FALCON POINTS

Choke city again? Where an Astros loss to the Rays would rank among worst playoff failures of the 21st century

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The Astros face a surprising elimination game on Thursday against the Tamp Bay Rays. Those of you new to the Houston sports scene believe the Astros will win and move on to face the New York Yankees. Those of you who have been around for a long time have been here many times before, and you know how the story ends; with postseason disappointment. Houston as a city has perhaps more colossal sports postseason failures than any in the country. The 1983 Houston Cougars. The 1993 Oilers blowing a 35-3 lead. The 1998 Astros. The 1986 Astros. The 2005 Astros made it to the World Series, then were unceremoniously swept. Most recently, Chris Paul's injury for the Rockets while up 3-2 on the Golden State Warriors. Houston did not earn the "choke city" nickname by accident.

(Yeah, yeah, I know; don't you wish that evil on me, Ricky Bobby. They have not lost yet!).

Yes, I believe this Astros team is different and will move on to face a Yankees team in the ALDS - a series there would be no shame in losing - but falling in the first round to the wild-card Rays would not only top Houston failures, it would be among the five biggest collapses in American sports this century. Here is where they would rank among biggest failures since 2000:

1) 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa sports fans (all eight of you) hoping for a Rays upset are all too familiar with being on the other end, and they only have to go back as far as last year. The Lightning became just the second team to win 62 regular season games, took the President's Trophy for best record in the league and looked downright unbeatable. They had three players score 40-plus goals, and Nikita Kucherov had a ridiculous 128 points. Kucherov won the Hart trophy as MVP, goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy won the Vezina as best goalie. So like a certain regular season team in Houston, they dominated the regular season in both wins and awards. Then they promptly became the first President's Trophy winner to get SWEPT in the first round of the playoffs, losing to No. 8 seed Columbus in four games. They beat out Nos. 2 and 3 on this list, because at least those teams made it to the Finals/Super Bowl. Simply the biggest sports postseason failure of the 21st century.

2) 2015-16 Golden State Warriors 

The greatest regular season team in NBA history was being compared to the Michael Jordan juggernaut Bulls after beating that team's record for most wins. They cruised through their first two playoff series before falling behind Oklahoma City 3-1 and roaring back to win. They then went up 3-1 on the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals, and were already being anointed as the greatest team ever. But a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation; the Cavs rallied to win the series, bringing a long-awaited title to Cleveland. Lost in the fact that LeBron James and Kyrie Irving led the comeback is that the Warriors, seemingly unbeatable, choked in the Finals. Golden State has other titles, so it was mitigated somewhat, but it's hard not to rate this as one of the most disappointing postseason results ever. Upsets are rare in seven-game NBA series, and almost unheard of when a team is this dominant.

3) 2007 New England Patriots

The Pats were an unstoppable force all season, rolling to an 18-0 record heading into the Super Bowl against the New York Giants. We all know how that ended; the Giants rode an inspired defensive performance and David Tyree's miracle catch to the upset. Unlike the other sports, football is single elimination, and anything can happen in one game, as it did here. That is the only thing that keeps this one from the top two spots.

4) 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks looked like they were going to obliterate everyone in the postseason after going 67-15, taking the top seed in a loaded Western Conference. They were led by Dirk Nowitzki, who would win the MVP that season. They would also lose in the first round of the playoffs to the Golden State Warriors long before the Warriors became the juggernaut of the past few seasons. Having the best record that season was no joke; Phoenix won 61 games and the eventual champion Spurs won 58. Still, not getting out of the first round was a huge failure.

5) 2019 Houston Astros

If they lose Thursday, they probably move to No. 4 on the list. They won a ridiculous team-record 107 regular season games. They will have the top two players in the Cy Young voting. They might have the MVP in Alex Bregman. They have the Rookie of the Year in Yordan Alvarez. They have the best 1-2-3 starting pitching punch in baseball with Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zach Greinke. (Doesn't this sound a lot like the Lightning?) The Rays have maybe one player who could crack the Astros lineup, yet they have out pitched, outhit and outplayed the Astros through four games, and Houston needed two epic pitching performances just to stay alive. There would be no shame in losing to the Yankees or in the World Series. Only eight of the last 24 teams with the best regular season record actually won the World Series, But losing in the first round? Serious shame bell. Unlike the Lightning, however, at least they won't get swept.

The bottom line

The good news? All of the teams on this list except the Lightning won titles in other seasons, and all the Astros have to do is win Thursday and this spot goes back to someone else; perhaps the 2003-04 LA Lakers or 2001 Seattle Mariners. How about the 2019 Dodgers, who won 106 games and were bounced by Washington on Wednesday in Round 1? They might even beat out the Astros.

Virginia lost as a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament two years ago, but that's a one game upset and not quite the same.

