FALCON POINTS

If J.J. Watt can actually return for the playoffs, the potential impact is huge

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The Texans might have given themselves an early Christmas gift.

On Tuesday, the Texans designated J.J. Watt for return from the injured list. They now have a 21-day window to activate him. Watt can return to practice, and the hope is he would be available for the playoffs. Even if he is not 100 percent, Watt would provide a major boost to a struggling defense if he can get on the field.

At 10-5, the Texans finish the season with the Titans on Sunday. For all practical purposes, they are locked in to the four seed in the AFC, barring a surprising Kansas City loss to the Chargers. The reality is most key players should be rested on Sunday, and even if Watt is ready to go, that should include him as well. Having him healthy for a probable playoff game with the Bills would be critical to their chances.

And if he can be ready for the playoffs...


 How much impact?

Watt's impact on the defense can't be understated. Even when he is not showing up on the stat sheet, teams have to account for him, freeing up other defenders to make plays.

In the eight games with Watt in the lineup, the Texans had 17 sacks. (That includes the Raiders game where he was injured in the first half and the Texans did not register a sack). In the seven games since, they have 14 sacks, while that may not seem like a big difference, 10 of those 14 came in three games against the Jags, Patriots and last week against the Bucs. The seven games includes another game where they did not register a sack at all and two games where they only had one.

Despite missing those games, Watt remains second on the team with four sacks.

With Watt in the lineup, opponents averaged 362 yards on offense per game. Without him? The Texans have allowed 407 yards per game. With a healthy Watt, they allowed over 400 yards just once, in the opener when they gave up 510 yards to the Saints, thanks in part to a terrible scheme that relied on overmatched defensive backs. In the seven games without him, they have allowed over 400 yards four times, and nearly that - 391 - in the ugly Broncos loss.

Concern about the longterm

While some may want Watt to rest up and fully recover for next season, the simple question is why? Is he risking re-injury? Of course. But he would have all off-season to recover, and if you aren't going to risk it in the playoffs, when would you ever? Isn't that why you play the game? Watt is at the stage of his career where he may not have a lot of games left in him. Having him for a potential playoff run would be huge. Watt has appeared in just 32 of a possible 63 games over the last four seasons so anything you get out of him is a bonus. Play him now, and worry about next year next year.

The next step

Assuming Watt is able to go, even at 80 percent he should help a defense that ranks in the bottom half of the league in most categories. They have rebuilt the secondary on the fly, and Watt's presence should allow Whitney Mercilus and D.J. Reader more opportunities to put pressure on the quarterback, which would help the corners and safeties in coverage.

If he can play - and after all, that is no lock - it will be great news for a team that has had minimal postseason success. Watt's presence would put the defense as currently built at 100 percent for the first time all season. Watt would join in-season acquisitions Gareon Conley and Vernon Hargreaves and a healthy Bradley Roby in the secondary, something the Texans did not have when Watt went out. Barring a key injury on Sunday, the Texans defense would enter the postseason in as good a shape as they have been all year.

That's if Watt is ready.

We will find out if that happens soon enough.

Of course, if the offense continues to struggle, none of it will matter. But if Watt is ready, it's the best Christmas gift the Texans could have gotten.

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After a "qualifying round" of playoffs, the actual Stanley Cup playoffs are here. In a weird hockey world that saw two 12 seeds win in round one and the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference finish last in the round robin and get a four seed, things appear wide open. The lower seeds may actually have a bit of an advantage at the beginning of these series, as they have already gone through an actual elimination round, while the top four seeds played a less intense round robin. As teams still adjust to a long layoff, more upsets could be in order. It should be fun. Here is a look at the matchups:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Philadelphia Flyers (1) vs. Montreal Canadiens (8)

The Flyers were dominant in the round-robin phase and look very much like a team that can make a deep run. Montreal was the lowest seed in the qualifying tournament, but stunned Pittsburgh, and were the better team throughout the series. Philly, however, is playing much better hockey than their Pennsylvania counterparts. The Canadiens will need a big effort from goalie Carey Price, who is capable of stealing games. Young Flyers goalie Carter Hart was outstanding in the two round-robin games he played and is an emerging star. Philly has more talent, but a goalie like Price can win a series.

