AFC South: Houston Texans

Six weeks removed from having had microfracture surgery, Houston Texans outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney is still working through the relatively early stages of rehab. He can't put weight on his surgically repaired right knee just yet.

Texans general manager Rick Smith offered this update in an appearance on Sirius XM NFL radio:
"That surgery requires a pretty significant amount of time that you are not weight bearing, and then you kind of gotta work yourself back to it. He's been diligent in his rehab. That's the thing he can control right now. He understands that. It's an arduous process for him because he's limited right now in what he can do. There's just a few exercises that he can do to maintain some of the strength in his leg. Once he gets to the point where he can put weight on the leg again and start to really get into a rehab process, I know he's anxious to do that. He's anxious to make the contributions that we all know he's capable of making. Some of the things, the flashes that we saw even in the preseason, it's important to him that he returns to full health so that he can contribute and help our football team."

Clowney suffered a lateral meniscus tear and articular cartilage damage in a non-contact injury he suffered during the first game of the Texans' season. He had arthroscopic knee surgery to repair the injury, and the Texans had hoped that was all that would be necessary. But when the knee wasn't performing properly, they resorted to microfracture.

Microfracture surgery involves poking tiny holes into the knee to increase blood flow and help the cartilage regenerate on its own. The recovery from that surgery is difficult, the rehab is demanding and the No. 1 overall pick of the 2014 draft has a lot of it ahead of him.
HOUSTON -- The Houston Texans fired offensive line coach Paul Dunn after one season with the team, as first reported by Mark Berman of Houston's Fox 26 and John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.

Texans coach Bill O'Brien hired Dunn to replace John Benton, who was the Texans' offensive line coach the prior year under former head coach Gary Kubiak. The Texans had tried for Mike Munchak, the former Titans head coach and Houston Oilers great, but Munchak opted to join the Pittsburgh Steelers' staff rather than return to the town where he played professional football.

They then turned to Dunn, who had been the Atlanta Falcons' offensive line coach in 2012 and 2013, having been promoted from assistant offensive line coach from 2008 to 2011.

The Texans' offensive line struggled this season, especially early, and Dunn's role shoulders some of the blame. They played better late in the year, including against the Baltimore Ravens when they did not give up a sack.
A year after having the worst record in the NFL and the first overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft, the Houston Texans made a remarkable improvement despite not answering their question at quarterback. They went 9-7 and earned the 16th pick in the draft.

That result puts them in an interesting situation this year.

The Texans still have to figure out their quarterback of the future, and they'll have to do it drafting from a place where a first-round quarterback might not make sense. Thus, Jameis Winston's announcement Wednesday that he will enter the draft will likely be irrelevant for the Texans at No. 16.

By all accounts, Winston's football ability, intelligence and acumen are excellent. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay has mentioned Winston's tendency this season to force passes given the decrease in talent around him, but also noted that Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had similar issues his senior year of college. It's a minor issue that can be fixed.

The bigger issue with Winston is off the field, and it's one the Texans will consider.

Owner Bob McNair has said the Texans took former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez off their draft board in 2010 when Hernandez came out of the University of Florida because they had concerns about his character. That has proved to be the right decision as Hernandez awaits trial on murder charges.

On the other hand, there have been plenty of cases where the Texans took a chance on a player with some sort of character issue or concern in his background. They've mostly been rewarded for taking those chances.

Former outside linebacker Bryan Braman, who was indefinitely suspended from West Texas A&M after pleading guilty to a charge of manufacturing hallucinogens, is one example. The Texans gave him a chance as an undrafted rookie and he remained with the team, and out of trouble, until becoming a free agent last season.

It doesn't always work. The Texans took a chance on Jerome Mathis, a talented returner who continued having problems in the NFL. A few days after a domestic violence charge in 2008, the Texans opted not to offer him a restricted free-agent tender, effectively cutting ties with him.

