Deshaun Watson's tall task and why did Mercilus get that deal?

Same old time, same old result? Texans look to avoid playoff disappointment

Deshaun Watson
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3 Headlines, 2 Questions, and 1 Bet ahead of the Texans playoff game with the Bills.

Week 17 should have been for the two seed

The Texans will look back at two games in the 2019 season that really have to stick with them as disappointments with far-reaching meaning behind those losses. By virtue of two poor weekends, at home no less, the Texans played week 17 with near nothing on the line. They should have been playing for the two seed. The Patriots loss would have opened up that door for Houston, but alas, two bad home losses.

The Panthers game early in the season is the hardest one to explain. Carolina was in week two of the Kyle Allen experiment and the Texans turned him over a ton but couldn't capitalize when they got the ball. Just one of Allen's three fumbles turned into points. The Texans defense did their job there and then totally no-showed later in the season against Denver. Drew Lock smoked them and that was the other disappointing home loss of the year.

Those two losses led the Texans back to their regular spot, the first game of Wild Card weekend.

Deshaun Watson has to be better on Saturday

This year is a slight disappointment for Deshaun Watson in my eyes. There were far too many slow starts and he didn't take a jump that many, myself included, expected him to take. Somehow with a better team, including a much improved offensive line, Watson didn't replicate his successful 2018 campaign.

Now stats aren't everything, but some of these games it felt like Watson was overthinking and taking too long to make a decision. That's not all on him, the offense sometimes has been in the way. He feels a lot like the quarterback that finished 2018. Not saying that's a terrible thing, but there were higher expectations.

Watson played terrible in the playoff game last year. He has a much better, and healthier, offense this time around. He's also facing a much better defense than a year ago too. Now would be the perfect time to see the next level of Deshaun Watson.

The new deal for Mercilus makes little sense

I like Whitney Mercilus the guy. He has always been fantastic to deal with from a media standpoint. He is ingrained in Houston with his foundation and loves the city. I would sign Whitney Mercilus the person to a lifetime non-football contract to represent the Houston Texans if I was the owner. But, you eventually have to get on the field.

I can't figure out why Whitney Mercilus got the massive new deal he got. I find it very hard to believe he would have found that much money in free agency. The deal makes him the 11th highest paid outside linebacker in total contract value and the eighth highest in practical guarantees. With the exception of Von Miller and Melvin Ingram, Mercilus is older than all those players too.

The best example of Mercilus' value would be the two Smiths signed by the Packers this offseason, Preston and Za'Darius. They each got similar deals with roughly 30 percent of their salary guaranteed. Mercilus checks in with over 50 percent guarnateed and he didn't come close to the production in the two years before this that either Smith did, nor did he come close to their production this year.

The only way to drastically improve the Texans in the offseason is with money. I understand they have a second round pick and should have a few third-round compensation picks but that's a lot to ask a rookie to improve this team. Houston was going to need to spend money outside of extensions and the cash is going quickly. When you think about a new deal for Laremy Tunsil and Deshaun Watson, the desire to have D.J. Reader back, and decision on Will Fuller's deal which would be nine million dollars more if he played with just his fifth year option the money is going quick.

It seems like the first major misstep by the Bill O'Brien led front office.

What if the Texans win? How would they do it?

If the Texans win they are likely headed to Baltimore the scene of the biggest beat down they suffered in 2019. To avoid playing the Ravens, the Texans would need the Titans to defeat the Patriots in New England. That seems unlikely. Even then, a trip to Kansas City in January is no easy task. When you think about how tough it is to beat a team twice in a season, facing Baltimore off two weeks rest seems a bit more attractive.

A win would really go a long way in steadying the situation around Bill O'Brien as the coach, and likely shot caller in the front office, going forward. It would be the first win for O'Brien in the playoffs over a regular starting quarterback. It would be the best team he has defeated in the playoffs as well. You can also make a sound argument this is the best defense and should his offense light them up, it would be a landmark victory for O'Brien's resume.

The Texans will need a Josh Allen mistake and when they force it, they have to turn it into points. Allen will make mistakes, either fumbles or interceptions, so the Texans will need to feast on the opportunities they get from the Bills young quarterback. They'll need to run the ball well to loosen up the pass defense and Deshaun Watson has to play much better than he has the past month.

What if the Texans lose? How would they blow it?

If the Texans lose there will be plenty of fans and media members hoping for a new coach. A lot of people will want Bill O'Brien and his staff fired. I won't be one of them and I don't believe that will happen. Despite the fact teams almost never regret firing a head coach, I believe O'Brien is back next season. But, what would have to change?

O'Brien would have to get rid of some pieces of his staff I would guess. The defense handled itself decently this season but I could see the organization moving on from Romeo Crennel just to get a fresh set of eyes on the defense. I could also see offense getting improved with more/other minds being in the building. Longtime O'Brien friend Doug Marrone would be an addition that makes a ton of sense with his knowledge of the AFC South.

For the Texans to lose, it wouldn't take much. Josh Allen just would have to hit a few big plays, the Bills would have to slow down Deshaun Watson, and force maybe one turnover. I am concerned about Allen's ability to hit a big play and the way one busted play could easily be six points. There has been some iffy play from the cornerbacks this season and John Brown on the outside with Cole Beasley on the inside seems like a matchup nightmare for the Texans.

