This past Sunday, head coach Bill O’Brien took the ball out of Brock Osweiler’s hands (131 passing yards), stuffed into the breadbaskets of Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue (240 combined rushing yards), and escaped Indianapolis with a 22-17 victory. His Texans are now 7-6, sitting in a tie atop the AFC South. And their schedule over the final three weeks of the regular season is favorable, to say the least. We’ve now reached a point where all the fancy projection systems, like The Upshot (64 percent) and FiveThirtyEight (75 percent), predict that Houston will actually make the playoffs. Without putting too fine a point on it, this is a minor miracle.
Bad teams have qualified for postseason play in the past; the league grants admission to 12 of its 32 franchises each winter, so a few stinkers are bound to advance from time to time. That said, few have been quite as crappy as the 2016 Texans.
Let’s dig into some math. The analytics website Football Outsiders charts a stat called DVOA, or Defense Adjusted Value Over Average. Essentially, DVOA looks at every NFL play to compare a team’s performance against a league-wide baseline. The idea is to strip out variables a team can’t control for, like luck or the strength of its opponents. (The gory details are explained here.) An average team’s DVOA would be 0.0. The dominating Patriots, through 14 weeks, have posted a DVOA of 21.2 percent. That’s good! The Texan’s DVOA, over that same stretch? A measly -22.6 percent. In other words, our playoff-bound club is 22.6 percent worse than the average NFL team.
How bad is that, really? Only two teams in the past three decades have made the playoffs sporting a lower DVOA: the 2004 Rams (-27.2) and the 2010 Seahawks (-22.9). That Seattle team snuck in with a losing record, prompting hand-wringing of the highest order. “We didn’t get here the way we all dreamed of getting here,” Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said at the time. “But we got here.”
Whatever you do, don’t blame Houston's defense. Even without J.J. Watt, they’ve stuffed the run consistently, and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (when healthy) has been a disruptive force. Blame Osweiler, their marquee free agent signing, the man who is guaranteed $37 million and has proven remarkably inept at running a professional offense. His total quarterback rating is in the league’s bottom-third, he’s dead last in yards-per-attempt, and he’s thrown an equal amount of touchdowns and interceptions. In turn, DeAndre Hopkins—a superstar receiver in the making—looks like a shell of his former self. “What should they have done?” asks The Ringer’s Kevin Clark. “Found the most average quarterback they could, even if he wasn’t particularly tall or good looking. Someone with two arms, some feet, and the know-how to put on a helmet. With that, they could have received the same production, kept a more flexible salary cap, and kicked the quarterback problem down the road a few years until there was a better passer worth investing in.”
So the Texans' 2016 playoff push, such as it is, feels bittersweet. Getting this far is a wonderful surprise, and playoff football is thrilling. You never know what could happen. Still, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the year doesn’t end poorly, with the Texans dropping a Wild Card game yet again, well before the Super Bowl at NRG, leaving diehards wondering why their front office desperately shelled out money for another disappointing signal caller, one in a frustratingly long line of them.