Defense is shredded once again in playoff rout

After perfect start, Texans get their dreams crushed in season-ending 51-31 loss to the Chiefs in divisional playoffs

After perfect start, Texans get their dreams crushed in season-ending 51-31 loss to the Chiefs in divisional playoffs
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For a quarter, the Texans dreams were coming true. Dreams of hosting an AFC Championship Game. Dreams of making it to that game for the first time in franchise history. Dreams of upsetting the Kansas City Chiefs.

In the second quarter, they woke up to a harsh reality that did not end until the game was over.

After racing to a 24-0 lead, the Texans collapsed, giving up 28 second-quarter points en route to losing to the Chiefs 51-31. The Chiefs will host Tennessee next week in the AFC Championship. The Texans will spend an off-season thinking about what might have been.

A tale of two quarters

The game could not have started any better. The Texans marched right down the field on their opening drive and scored when Deshaun Watson hit Kenny Stills for a touchdown pass on a busted coverage.

After the Chiefs dropped a third-down pass, the Texans blocked a punt, returned it for a touchdown and led 14-0.

Kansas City muffed a punt inside the 10, the Texans recovered and it was 21-0. After a field goal early in the second quarter, it was 24-0. The dreams began in full force.

Then it all collapsed.

The Chiefs got a big kick return after the field goal, then quickly scored on two plays. On the next possession, the Texans went three and out, then inexplicably faked a punt deep in their own end and failed. Kansas City quickly made it 24-14. On the ensuing kickoff, Deandre Carter fumbled the ball away, setting up another Kansas City score, and it was suddenly 24-21, and the Texans were essentially beaten. The Chiefs would march 90 yards to finish the quarter to take a 28-24 halftime lead they would never relinquish. Eventually they would score 41 straight points en route to the victory.

Microcosm of the season

The game unfortunately showed us what the Texans are. At times, a dominant, unstoppable force. At times, a clueless group that can't get out of their own way. We saw both on Sunday. So many times they made us think they could be special. The win at KC early in the season. The win over the Patriots. Key divisional victories over the Titans and Colts.

They also made us think they were hopeless. The loss in Baltimore. The home loss to Denver. We saw both teams on Sunday. The defense, a wreck all year, was at its worst. They could not stop tight end Travis Kelce, or anyone else for that matter. They could not get any pressure on Patrick Mahomes. They gave up chunk plays. The Chiefs are an extremely talented offense, but the Texans gave almost no resistance. In fact, they gave up touchdowns on SEVEN straight possessions, and none of them were ever in doubt. Whether or not it was personnel, Romeo Crennel, or a combination, major changes need to happen on that side of the ball.

It really is a shame. They came up short in a bizarre game that they had every chance to put away early. But the Chiefs are one of the most explosive offenses in football, and giving them short fields turned the game around.

The bottom line

What does it all mean?

Let's face it, the Texans were not supposed to win this game. They were 9.5-point dogs. But when you get out to a 24-0 lead, you start to believe and a trip to the AFC title game would have been unprecedented. Playing a familiar foe in Tennessee might have even meant a first-ever trip to the Super Bowl. But that's what the Texans are. Left to dream. They will have all off-season to ask those questions.

The truth is, the Chiefs were the better team. Better players. Better coaches. Sunday was on defensive coordinator Crennel more than anyone. His team not only could not stop the Chiefs, they gave up huge play after huge play. It was like watching LSU play McNeese State.

The Texans needed to play a perfect game to win. It started off that way. But they could not sustain it.

What's next?

Instead, they start looking to next year. How can they improve with no real draft picks? How can they fix the defensive issues? How many years does J.J. Watt have left? Does Bill O'Brien make staff changes? Are they really close to being a Super Bowl contender? How can they fix the pass rush? The secondary? Is it time for Crennel to ride off into the sunset after another year of horrible defense?

For a brief while, it felt like it could have been so much different. But then the Chiefs woke up. And so did the Texans, unfortunately.

It was a tough way to end a season that at times showed promise, and at times looked hopeless. The first quarter was the former. The second was the latter. The second half was a victory lap for the Chiefs.

And the Texans season died, right where it was expected to, in the second round of the playoffs.

Turns out hoping for anything more was just a dream, one that was all too brief.

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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