly disappointing playoff exit.
It would be perfectly reasonable for Houston to cut ties with O’Brien this offseason, even after a playoff win over the Bills. Two years ago, the Titans fired Mike Mularkey even after his team beat the Chiefs in the wild-card round. Now Tennessee is playing for a chance to go to the Super Bowl.
If the Texans do stick with O’Brien, it’s imperative that they bring someone in to oversee the personnel side of things. O’Brien has already raided the team of most of its long-term assets—if the franchise waits much longer, the cupboard will be completely bare when they finally look for a GM.
That brings us to free agency. The Texans’ need for a general manager is especially pressing given how many crucial decisions need to be made this offseason.
Watson looms over the team’s free agency plans. The Pro Bowl quarterback is entering his fourth year in the league, and while the Texans will be able to exercise a fifth-year option to keep him under wraps in 2021, now is the time to begin thinking about an extension. Jared Goff and Carson Wentz each received extensions after their third years in the league—Watson should expect the same. Watson’s exact value could depend on what Dak Prescott or Patrick Mahomes agree to (or vice versa, if Watson signs first), but it’s safe to say it will be a record-breaking number, or close to it. Expect something worth around $35 million in annual value.
Watson’s extension isn’t the only one the team needs to plan. Tunsil is under contract for only one more season, which is another reason why it was so questionable when O’Brien sent two first-rounders for him. Tunsil, the 17th-ranked tackle by Pro Football Focus, has been fine protecting Watson’s blindside, but he hasn’t been great. Regardless, Tunsil will enter negotiations with ton of leverage. Can a team trade multiple firsts for a player and not reward him with a mega contract? The Texans are going to pay a premium for average blocking; a less desperate decision-maker could have made this situation far more manageable.
In more immediate concerns, the Texans have a number of players who are set to hit free agency next season. Starting corners Bradley Roby and Johnathan Joseph are both set to hit the open market. Joseph is 35 and missed the wild-card game with a hamstring injury before returning for the divisional round—after the Texans traded for Conley midseason, they may be looking to move on from the veteran back. Roby, meanwhile, came to Houston on a one-year deal and was the best corner on the team—though that isn’t saying much. The Texans had the 26th-ranked pass defense (by DVOA) thanks to a leaky secondary, and should be looking to upgrade at every position outside of free safety, which is held down by Justin Reid.
On offense, the most notable free agent is leading rusher Carlos Hyde. While Hyde was productive in Houston, he was a journeyman for the past couple of seasons for a reason—the Texans shouldn’t break the bank for him.
Texans are projected to have over $61 million in cap space, 10th most in the league. They’ll be able to make this all work, but there is a lot of juggling to be done.
Thanks to all of O’Brien’s trades, the team has only its second-rounder as far as notable picks go. The team should prioritize the offensive line and secondary, and could also address the running back position. Of course, if they don’t hire a general manager, O’Brien could just trade that draft pick, too. Things will get worse and worse until this team starts running itself like a real NFL franchise.