Coming into the last week of August, the Texans looked defeated. They’d blown their first three games, notably giving up a comeback to the hapless New York Giants in week three. They were one of three teams to go into week four without a win, joined by the Oakland Raiders and the Arizona Cardinals—two teams who were as bad as any in the league. It looked bleak.
Each year, when teams across the NFL start 0-3, the local reporters dig into historical stats to offer readers hoping for a comeback a reality check. The last time a 0-3 team turned it around and made the playoffs was in 1998, when the Buffalo Bills rebounded. They were only the fifth team since 1980 to pull off that feat. Here’s a paper from New Jersey telling the story in 2017, after the Giants whiffed for three straight weeks, and here’s the Houston Chronicle explaining it to Texans fans this September. Gambling website Odds Shark pulled no punches: “The Raiders, Texans and Cardinals are absolutely toast,” writer Joe Osborne stated. “The fat lady is singing and the only thing left to play for is pride.”
The Texans aren’t toast though. In fact, since their 0-3 start, Houston’s gone on a wild streak, peeling off eight straight wins to take a two-game lead in the AFC South with five games left to play. They’ve put themselves in a position to not just be the first 0-3 team to make the playoffs in twenty years, but also keep a first-round bye in the conversation. It’s an unlikely feat, but one that the Texans have set themselves up to actually pull off. They’re not contending for a wild card, and they’re not hoping that a rival whiffs to give them hope. The Texans—who trounced the Titans on Monday night to guarantee themselves a tiebreaker edge over the divisional rival—are in a commanding position right now. Plus, there’s a soft schedule ahead of them. According to the New York Times‘s the Upshot, the Texans have a 96 percent chance of making the playoffs, and as long as they either beat the Colts in two weeks, or win any two of the next four games (each of which is against a team with a losing record), that likelihood doesn’t change much.
Back when the team’s prospects looked dismal, sports site the Ringer outlined what each of the 0-3 teams needed to do in order to turn their seasons around. The Cardinals, who had no real offense to speak of, and the Raiders—whose problem protecting leads turned into a problem putting points on the board—were unable to overcome their obstacles. The Texans, though, had a more specific issue: an offensive line that let Deshaun Watson get pressured on half of his dropbacks. It’s hard to suddenly improve pass protection as the season goes on and injuries stack up, which made the Texans’ problems feel like big ones.
Watson has been sacked a lot this season—Tennessee got him four times on Monday night—but the play calling has allowed him to avoid the worst of the consequences that come from playing behind a struggling line. At the start of the season, the Texans seemed determined to get Watson killed by playing a vertical passing game. (He reportedly suffered a partially collapsed lung in the team’s overtime victory against the Cowboys in week 5!) In recent weeks, the Texans are instead deploying more play-action, using fast throws to star receivers Deandre Hopkins and Demaryius Thomas, and letting Watson return to the read option that made him so electrifying during his rookie season. In a scouting report before Monday night’s game, Titans fan blog Music City Miracles went into detail about how the Texans turned things around, getting into the nitty-gritty of the change in offensive scheme and what Thomas’s acquisition allows the team to do differently.
In March, the Texans boasted of installing an all-new offense for Watson. That’s the sort of talk that can be exciting in the off-season, but when you’re 0-3 in September, it starts to come off as far too clever. At the time, Watson was coming off of an ACL tear that may have left the team looking for ways to use him differently, but at this point, it’s clear that letting Watson be Watson is the key to the Texans’ offense.
All of which puts the Texans in a great position heading into the final stretch of the season. They’re poised to be the first team in 20 years to shake off an 0-3 start, they’re putting up great numbers in the air—Watson has completed more than 70% of his passes in three of his last four games, and has ten passing touchdowns in that same stretch—and there aren’t a lot of teams in the AFC that seem like they’re dramatically better than the Texans. Which means that we don’t just have to talk about them overcoming history in terms of making the playoffs—we can talk about them overcoming history by making a run in the postseason, too. Of the five teams that played football in January despite an 0-3 start since 1980, only one of them (the 1992 Chargers) made it past the wild card round. The Texans are already set to make history—the bigger question is whether they can make noise in the playoffs after they do.