The Texans' concern about character is sometimes exaggerated. They are perfectly willing to take a chance on someone, and they've done it several times. They do their own research and draw their own conclusions about individuals.

And the Texans will do their own research about the sexual assault accusation for which Winston was never charged. They will determine, independent of the operations of the Tallahassee Police Department, the impact that could have on their draft-day decisions. The subject matter is important to McNair, who told reporters during the fall league meetings that someone in his family was sexually assaulted. The Texans will consider the incident when Winston was issued a civil citation for leaving a supermarket without paying for crab legs and crawfish, and the instances of public immaturity for which the QB has had to answer. They'll look deeper into his past to see if there's anything else alarming.

But all of that might be totally irrelevant because of where they draft.

There are certainly four, perhaps as many as six, teams drafting above the Texans who have quarterback needs. At No. 16, if all those teams passed on Winston -- despite a weak quarterback crop this season and Winston's obvious on-field talent -- that would mean the character concerns scared them all away.
HOUSTON -- When he came to the Houston Texans, he wasn't even the presumed starter, but safety Kendrick Lewis knew he had something to prove.

Quickly, he grew into an important part of what became a dominant Texans defense.

"There's blood in the water, we want the taste for more," Lewis said. "We want to continue to get better this offseason, continue to work hard, to start off faster than we did this season."

It's a nice idea for the Texans and one contingent on keeping together the core of a defense that has six key players headed for free agency. Lewis is one of those. This season, Lewis led the Texans with 84 tackles. He had four tackles for loss, one quarterback hit, six passes defensed, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.

The Ed Reed experiment having failed in 2013, and safety Danieal Manning making more initially than the Texans wanted to pay him, the team entered last offseason with some major needs at safety. They looked to Lewis, a player who defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel drafted back in Kansas City, and Chris Clemons, a safety who spent the first four years of his career with the Miami Dolphins. Lewis rose to the top of that group quickly.

"I knew what type of year it [was]," Lewis said. "I bet on myself. I had to show these people. At the end of the day, all they can go off of is what I did my past years in Kansas City. I wanted to show them the player I am."

His knowledge of the defense and his ability to properly line up his teammates in the backfield were boons. Lewis took every advantage he had and worked in hopes that it would pay off for him.

All too familiar with the uncertainty that comes with being a pending free agent, Lewis is trying not to worry too much about what his future holds. He's done his part so far.

"It's a deal that you just gotta be patient and let it play out," Lewis said. "... I feel like I did a pretty good job as far as upping my play from my previous years. I put all I can do on the field and let the chips fall where they may."
It's rare for a defensive player to earn MVP votes.

One will this year.

 John McClain of the Houston Chronicle is one of the 50 voters for the MVP award and, after resisting for most of the season, he's come to his senses. J.J. Watt will get McClain's MVP vote.

He finishes his column like so:
If Rodgers had a record-breaking season like Manning in 2013, I would have voted for him. He was exceptional, of course, but he didn't have a season for the ages, perhaps the greatest in history at his position.

Watt did.

That's why I voted for Watt as MVP.

In previous columns, McClain's argument was that an MVP couldn't come from a non-playoff team. What seems to have changed his mind is the way Watt and the Texans' defense played late in the season. In the final five games, Watt notched 27 tackles, 11 sacks, 14 tackles for loss, 20 hits on the quarterback, a touchdown, and a safety.

What also contributed to McClain's decision was that there isn't a clear-cut choice among the offensive options.

It remains to be seen whether enough voters will think like McClain for Watt to win this award. But he certainly makes a strong case.
By design, one of the toughest things for opponents facing J.J. Watt is figuring out where he is lined up from play to play.

It's a problem that extends beyond Watt's opponents, apparently. Watt was once again voted unanimously to the Associated Press All-Pro first team, but 45 of the 50 voters voted him a first-team defensive end, and five voted him a first-team defensive tackle.

