Falcon Points

What the Houston O'Briens need to do to close the gap in the AFC

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If you watched Sunday's Super Bowl (and let's face it; of course you did) you heard more than one reference to the Chiefs trailing the Houston O'Briens 24-0 before rallying on their way to a title. They also trailed Tennessee by 10 and San Francisco by 10 before rolling to a 31-20 victory and Kansas City's first Super Bowl title in 50 years.

Now that the season is officially over, it's time for an honest assessment of where Houston fits in the landscape of the NFL and AFC in particular. And one man - Bill O'Brien - will dictate whether or not the team makes up ground.

What Vegas says

As usual, early Vegas Super Bowl odds go up right after the prior year's game ends.

Here are the 2021 Super Bowl odds according to William Hill:


TEAMODDS
San Francisco 49ers 7/1
Baltimore Ravens 7/1
Kansas City Chiefs 7/1
New Orleans Saints 10/1
New England Patriots12/1
Green Bay Packers 15/1
Philadelphia Eagles 15/1
Seattle Seahawks 18/1
Dallas Cowboys 20/1
Tennessee Titans 25/1
Minnesota Vikings 25/1
Houston Texans 25/1
Pittsburgh Steelers 25/1
Los Angeles Rams 25/1
Chicago Bears30/1
Buffalo Bills30/1
Atlanta Falcons30/1
Los Angeles Chargers30/1
Las Vegas Raiders30/1
Indianapolis Colts40/1
Cleveland Browns40/1
Tampa Bay Buccaneers50/1
Denver Broncos50/1
Detroit Lions60/1
New York Jets60/1
Jacksonville Jaguars60/1
Carolina Panthers60/1
New York Giants60/1
Arizona Cardinals75/1
Miami Dolphins 100/1
Washington Redskins 100/1
Cincinnati Bengals 125/1

While the O'Briens are 25-1, they are basically co-fourth choices in the AFC with Pittsburgh and Tennessee. Teams regarded with better chances? The Chiefs (7-1), Ravens (7-1) and Patriots (12-1).

The Chiefs and Ravens were the dominant teams in the AFC in 2019-20 and deserve to be favored. The Titans made it a step deeper in the playoffs than did Houston, and the Steelers almost made the playoffs without Ben Roethlisberger, who will be back next season (presumably). So where Houston sits makes sense. Keep in mind, this is before off-season moves. The Chiefs will have to do some maneuvering to keep everyone. The Ravens might not be able to keep Lamar Jackson healthy for a full season again. The Patriots could easily be back but might also move on from Tom Brady and start over. The O'Briens? It remains to be seen.

Moves to be made

The Colts (40-1) could be a threat if they get a veteran quarterback. But all of these odds are more based on last year's results than what these teams will look like heading into camp. The gap between Houston and Kansas City as of today is significant. A 24-0 lead aside, there has to be a lot of moves made. And the Chiefs need to regress, both of which are entirely plausible.

The real question is what does O'Brien the GM do in the off-season? We know he is not going to bring in fresh voices on the coaching staff. And we know he will overpay his pets (Nick Martin and Whitney Mercilus) and give away anyone who he does not like (Jadeveon Clowney). So if your coaching is not going to improve, and you have limited draft capital, the team has one way to improve - free agency.

First things first

Houston has plenty of cap room, but some big deals that need to be made with players already on the roster will impact that. They need to extend Laremy Tunsil, and Deshaun Watson is due for a raise as well. They could hold off until next season, but going into the 2021 off-season with both players eligible to hit free agency would be a disaster. So they need to get at least Tunsil locked up now.

D.J. Reader will get paid by somebody. It will be interesting to see whether or not the team values him the same way it did Mercilus and Martin. Carlos Hyde had a big year, and he is a free agent as well. Bradley Roby is another potential free agent. He played well when healthy, but was he really good enough to be a No. 1 corner? That's what it will cost to keep him.

Without him, they have Gareon Conley, Vernon Hargreaves and Lonnie Johnson under contract. They need a legitimate No. 1, which should be available in free agency. But the price will be steep.

They also need help in the pass rush, which won't be cheap either. And if Reader leaves? They need to replace him as well. All that will just keep them where they are, not necessarily make them better.

And that's the real issue. How can they get better? It's all up to O'Brien the GM to close the gap. Because O'Brien's coaching staff isn't getting any better, and the draft is not going to help.

It will be hard just to keep the Texans where they are, much less improve. But there is a gap that has to be closed if they are going to compete with the Chiefs and Ravens, among others.

As of now, Vegas has them a long way off. And now that O'Brien is in charge of everything, it's on him to gain the ground, what he does in free agency will be the determining factor.

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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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