Prediction: Flyers in 5.

Tampa Bay Lightning (2) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (7)

Tampa is as talented a group as you will find in the NHL. They have depth on all lines, terrific defensemen and an elite goalie. Yet they have a checkered playoff past. Last season, they were dominant in the regular season and looked like a Cup lock. They were promptly swept out of the first round by the Jackets. Columbus outplayed a similarly talented team in Toronto in round one and are a tough matchup. Can the Lightning be struck down twice? Absolutely.

Prediction: Jackets in 7.

Washington Capitals (3) vs. New York Islanders (6)

The Caps still have Alex Ovechkin and a recent Stanley Cup, and have to be considered a contender against whoever they play. But the Isles play terrific defense, grind you down and get just enough scoring to win games. Plus they have the coach who won the Cup with the Caps, Barry Trotz, which gives them another edge. The Isles are a long shot Cup contender and could pull off the upset.

Prediction: Islanders in 7.

Boston Bruins (4) vs. Carolina Hurricanes (5)

The Bruins were the best team in the league in the regular season, but played flat in the round robin, winding up with a fourth seed. It seems a little unfair that they dominated all year but three games determined their fate, but that's life. By now they should have figured things out again and should be able to advance. They are a tricky team, because if they play as poorly as they did last week, Carolina could knock them out. But the Bruins should get better the deeper they get in the playoffs. The Hurricanes have a rising star in Andrei Svechnikov, who had a hat trick in the first round against the Rangers. The Bruins, however, are deeper, more talented and have the more tested and reliable goalie in Tukka Rask.

Prediction: Bruins in 5.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Las Vegas Golden Knights (1) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (8)

The Golden Knights were impressive in the round-robin, and looked like they did not miss a beat from the break. They were on a 8-2 run before the Rona interruption and swept the three seeding games since. But the Blackhawks are a scary matchup. They dominated Edmonton in the play-in round, winning 3-1 despite being the last team to qualify. They are young and shaky on defense, but still have proven Cup winners like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford. It would be foolish to count them out, but the Oilers were a much better matchup for the Hawks. If Crawford dominates in net, they have a fighting chance. But the Knights are on a different level right now.

Prediction: Las Vegas in 6.

Colorado Avalanche (2) vs. Arizona Coyotes (7)

This might be one of the more intriguing matchups of this round. The Avs look like a Cup contender, and Nathan MacKinnon is an MVP candidate and might be one of the most underappreciated superstars in the league. The Coyotes, however, are going to be a tough out. Goalie Darcy Kempner faced a ton of shots against the Predators and held up well. He will have to do the same here. Taylor Hall and Phil Kessel provide top end forward play, and Arizona matches up OK here. The Avs should win, but don't be shocked if they are pushed hard.

Prediction: Avs in 6.

Dallas Stars (3) vs. Calgary Flames (6)

Dallas is an interesting team. The Stars have Stanley Cup-level talent, but they struggle to score at times, which could be a problem in a seven-game series. They play strong D and have great goaltending, but have issues with quicker teams, which bodes well for Calgary. The Flames are also a bit of an enigma, but they seem built for the playoffs. They have two young American-born stars in Johnny Gaudreu and Matthew Tkachuk, solid depth up front and on the back end and can hold their own with most teams. Cam Talbot is the key, however. If he can consistently man the goal the way he did in the series win over Winnipeg, they have a big shot. He finished off the series with a 31-save shutout.

Prediction: Flames in 7.

St. Louis Blues (4) vs. Vancouver Canucks (5)

The defending champs were not very good in the round-robin, hence the four seed. But it will probably work out; the Canucks are an easier matchup than what they would have faced with Calgary as a 3 seed. Vancouver is an interesting young team. Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser are two up and coming stars, but the rest of the lineup is bolstered by gritty vets. Defensemen Quinn Hughes is another young star in the making. Goalie Jacob Markstrom was solid against Minnesota, but he will need to be better in this round. The Canucks could have made a run against Dallas, but hard to see them beating the champs.

Prediction: Blues in 6.

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