We come to the end of a tumultuous season for the Houston Texans and one that, remarkably, has a chance to continue past Week 17.
If the Texans win, the Kansas City Chiefs beat the San Diego Chargers and the Cleveland Browns beat the Baltimore Ravens, Houston gets a playoff berth. That leaves the Jacksonville Jaguars in the role of spoilers.
In their first meeting, the Texans struggled early and Jacksonville went into halftime with a lead. Houston took over in the second half and came away with an important win. The Texans were swept last season by the Jaguars, but this year, Houston is going for the season sweep. A win here would give Houston a 4-2 division record.
They are facing a Jaguars team that earned its third victory of the season last week and enters Sunday's contest with 10 days' rest.
ESPN NFL Nation Texans reporter Tania Ganguli and Jaguars reporter Mike DiRocco discuss.
Ganguli: Mike, the Jaguars didn't have much success against J.J. Watt last time these teams met. Any reason to think that will change this time?
DiRocco: Watt did get three sacks, but one came when he was intentionally unblocked on a bootleg (not sure why you’d choose to do that) and another came when he tapped quarterback Blake Bortles after he slipped on a sprint out to this right. He beat right tackle Sam Young for another sack. Watt also had another tackle for loss and drew a holding penalty that stalled a fourth-quarter drive, but overall the Jaguars felt like they did a decent job of keeping Watt from doing too much damage. They’ll do the same thing on Sunday they did the last time: chip him with a back, keep a tight end in for extra help, and try to throw quick passes to somewhat neutralize his rush. It’s hard to really take him out of the game because he lines up everywhere on the defensive front. He spent a lot of time lined up over Young in the last meeting and the Jaguars are expecting to see him do that again. Watt will still make an impact because he is such a game-changer, but the Jaguars are hoping that’s limited to one or two plays and he doesn’t dominate the game as he has against other teams.
We talked about it before, but I need you to give me the definitive argument on why Watt should be the league's MVP.
Ganguli: Your answer to my previous question actually gives me a good starting point. Watt had three sacks, a batted pass, another tackle for loss, five quarterback hurries or hits and drew a holding penalty on a critical drive and his opponent felt like that was a job well done. That's quite a compliment. In watching the game, it was apparent Bortles was thinking about Watt's whereabouts, including on the sack that resulted from Bortles tripping as Watt sprinted after him. You can't say Watt's pursuit didn't affect Bortles there. This kind of thing happens a lot. I recall a Titans lineman a few years ago downplaying Watt's impact despite his two sacks against this particular lineman.
Regardless of what shows up on the stat sheet, Watt impacts every play in an opponent's game plan. He has the trust of his coaches, which means if he finds a spot from which he thinks he can wreak the most havoc, they'll sometimes let him park there and do it. It doesn't matter how someone gets to the quarterback, when he does it makes a difference. Defensively, here are Watt's numbers: 17.5 sacks, 72 tackles, 42 tackles for loss or no gain, nine batted passes, five fumble recoveries, three forced fumbles and one interception. He leads the NFL in TFLs, batted passes and fumble recoveries. Only once since sacks became an official statistic in 1982 has a player accounted for a larger percentage of a team's sacks than Watt's 53 percent. He's played better this season than he did in 2012, when he won Defensive Player of the Year.
Now let's get to the historical significance of his offensive touches. Watt is the first player in NFL history to have three touchdown catches, a fumble return for a touchdown and a pick-six in the same season. Watt is the first defensive lineman since 1944 to have at least five touchdowns in a season. He's the first defensive player to have five touchdowns in a season since 1971. The Texans are 4-1 when Watt scores a touchdown. By the very nature of his position, he isn't going to be able to affect every game's outcome as much as a quarterback -- who touches the ball on every play -- does. But he shouldn't be penalized for that.
The vibe around Jacksonville has seemed exceptionally positive the past few years, though the Jags' record isn’t improving much. Do you think it will next year?
DiRocco: It should, but I thought it would be better this year than it was in 2013 (4-12), too. Logically, though, the offense should be significantly better with Bortles, right guard Brandon Linder, center Luke Bowanko, and receivers Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns in their second season. They all started at least seven games as rookies. Just because they’re a year older doesn’t mean they’ll be a lot better, but it would be unusual if they weren’t at least somewhat improved. The offense was what held this team back from being more competitive. With that unit theoretically better, the Jaguars should be able to win more games. Some other caveats: The offensive line as a whole has to improve (team-record and NFL-high 66 sacks allowed), the speed at linebacker needs to be upgraded, and the defense has to force more turnovers. It sounds like a lot, and it is, but if two of those areas improve, the Jaguars should be able to win more games in 2015.
Great performance by Case Keenum last week to keep the Texans alive in the playoff chase. Does that outing say more about Keenum or the rest of the offense?
Ganguli: He didn't make big mistakes, which allowed the Texans' defense to take over the game. Last season in his eight starts, Keenum led the league in yards lost per sack (10.58). That's an incredible figure. On Sunday, with the help of his protection and play-calling, Keenum didn't take a single sack. He made one horrible decision that ended in an interception, but recovered well and didn't turn over the ball again. It helped that his interception was not in Texans territory. Keenum's numbers weren't especially good, but that's OK for the Texans if he takes care of the ball and manages the game plan well, like he did on Sunday.
Keenum’s protection was great last week against a really strong front that blitzed him a lot. What can he expect from the Jaguars' defense?
DiRocco: The Jaguars likely won’t blitz him as much as Baltimore did, mainly because coach Gus Bradley’s defense doesn’t use a lot of blitzes. Bradley calls it rush and cover: get pressure with only four rushers and blanket the field with seven in coverage. But while Keenum won’t see as many extra rushers as he did last week, he will have to deal with pressure coming from inside and outside. Defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks leads the team with 8.5 sacks, an unusually high number for an interior lineman, and ends Chris Clemons (7.0) and Ryan Davis (6.5) are right behind him. Three other players have three sacks, including rookie end Chris Smith and second-year tackle Abry Jones. The Jaguars are fifth in the NFL with 42 sacks, which shows marked improvement from the past two seasons, when they had 51 combined.
Back to the quarterback. Is the Texans' quarterback of the future on the roster or IR?
Ganguli: He definitely could be on injured reserve. Ryan Mallett showed some very positive things in the game he played. He showed off his arm strength, his football intelligence and his leadership ability. He's played only one healthy game. When I talked to him last week, he wouldn't admit how much pain he was in during that second start, which he played with a torn pectoral muscle, but you can imagine. A one-game sample size isn't one with which you can draw sweeping conclusions, but it offered hope for his future. The X factor here is the free-agent market. Whether or not he's back next year will have more factors than just mutual affinity, which does exist between Mallett and the team right now.