A month ago, Bill O’Brien and the Houston Texans were in shambles. The Texans were sitting at 2-5 after getting absolutely dismantled by the now corroded Miami Dolphins. What was supposed to be the Texans’ backbone, the defense, surrendered 509 total yards and 44 points to Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins.
Yes, that Ryan Tannehill — you know, the one that has only been playing quarterback since Johnny Football's freshman year at Texas A&M. In that blowout win, the Texans allowed Tannehill to have a career day, completing 18 of 19 pass attempts and throwing for four touchdown passes.
Since that loss to Miami, the Texans (6-5) have done a complete 180-degree turnaround and possibly put O’Brien in the driver’s seat for Coach of the Year. The Texans have won four straight games, thanks in large part to reliable quarterback play from Brian Hoyer (that was weird to type) and the resurgence of JJ Watt and the Texan defense. What once looked like a lost season, has turned into a fantastic opportunity at a playoff run.
Two weeks ago, Rex Ryan and the Buffalo Bills were sitting at 5-4 and in the thick of the AFC Wild Card hunt. Times have changed as the Bills (5-6), hampered by injuries, have dropped two straight and are desperately seeking a defensive identity from a defense that came into 2015 as the most talked about in the NFL. So far, the Bills' defense has been one thing: over-hyped.
Houston at Buffalo
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Buffalo -3
Three Things to Watch
1. The Turnover Battle
The last time the Bills won was two weeks ago against Rex Ryan’s former team, the New York Jets, thanks in large part to winning the turnover battle. In that game, the Bills forced four Jets turnovers and never gave up the ball once. In the last two games, both losses, the Bills have forced just one turnover, while they’ve given the ball away three times.
Bills’ quarterback Tyrod Taylor has done a great job of protecting the ball as a passer so far this season, having not thrown a pick since Week 4 against the Giants and throwing just four interceptions all season compared to 14 touchdown passes. When Taylor takes off running outside the pocket is when he is the most vulnerable, having fumbled six times so far this season.
On the flip side, the Texans have a plus-five turnover margin during their four game win streak. Hoyer has thrown just three picks compared to seven touchdown passes during the run, while Texan running backs have lost just one fumble all season long. The Texans’ defense has forced eight turnovers over the course of the last four games, a trend that must continue for the Texans to win their fifth in a row.
2. Banged-Up Bills Defense
The mega contracts of Mario Williams and Marcell Dareus and the addition of Rex Ryan calling the shots may have placed lofty expectations on the Bills’ defense. This season has been nothing short of a disappointment on the defensive end. Last week the Bills came close to rock bottom, surrendering 413 yards of total offense to Alex Smith and the mundane Kansas City Chiefs' offense.
But last week wasn’t an anomaly. The Bills rank 19th in total defense (355.9 ypg), 13th in penalties (79) and takeaways (17), and 29th in sacks (16). That last stat seems to be inexcusable for a front seven that features three players (Williams, Dareus, and Jerry Hughes) that are guaranteed a combined $113 million.
One reason for the disappointing performance of the Bills' defense is the constant cycle of players coming on and off the injury report. The Bills will likely be without DT Kyle Williams, LB Nigel Bradham, S Aaron Williams, Williams’ back up, Alex Carrington, and perhaps even Mario Williams against Houston.
The combination of injuries and poor play could spell disaster for a third straight week for the Bills, possibly knocking them out of playoff contention for good.
3. Resurgent Texans D
Over the past five weeks, J.J. Watt has reminded the football world why he is the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Watt only posted four sacks through the first four weeks of the season, but since has nine and a half sacks. The rest of the Houston defense has followed Watt’s lead. During their four game win streak, the Texans have allowed only six points three times for an average of 8.8 points-per-game, and are only surrendering 250 yards per game. The Texans have also won their turnover battles. Before the win streak, the Texans were even in turnover margin, but since the Miami loss, they are plus-five.
With four of their last five games against teams that struggle offensively (Bills, Colts, Titans, and Jaguars), the Houston defense could be the driving force behind what seemed like an impossible playoff run just a month ago.
This game between two middle of the road teams flirting with .500 records may not seem like much to the untrained eye, but it has major playoff implications. If the Bills lose, their season reaches desperation mode at 5-7. If the Texans win, they are in direct control of their own destiny with all four remaining games against AFC opponents, three of which are AFC South rivals.
With the way the Texans' defense is shutting down opposing offenses, and the balanced efficiency of their own offense over the course of the past month, it's hard to bet against them as they face a reeling Bills squad.
Prediction: Texans 20, Bills 17
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.