I bet the Bills know exactly what is going on with J.J. Watt

Bill O'Brien explained they would continue to evaluate J.J. Watt's potential return this week. He mentioned they have to speak with Watt about how he is feeling and O'Brien said he feels as if he can trust Watt to be honest about where he is with his injury.

The Texans can't hide too much. I expect Buffalo to have a very accurate idea of what Watt will be from a health standpoint on Saturday. Why do I believe that? Well, at least a handful of the Texans staffers were hired by Brian Gaine who is back in Buffalo. It would make sense Gaine would be able to find out what Watt's status is for Saturday regardless of what is publicly said.

Yes, feels very Mission Impossible/John Grisham but humans who owe other humans things talk to them about stuff they shouldn't. That's human nature.

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Have the Astros turned the corner? Photo by Jack Gorman/Getty Images.

One presumes the Chicken Littles have stopped clucking about the Astros’ season being a goner, or if not gone, on life support. It wasn’t when they were 7-19. It wasn’t when they were 12-24. It certainly isn’t now that they’ve won six straight games and eight of their last nine. Another three or four weeks of inept play could have doomed them, but the worm has turned. A 20-25 record is no cause for celebration, but it has the Astros within four games of first place. Yes, getting to play the A’s four times this week helped. And?

I detailed the schedule issue on our Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast this week. The Astros were flat lousy for the season’s first six weeks. But… Starting the week the Astros had played a whopping 32 of their 40 games against teams with a winning record as of Monday. The Seattle Mariners had played 23 such games, the Texas Rangers only 16. The Philadelphia Phillies have been sensational so far and are fully legit. But… The Phillies entered the weekend having played three games vs. teams now sporting a winning record. Three! Out of 45 games. Going into this weekend's series only the Blue Jays, White Sox, and Angels had played more games against winning teams than had the Astros. It’s not mere coincidence that the Blue Jays, White Sox, and Angels are the three last place teams in the American League. The Astros were not up to the challenge of their first quarter schedule, but by no means did it render them dead, particularly in the thus far Mild, Mild, American League West.

A good Brewers team visits Minute Maid Park for three games this weekend. The Astros beat their best starter Friday night. Next the Astros get the pathetic Angels here for three before a three-game series at Oakland. Meanwhile the West leading Mariners start a ten-game road trip this weekend: three at the excellent Orioles, four at the excellent Yankees, three at the respectable Nationals. The Astros stand a good chance of overtaking the M’s by the end of this month if they can win the four-game series they open Memorial Day in Seattle.

Meanwhile, the Texas Rangers snapped a five game losing streak Wednesday to eke back over .500 at 23-22. The reigning World Series champs hope to get somewhat well vs. the Angels in Arlington this weekend but dropped the series opener to drop back to .500. For their sake they better because the Rangers then hit the road for Philadelphia and Minnesota.

Naturally, many Astros fans are upset with Ronel Blanco serving a 10 game suspension for illegally using whatever substance on his glove and non-pitching hand. The suspension is basically automatic. The suspension is also not a big problem. Blanco has been fantastic since getting a starting rotation spot only because of Justin Verlander’s delayed start to his season. It’s said that all life owes us is opportunity. Man, did Blanco seize his. With just seven big league starts to his name before entering this season as a 30-year old, Blanco has made eight this season with a sparkling 2.09 earned run average. So, what’s that about the suspension is not a big problem?

Blanco will miss one start and have another pushed back a day or two. That’s just not a big deal. In fact it may be helpful in the bigger picture. With last year being the first time in his professional career that Blanco topped 100 innings pitched (125 1/3), the Astros need to be wary of Blanco’s workload which is on pace to blow past last year’s career-high innings total. J.P. France probably pitched over his head for a while last year, but went well past his prior career-high innings total and faded badly. Cristian Javier was tremendous in 2022 while pitching more than in any previous year, but he pitched even more in 2023 and faded badly.

Alex Bregman lives! After being nearly inconceivably inept through the first quarter of the season, the Alex awakening in the Oakland series was not shocking but most welcomed. Over his first 37 games Bregman had a paltry seven extra base hits. Even with a feeble .201 batting average and .534 OPS, that Bregman had scored just eight runs over those 37 games was hard to believe. Then Monday and Tuesday saw five extra base hits and four runs scored.

In a trade not commanding any headlines, Dana Brown Wednesday sent outfielder Corey Julks to the White Sox for 20-year-old low minor league pitcher Luis Rodriguez. There is now no reason to call it a great Astros trade but Brown made a smart deal. Julks had no future here, hence he would have been released if no deal was struck. Taking a flyer on a young arm can’t hurt. Frankly, the White Sox are dumb to trade a young arm of any promise whatsoever for a 28-year-old outfielder with limited value. Julks was a nice story for parts of last season. The Clear Brook High School grad and UH product had a couple windows of production, highlighted by a sizzling nine game 17 for 34 stretch straddling June and July. Alas, not two weeks later Julks began what would become an 0 for 36 nightmare. He was sent to the minors for good in late-August.

*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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