ROLL THE DICE?

Making sense of the extreme Vegas projections for Houston Texans

Looking to bet on the Texans? Composite image by Brandon Strange.

It's football time in Houston (horrible song) and everywhere else. So it's go time for football analysts to offer their predictions for the Texans 2022 season, often giving their picks, one by one, for all 17 games. Hey, it fills a segment on the air.

Most of the crystal ball gazers predict a fight to the finish, down to the wire, who'll come in last place in the AFC South? The Texans are headed into the season with their third head coach in three years and if they stay focused and catch some lucky breaks, they can top last year's four wins and once again narrowly escape last place. The leading oddsmakers don't hold out much hope, however.

Vegas favors the Indianapolis Colts (-140) in the AFC South by a slim margin over the Tennessee Titans (+170). Next are the Jacksonville Jaguars at a distant (+800). If you squint and look through the Hubble Telescope you'll find the Texans at +2200. There isn't a team anywhere in the NFL with worse odds of winning their division. Early forecasts have the Texans as underdogs in all 17 games on their schedule. As bad luck will have it, the lone must-see game will be Dec. 4 against the Cleveland Browns, when Deshaun Watson is free to visit Houston for his first action of the year. Will the troubled Browns quarterback be cheered by Houston fans for his five seasons of service, or will be jeered for, well, the obvious? I'm betting on jeered but you never know fans.

Most of the analyst sites offer their reasons why the Texans face another uphill season. It's the usual yadda yadda of a revolving door of coaches, too many new faces and a general lack of talent. There are signs of hope - finally a calming influence of respected, experienced head coach Lovie Smith, an improved defense and, basically, there's nowhere to go but up.

Here, though, is the most telling comment about the Texans' prospects. It comes from The Athletic, and curiously it's listed under the heading of: "If everything goes right for the Texans in 2022." Goes right?

"My model projects (Davis) Mills as one of the worst starting quarterbacks in football this season."

Gee, stop flattering the Texans. If "one of the worst starting quarterbacks" is a bright spot, you can imagine what's under "If everything goes wrong." Here's a sample:

"The team will be picking at the top of the 2023 NFL Draft and will be deciding between Bryce Young and CJ Stroud." In other words, back to square one, rebuilding from a rebuild, again.

Still, even if the wheels fall off completely, there's money to be made with the Texans.

I used to think that Flo from Progressive, the GEICO gecko and Mattress Mack ran a lot of commercials on sports programming, but with NFL Week One 'round the corner, the airwaves are filled with spots for online gambling sites ("and make it rain") and those caffeine-overdosed "sports advisors" who want you to pay for their expert betting tips "guaranteed to win" unless they lose.

"We have a documented 85-percent win rate on our Monday Night Football selections when an east coast team plays in the Mountain Time Zone after losing the week before on natural turf during a lunar eclipse! Send us your money. If you lose, don't worry, we'll send you four weeks more of losing picks."

Let me tell you about these guys. First there's the old common sense bottom line, if they're so good at picking football games, why don't they just bet the games with their own money? Then there's a trick, and I fell for this one, "Call us for a free pick on a recorded message." The idea is, if Jupiter aligns with Krypton and their pick wins, maybe you'll start paying for their "inner circle" selections.

I called, endured the sales pitch, and got the pick. It's a recorded message so I didn't have to talk to one of their hustlers in a boiler room. We're done, our relationship is over, right? Not so fast, fish. When you call for their free selection on a recorded message, they now have your number on their robocall Rolodex. You have a better chance of driving into a $39 oil change place and driving out for under $200. The daily calls start the next day. It's always a voice straight out of a black and white gangster movie.

"Hey Ken, what's up? You doin' OK? You making money this season? You need any help?"

Do I know you? Remember that song, You've Got a Friend? A visiting nurse service doesn't check up on you as often as a gambling tout service. What's the difference between a football gambling service and a pit bull? Eventually a pit bull lets go.

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These next six games will be very telling. Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images.

Houston has six games left in the 2022 regular season, two three-game series in which they need just one more win, or a Yankees loss, to secure the top seed for the AL side of the postseason bracket. They've accomplished what they set out to do over the 162-game drudge that is the regular season, so you're likely to see them use the opportunity to get some players off their feet in the remaining games.

Even so, having one of the best teams means that while putting out a lineup with some starters missing, they can still beat most teams on any given day. So then, what could that mean for the teams still vying for postseason spots or positioning in the remaining games?

Affecting the NL playoffs

It's a relatively sure bet that if they haven't locked up that top seed by the time they enter the final three games, they will before that last series is over. That means that when the Phillies come to Minute Maid Park to close out the season next week, Philadelphia will have much higher stakes in those games than Houston.

Under the expanded playoff format starting this season, the two best teams in each league receive a bye, while the remaining four teams square off in a Wild Card series, with all those games taking place at the better seed's stadium. That means teams will be very motivated to secure their best Wild Card positioning.

As of now, the Phillies hold just a half-game lead over the Brewers for the third and final Wild Card spot for the National League. Things could change this weekend, but whether they still lead or have fallen back and have ground to makeup, the games will matter to them against the Astros.

They also sit 2.5 games behind the Padres, meaning that Philadelphia could potentially be looking at a chance to jump into the second Wild Card spot. However, it's questionable if that's an envious position or not. With the juggernaut battle between the Mets and Braves coming down to the wire, with one team winning the NL East and a first-round bye and the other starting with home-field advantage in a Wild Card series, whoever gets the second Wild Card spot is going to be heading to face a really tough, and potentially angry, team on the road.

It will make things interesting for the Phillies when they face the Astros. They could be playing for their playoff lives or jockeying for position. Either way, the games will be meaningful.

Affecting the AL playoffs

There's a similar scenario at play for the American League side of things with the Astros' three-game series against the Rays this weekend. Just like the Phillies, the Rays enter the weekend holding on to the third and final spot in the AL Wild Card race.

Tampa Bay is only 0.5 games back of the Mariners for the second spot and two games back of the Blue Jays for the first Wild Card spot. Farther behind, the Orioles still have a chance for something crazy to happen, sitting five games behind.

So based on the result of their series with the Astros and how the other teams fare this weekend and in the final stretch of games, the Rays have a range of outcomes that could cause havoc in the AL bracket. They could end up taking the top Wild Card spot and hosting a series, traveling to face the Blue Jays, Mariners, or Guardians, or, less likely, missing the playoffs altogether.

This variance in positioning could have ramifications for the Astros directly in the ALDS round as well. The Astros are likely to be favored regardless of the three potential teams they face; however, some matchups would make things easier.

Houston went 2-4 against the Blue Jays this year and are currently up 3-0 on the Rays with the three games remaining in the season series. And while the Astros took the season series 12-7 against division-rival Seattle, that could give the Mariners all the more reason to be ultra-motivated for the ALDS if they faced the Astros.

So, while the Astros may not have any direct milestones to play for other than locking up their top seed, these remaining six games will have plenty of storylines and drama to follow for them and their opponent.

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