Falcon Points

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

Bill O'Brien against Jacksonville
Getty Images

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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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*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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