Sometimes in the NFL, it shakes out that even though your team was underwhelming during the regular season, your opponent in the first round of the playoffs comes to your stadium with a third-string quarterback who is making his professional debut. I’m talking, of course, about the Houston Texans, who met the Oakland Raiders’ and Connor Cook last weekend in Houston. It doesn’t happen very often, mind you—in fact, the Texans/Raiders game last Saturday was the first time in NFL history that it did—but it’s technically possible! A win is a win, and the Texans simply played the team on their schedule.
It’s fair to say that this Houston Texans team is one of the luckiest in NFL history, at least in terms of having a shockingly clear path to the divisional round of the playoffs. The Texans managed to cobble together nine wins in the regular season this year, which sent them to the top of the miserable AFC South. There have been other bad teams to advance to the playoffs before, of course. There have been starting quarterbacks as hapless as Brock Osweiler who have earned playoff wins. There’ve even been teams with losing records who earned playoff spots in the past. But the combination of a soft schedule, a soft division, and a soft first-round opponent might make the 2016 Houston Texans the luckiest team the league has ever seen—at least until Saturday, when they play the New England Patriots in Massachusetts.
So first, the bad news. Going to Foxborough to play what might be the best team in the NFL—sorry, Cowboys fans—is a tall order for a good team. And for a team that’s survived by a combination of strong defense and opposing offensive incompetence (plus random chance like recovering an unlikely number of your own fumbles), it’s a nearly insurmountable challenge. The last time the two teams met, in week three, the Texans were embarrassed in a 27-0 shutout even with the Patriots starting third-string rookie Jacoby Brissett. This is probably why the Texans go to New England a 15-point underdog.
That’s one of the largest spreads in playoff history, but it’s not all bad news for the Texans. There’ve been other underdog teams that lucked into the playoffs who managed to pull of an upset, and Houston fans should keep those games in mind as they tune in Saturday night.
In January 2011, the Seattle Seahawks, playing in a terrible NFC West, ended up in the playoffs despite finishing the season with a 7-9 record. They were playing defending Super Bowl champions the New Orleans Saints with a surefire first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback, and they were starting a journeyman signal caller in Matt Hasselbeck. They were 10.5-point underdogs, and they ended the day by stunning the Saints in a 41-36 victory.
They did that through a combination of things: a career game from Hasselbeck, just enough defense to matter, and a running game that came out of nowhere to seal the deal in the final minutes.
They weren’t the only double-digit underdog to beat a team that looked like a lock on paper, either, but each time the formula is a little different. For the 2001 New England Patriots (a 14-point underdog in the Super Bowl against the St. Louis Rams), it involved having perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time come in as a first-year starter, and then somehow winning the game on a last-second field goal. The 1996 Jacksonville Jaguars trumped the Denver Broncos, whose roster included Hall of Famers John Elway and Shannon Sharpe, by putting up 203 yards on the ground and getting the most out of quarterback Mark Brunell’s productive years.
But maybe the best example for the Texans to look to is the 2010 divisional round matchup between the New England Patriots, who played at home against the New York Jets. The Patriots still had Tom Brady and Bill Belichick; the Pats were still the top seed in the AFC, and once more posted a 14-2 record; and the Jets started Mark Sanchez, who was sort of the Brock Osweiler of the early 2010s. Sanchez played the game of his career, though, leaning on quality receivers and a rock-solid defense to stun the Pats.
The 2016 Texans aren’t the 2001 Patriots, obviously. Osweiler’s no Tom Brady. He’s not even Mark Brunell or Matt Hasselbeck. But six years ago, the Jets proved that what the Texans hope to do on Saturday can be done, and Sanchez showed that even a middling QB can outplay Tom Brady if everything comes together. The odds of that happening aren’t great—in fact, they’re about 10-to-1, according to Vegas—but it’s been done before.