The Pallilog

Rays are a solid team, but Astros should advance

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The Astros start their postseason 11 wins away from putting a glorious ribbon around what would rank as one of the greatest single seasons in Major League Baseball history. Last year the Red Sox finished off their claim, winning 108 regular season games then dethroning the Astros en route to winning the World Series. The 107 win Astros open their American League Division Series as big favorites against Tampa Bay, but the Rays are no million to one shot.

Any 96 win team should be taken seriously, even though the lone Ray who would crack the Astro lineup is outfielder Austin Meadows. For context, his September was as good as Alex Bregman's, his season better than Yuli Gurriel's. Overall though the Rays have a middling offense. Their four home run clubbing of Oakland in the Wild Card game was stout, but for the season the Rays finished ninth of 15 AL teams in runs scored. Their pitching is way better than middling. The Rays led the AL in earned run average (3.65 to the Astros' 3.66), and that's with pitching more than 20 percent of their innings against the Yankees and Red Sox. Manager Kevin Cash maneuvers a deep and versatile bullpen.

The Astros are of course extremely confident with Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole starting games one and two. Rays' game one starter Tyler Glasnow has a better ERA than both. Big catch: Glasnow's 1.78 was compiled over only 12 starts. He was awesome the first month plus of the season before a forearm injury sidelined him for almost four months. Over the last three of his four comeback appearances Glasnow looked fantastic. He is capable of stifling the Astro attack, but probably for no more than five innings. Lord knows Verlander had numerous outings with puny run support this season. Cole draws last year's AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell. Like Glasnow Snell missed a chunk of the season to injury. Unlike Glasnow, Snell did not look good in his most recent outings.

The Astros understandably wouldn't guarantee Charlie Morton one year 17.9 million dollars so he signed with the Rays for two years 30 mil. The Astros in July traded for Zack Greinke who costs them more than 20 mil per season (pro rata this year, and the next two if not traded). Game three matchup in St. Petersburg: Greinke vs. Morton.

It will be portrayed as a stunning upset if the Rays deny the Astros a third straight American League Championship Series appearance. It would not be a stunning upset. Well, the Astros getting swept would be stunning. "Baseball happens" is really the only reason to pick the Rays. That's no way to hazard a guess. Astros in three.

The Yankees-Twins series is more evenly matched on paper. The form chart makes it a home run derby. The Twins shattered the single season homer record the Yankees set last season (267) by hitting 307. The Yankees hit 306. The Astros were third with 288.

And then there is the Texans...

Off all the matchups on the week five NFL schedule, Texans-Falcons is certainly one of them. The Texans are 2-2 after their pitiful offensive home showing in the loss to Carolina, but that's good for a share of first (and a share of last) in the AFC South. The Falcons' season is in much worse shape at 1-3, playing in an NFC South with a Saints' squad likely to win at least 10 games.

Bill O'Brien is a mediocre head coach, who produces mediocre teams. O'Brien is not a godawful head coach, though on average it's probably about every other game that he commits game or clock management somewhere from questionable to absurd. If the Texans' goal is to avoid having a bottom of the barrel coach more so than seeking greatness, that's just sad. The former isn't really their goal but it may as well be given the status quo. Maybe some year while O'Brien is still on the job the Texans break out of the mediocrity muck and look like a bonafide contender. Anyone not on the Texans' payroll believe that likely? How many ON the Texans' payroll truly believe that likely?

As an alleged creative offensive mind, O'Brien is calling the shots for one of the five teams to already twice this season fail to score 14 points in a game. The Texans pulling it off in both their home games. The Jaguars and Panthers have good defenses but if you don't score 14 points, your offense stunk like rotten eggs. Add in that the Jaguars and Panthers each came to town down one of their best defensive linemen, and a starting cornerback.

The Falcons are another of the teams with two sub-14 point offensive outputs. The Texans better win Sunday since next week they face their most likely loss of the season. At Kansas City.

Last season the Texans padded their fool's gold 11-5 record by beating a bunch of bad and/or backup quarterbacks. They've already faced two backups this season, and sit 2-2. But you cynic you, another division championship banner could be in the Texans' future.

​Buzzer Beaters

1. In the 162 game schedule era (1961-) only eight teams won more than the Astros' 107 this year. Only four of those eight won the World Series. 2. Another lackluster college football schedule this week. Next week: Texas-Oklahoma, Alabama at Texas A&M. 3. Most likely winners of the other Division Series: Bronze-Yankees Silver-Dodgers Gold-Cardinals


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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF CRENNEL'S COACHING

Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

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Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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