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Analysis: The Texans might actually be this good

| Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018, 12:09 p.m.
Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry, center, is stopped by Houston Texans outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney (90) and defensive end J.J. Watt (99) during the second half of an NFL football game, Monday, Nov. 26, 2018, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry, center, is stopped by Houston Texans outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney (90) and defensive end J.J. Watt (99) during the second half of an NFL football game, Monday, Nov. 26, 2018, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The Houston Texans are widely believed to be something other than their record suggests they are, which is one of the best teams in the NFL. The conventional appraisal of the Texans is that 9-3 is only a cheap disguise. Their success has more commonly been explained away than celebrated. Their nine-game winning streak is inspected for flaws and flukes.

It is not often that arguing a 9-3 team should be taken seriously counts as provocative. Here goes: The Texans should be taken seriously. Yes, their schedule is weak. Yes, they lost at home to the New York Giants. Yes, four of their victories have come by three points or fewer, two of those in overtime. But closer inspection does not expose the Texans. It shows they really are one of the best teams in the NFL.

The case for the Texans starts with quarterback Deshaun Watson. As Watson started slow this season in his return from torn knee ligaments, he became a forgotten star, overshadowed by Patrick Mahomes and the leaguewide offensive explosion. Last year, before Watson shredded his knee during a practice, people thought the Chiefs were crazy to have passed over Watson for Mahomes. Watson was viewed as the future of the league, and then his injury took him off the field, and everyone moved on to the next shiny object.

As Watson has settled in, even while battling other injuries, he has shown he remains one of the sport’s great young talents. He averaged 8.3 yards per attempt last season, and he has matched that exactly this season, while throwing fewer interceptions. In games Watson has started over his two seasons, the Texans have gone 12-6 and averaged 28.3 points. When he’s healthy, the Texans win.

And the Texans have talent around him. DeAndre Hopkins is inarguably one of the best five wide receivers in football, a consistent force who catches everything. The Texans traded for Demaryius Thomas to take attention away from Hopkins and to replace the injured Will Fuller, and when healthy, rookie Keke Coutee has been a reliable target out of the slot for Watson.

Houston’s defense possesses high-end talent, too. J.J. Watt has declined from his best seasons, but he’s still ranked by Pro Football Focus as the league’s best edge defender. Jadeveon Clowney, a former No. 1 overall picks, prevents blockers from loading up on Watt. Led by that pair, the Texans have allowed the third-fewest points in the NFL and forced the fourth-most turnovers.

It was easy to dismiss the Texans in September. They started 0-3, and if the Colts had converted an overtime fourth-and-4, Houston would have dropped to either 0-3-1 or 0-4, and coach Bill O’Brien would have been on track to be fired. But even those three losses came by seven, three and five points, with two of them on the road. The Texans have not been blown out all season.

The Texans have the components of a dominant team. They are winning like a dominant team. And yet the general reaction to their rampage has been an unimpressed folding of the arms.

There are reasons to overlook the Texans. They have produced gaudy records and won division titles before without making a dent in January. Under O’Brien, their three playoff games have been a 30-0 loss at home, beating a Connor Cook-quarterbacked Raiders team and getting summarily pulverized in New England. The Texans have conditioned people to disregard them.

This season, Houston’s schedule is the primary source of skepticism. The Texans have beaten five teams currently 6-6 and one team - Dallas - with a winning record. All of their victories have come against the league’s gooey middle, or worse. Here’s the thing: There are not many good teams in the NFL. It’s not only difficult to beat greatness in the NFL. It’s hard to find it on the schedule.

Scheduling quirks exacerbated the lack of measuring-stick games. Does it seem like the clear-cut three best teams share a lot of common opponents? They do. Eleven of Kansas City’s 13 opponents have also already played or will face either the Rams or Saints. The Rams played both the Chiefs and the Saints. And so nine teams, more than a quarter of the league, won’t play any of the power trio.

If the Titans lose Thursday night to the Jaguars, the Texans can clinch the AFC South title Sunday with a victory over the Colts. It’s conceivable the Texans will finish with 13 consecutive victories - they finish with road games against the Jets and Eagles and a home meeting with the Jaguars. None of those victories, with the likely exception of the Eagles, would count as an upset.

Even so, Houston may still have only beaten one or two opponents with a winning record. A team with Watson, Hopkins, Watt and Clowney would enter the playoffs as an afterthought, on a lower level than other AFC contenders. Only then will they have their chance to prove they’re exactly what their record indicates.

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