After starting the season 0-3, the Houston Texans are riding a nine-game winning streak and writing one of the greatest comeback stories in NFL history. But there’s one question left unanswered by their streak: Are they actually any good?
Since the Super Bowl era began in 1966, 69 teams have won at least nine games in a row, with an average point differential of plus-134 across those teams’ 189 separate combinations of streaks (including overlapping ones). In the Texans’ streak, their point differential of plus-82 is tied for 11th lowest.1 And the quality of the opposition has been lackluster: The best team Houston has faced, as measured by Elo ratings, was Dallas at 1525. Only one of the previous streaky teams, the 2013 Chiefs, faced a weaker top team. And that Kansas City team ended up losing six of its next eight games after its 9-0 start, including a 45-44 loss to the Colts in the wild-card game.
Not only have the Texans gotten lucky with the opponents they’ve faced, they’ve arguably been very fortunate to beat them. Houston’s pregame win probability averaged across all nine games of its streak was only 47.5 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Elo rating simulations. No other team that’s won at least nine games had a win probability under 50 percent.
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The Texans might just have the most out-of-nowhere win streak in the Super Bowl era. And yet no one is expecting them to collapse. Their schedule is the gift that keeps on giving: None of the teams they’ll face in their final four regular-season games currently has a winning record.
It’s worth noting that while Houston hasn’t really had a signature win against an elite team,2 its average quality of opponent (1476 Elo rating) is on par with the average for all the teams with nine straight wins (1448).
The Texans are certainly a much improved team. They have an excellent chance to break the NFL record for most wins after starting the season 0-3 — held by the 1992 Chargers at 11 wins.3 Houston has gained 185 points in Elo during the streak; only four squads with nine-game streaks have improved more than that: the 1975 Colts, 2013 Chiefs, 2004 Steelers and 2016 Cowboys. Ultimately, however, while all of those teams made the playoffs, none of them got to the Super Bowl.
The key to the Texans’ improvement has been a dramatic transformation in offensive philosophy to protect their franchise quarterback, second-year man Deshaun Watson. In the first six weeks, Watson was hit 69 times, by far the most in football. Watson was so battered that he wasn’t able to fly with the team to Jacksonville in Week 7 because of bruised lungs caused by cracked ribs. He had to take a bus there.
Since then, head coach Bill O’Brien has transformed the entire offensive attack from one that was pass-heavy to one that grounds and pounds. Through Week 6, the Texans threw on 59 percent of their plays — and Watson was sacked on 10.3 percent of them, far above the the NFL average of 6.8 percent. Since Watson was grounded, Houston’s rate of passing plays has dropped to 43.5 percent, though its sack rate is essentially unchanged (9.9 percent).
Defensively, the Texans win the old-fashioned way by stopping the run. They’re top five in both rushing yards allowed and average gain per opponent rush. And they’ve been aided defensively by facing a bevy of teams in their streak (Dallas, Buffalo, Jacksonville, Miami, Washington, Tennessee) that struggle to pass effectively, according to net yards per pass attempt. In Sunday’s 29-13 win against the Browns, Baker Mayfield threw for nearly 400 yards, but that tally was offset by three picks and a receiver’s goal-line fumble. The Texans, for the fifth time during their streak, were turnover-free.
Houston also has two superstar pass rushers in former No. 1 overall pick and two-time Pro Bowler Jadeveon Clowney and three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt. This is the first time the Texans have managed to keep both Clowney and Watt mostly healthy over the course of a season.4
The Texans are suddenly reminiscent of a team out of another era of football — more similar to the most famous squad with a long in-season winning streak, the undefeated 1972 Dolphins, than the pass-happy clubs of today. Like Houston, those Dolphins were knocked for not beating quality teams — and only the 1999 Jaguars and 1975 Vikings had easier schedules during their nine-game streaks, according to Elo. Despite the Dolphins’ undefeated season, their Super Bowl against Washington was essentially a pick ’em. But the Dolphins held the opposing offense scoreless, showing that you can still be a champion even without facing quality opponents in the regular season. That’s a trait the Texans will also need to replicate if they want to continue winning come January.
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