Yeah, I get it. Baseball is a different animal, and "lesser" teams win all the time, especially in five-game series. The Rays are no joke and won 96 games themselves. But losing the series would be a major disappointment however you slice it.

So yes, a loss puts them on the short list, and Houston sports fans are all too familiar with results like that. It would be a typical Houston sports failure. The good news? In 2017 the Astros proved to be resilient and unlike other Houston teams en route to the World Series title. If they are again, then none of this will matter. If not? Welcome to the Choke City history books.

Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan

What a week.The Rockets look terrible in losing consecutive games to losing teams, and that doesn't register as the tiniest ripple in the week's pond of Houston sports woe. Pond? More like ocean.

The Astros are irrefutably confirmed for all-time as cheaters and liars over a multi-season period. Jim Crane is no idiot, but specifically on the issue of whether the Astros' 2017 World Series championship is tainted, Jim Crane is an idiot if he really thinks it is not. Astro lackeys, toadies, and homers should stop the "a bunch of other teams did it too!" and "Mike Fiers is an a-hole" lameness. The Astros were guilty, caught, and deserved to get hammered. If/when others are proven as guilty as the Astros, so should they be hammered.

So after Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred's lowering of a rightful boom, and then Jim Crane firing Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch, what does it all mean for the 2020 Astros? It's a wow of a story, but really not a crisis. The loss of Gerrit Cole is much more meaningful. Luhnow's shoes are fairly easily filled for this season. Hence for now, Crane himself will head up baseball operations. The Astros weren't and aren't pursuing any meaningful free agents or major trades. Before his demise Luhnow finished the financial corner cutting moves that filled out the roster.

It's not as if Luhnow's personal expertise made all scouting, drafting, and signing decisions. And now the Astros have no first or second round pick to make this June anyway. 30 year old Pete Putila is the ranking baseball guy still employed by the club, but he is a branch of the Luhnow tree. If Crane's goal is the "housecleaning" he termed the Luhnow and Hinch firings as being, how can he promote a Luhnow lieutenant? Every front office in baseball has shrewd analytic minds, looking to move up. Crane can easily hire one of them.

As for field manager, Hinch was a great handler of people (well….with one kind of important exception) but this roster is strong enough to operate on autopilot to a good extent. Bench coach Joe Espada is highly regarded and been a finalist for other managerial gigs. But he was on Hinch's staff when cheating was ongoing in 2018. That seems pretty much disqualifying. Two known interviewees are quality options, though neither has skippered a team to the World Series. Buck Showalter was always extremely highly regarded, John Gibbons steered the Blue Jays to back-to-back American League Championship Series appearances in 2015 and 2016. Between those two I'd lean Showalter but either would be fine.

Remember The Texans

How thankful are Bill O'Brien and the Texans for the Astros' mess grabbing all the headlines not even 24 hours after the Texans' collapse in Kansas City? It's almost impossible to get blown out of an NFL game in which you lead 24-nothing. Almost. The Texans pulled it off! Won't that cute little AFC South Champion banner be extra cute when it hangs next season? Hangs like a dead man from a noose.

As I put it last week, the Chiefs' offense is better than the Texans' offense, the Chiefs' defense better than the Texans' defense, and the Chiefs' coaching better than the Texans' coaching. But the way the game played out was still preposterous.

If Travis Kelce had beaten Lonnie Johnson any worse than he did Johnson's name should have been legally changed to Rented Mule. J.J. Watt was essentially a zero. No tackles, no assists on tackles, no sacks, no quarterback hits. Are you going to pay 15 and a half million dollars to a 31 year old Watt after his three major injuries in the last four seasons. That's a yes.

At least we have clarity that the Texans must dedicate their first round pick to a pass rusher or a defensive back. Wait, they don't have a first round pick. Well, in 2021 then. Wait. Bill O'Brien traded that away too. Speaking of O'Brien…

Opting for the field goal on fourth and one up 21-0 early second quarter was not indefensible. However, O'Brien's explanation for doing so was pitiful. The fake punt? Most agree, dumb.But not absolutely indefensible. This was the O'Brien Is Not Fit For Command moment of the game: He needed to use a timeout, with 11:45 left in the fourth quarter, the Texans down 17, facing fourth and fourth and four, in Chiefs' territory, to decide to go for the first down rather than punt. A cinder block could have displayed the same game management IQ. O'Brien has three seasons left on his contract. Unless Cal McNair takes a decidedly different tack than his father did, O'Brien's job is as safe as any Supreme Court Justice's.

Speaking of Cal, since the loss he's been spotted as often and been as vocal this week as Alex Bregman.

Buzzer Beaters

1. So, if guaranteed the truth: For a million dollars is your bet Altuve was wearing something or not? 2. Alex Cora should be banned from ever again managing a Major League team. 3. Famous "scandals": Bronze-Teapot Dome Silver-Patty Smyth fronted band, had big hit with Goodbye to You Gold-Kerry Washington and the TV show.

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