Anybody with an ounce of objectivity has to recognize that the Houston Texans are not a particularly good football team. Those who bleed Battle Red might point out that they’ve only allowed twelve points over the last two games, but one of those was against a Tennessee Titans team led by 2014 sixth round pick Zach Mettenberger. In the other, they were aided in their quest for victory by Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert, who is still inexplicably dropping wide-open, perfectly thrown passes from Andy Dalton even as you read this.
Still, you are what your record says you are, and the Texans are 4-5 heading into Week 11. That’s about right—they’re not the worst team in the NFL, but the fact that they’ve scored more than 21 points in a game only once this year speaks to one of their major deficiencies: They’re about to start their third quarterback of the year (welcome back, T.J. Yates!), their run game is led by Alfred Blue (who boasts a pathetic 3.2 career yards per rushing attempt), and the passing game involves something called “C.J. Fiedorowicz,” whatever that means in English.
Yet even though they’ve surrendered more than 40 points in a single game twice this year, even though their offense is so bad that Bill O’Brien probably hears “Always On My Mind” every time Ryan Fitzpatrick’s beard appears on his television, the Texans are in a division that is as bad as they are. At 4-5, they’re tied for first place in the AFC South with the Indianapolis Colts, a team that’s about to start playing with 40-year-old Matt Hasselbeck under center while Andrew Luck spends the next month recuperating from a lacerated kidney. Of course, the Colts weren’t exactly setting the world on fire even when Luck was healthy—hence the fact that they’re tied with the Texans in the first place—and that means that the Texans, right now, have to be considered the frontrunner in the AFC South, in control of their own destiny and seeking a playoff bid.
Of course, they don’t have to be good to do it. The AFC South is the classic outrun-the-bear situation: the Texans don’t have to be a competitive professional football team to win the division, they just have to be more competitive than the Colts, the Titans, and the Jaguars. As ridiculous as it would be, it’s actually theoretically possible for any one of those teams to make the playoffs with a 5-11 record, so fans in Houston worried about a lackluster lineup can hang their hat on the fact that the fans of every other team in the division are rooting for people like Matt “I Coulda Sworn He Was An Announcer Now” Hasselbeck, Antonio “Just Want To Make Sure I Have His Name Right Since I’ve Literally Never Heard Of Him Before” Andrews, and T.J. “Not Yates” Yeldon.
That said, let’s not diminish the Texans’ chances…of failure. The offense is not likely to be particularly inspiring this year under any circumstance: Alfred Blue needs to add about one yard per attempt to his career average in order to qualify as “middling,” the nicest thing that can be said about T.J. Yates is that he’s not actually much of a drop-off from Brian Hoyer, and legitimate star DeAndre Hopkins presumably has a calendar in his kitchen where he marks off every single day until he hits free agency. But the defense is another story.
We’ve said everything there is to say about J.J. Watt, so we’ll just leave that part of it at “J.J. Watt is p. good at football.” But beyond him, the frustratingly inconsistent Brian Cushing is playing up to his draft pedigree and contract extension, and the young players in the Texans secondary seem like they’ve finally started to grasp the game. Tyler Eifert’s drops may have been the headline coming out of the win against Cincinnati, but the unit also held one of the league’s best receivers, A.J. Green, to just 67 yards on five catches. Andy Dalton, who was looking like a legit MVP candidate heading into the game, completed fewer than 55 percent of his passes for 197 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception. A defensive outing like they had against the Bengals could legitimately lead the Texans to a win against just about any team in the league. The calls to fire defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel are definitely quiet right now.
The Texans only have three games left against teams with winning records on their schedule: They play the Jets on Sunday, then take on the Bills and the Patriots in December. Of those teams, only New England is known for its offense, which makes the possibility of a defensively led Texans team holding mediocre offenses to six points a game for many of the next seven games a realistic one. If that happens, it’s likely that even T.J. Yates and Alfred Blue could figure out ways to score ten a game, and that would certainly be enough to send the Texans to the playoffs.
The AFC South is anybody’s guess right now. The Texans are positioned well, but so are the Colts. And even Jacksonville, a game out of first place at 3-6, are playing well enough that it’s not impossible to imagine them peeling off five wins and taking the division. All of this probably speaks more to a flaw in the way the NFL structures the playoffs (the AFC South and the NFC East combine to make a pretty strong argument for changing the way divisions are set up) than it does the chances of any team in the division making a legit Super Bowl run, but just getting into the postseason opens up a lot of possibilities. And right now, the Texans are as set up as anybody in the division to seize that opportunity—as unlikely as it seems.