This season, Watt lined up six times at tackle, but he also lined up at both outside linebacker spots and once at inside linebacker, a position from which he has one sack.

"I mean, half the time I have no clue where I'm coming from, so it makes it pretty tough for the other people, I think, and that's the goal," Watt said this season. "The goal is to try and keep things mixed up so that we try and avoid as many of those double and triple teams as we can."

The evolution of Watt's movement has been interesting. Watt did move around quite a bit this season, but he spent a lot less time inside than he has in past seasons.

In 2012, when Watt won his first defensive player of the year award, 8.5 of his 20.5 sacks came from left defensive end, and 10 came from left defensive tackle.

In December, the Houston Texans' defense hit a new level. They didn't allow any of their four opponents to surpass 300 net yards.

As they went, so did their best player. Texans defensive end J.J. Watt was named the AFC's defensive player of the month.

In December, Watt had 22 tackles, nine sacks, 13 tackles for loss, one forced fumble, two passes defensed, one safety and 14 quarterback hits. Those nine sacks were tied for the most in December since the statistic became official in 1982.

It's a testament to Watt's dominance over the division. Three of the Texans' four December games were against AFC South opponents and six of those December sacks came in two games against the Jaguars. All of the games in which Watt had two or more sacks came against AFC South opponents.

December was also the month in which Watt became the franchise's leader in career sacks. He's the first player since 1982 to have multiple 20-sack seasons and the second player since 1982 to have seasons with 10 batted passes and 10 sacks more than once.

Houston Texans season report card

December, 31, 2014
video » AFC: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Turned in for the night, Texans players would be on the verge of sleeping after long training camp days when they'd hear the shout: "WIDE 80! WIIIIIDE 80!"

It was quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's voice, thundering through the hallways and across floors.

"I think I was maybe three floors away," rookie quarterback Tom Savage said. "I heard it. It was pretty scary. I thought something was wrong, actually."

That was one of the biggest early changes in the Bill O'Brien regime's first season. Veterans didn't have to stay in the training camp hotel under former coach Gary Kubiak, but everyone did in the new regime. They hated it, but that was sort of the point, and eventually that hate melted. Team camaraderie grew under the shared experiences of things such as playing miniature golf in the hallways and being awakened by Fitzpatrick's gruff shouts.

"When you look back on it, it was a lot of fun," said Andre Johnson, the longest-tenured Texan on the roster. "It was different, but it was a lot of fun. I think it helped everybody buy in to what was going on around here."

They bought in so completely that they were able to improve by seven wins. They missed the playoffs, but this season set a foundation for the future under O'Brien.

Team MVP: J.J. Watt made big plays when it counted the most more than any other player in the NFL. Watt had 13 disrupted dropbacks on third or fourth down, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the most in the league. Both of his defensive touchdowns came in such circumstances. It has been a hallmark of Watt's as long as he has played football. Watt became the first player since sacks were recorded in 1982 to have multiple seasons with 20 or more sacks. He was the first player in NFL history to have three touchdown catches, a pick-six and a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown in a single season.

Best moment: Suspend your definition of a "moment" for, well, a moment, and allow it to include one half of football. So, the Texans' best moment of the season was a masterfully planned and executed first half of football against the Baltimore Ravens. The Texans' disguises confused the Ravens. Their blitzes turned Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco into a shell of himself. They gave up only 31 yards in the entire half, a franchise record, and they picked off Flacco twice in that time. Their performance meant the Texans' offense, then on Case Keenum's first start of the season, had minimal pressure in a difficult situation. They performed.

Worst moment: At the midway point, my choice here was Jadeveon Clowney's injury, but the defense played so well late in the year that I'd say that wasn't the worst moment. Ryan Fitzpatrick was far from perfect for the Texans this season, but he had a habit of improving during games and likely would have against the Colts in Indianapolis were it not for a broken leg suffered early there. Fitzpatrick's leg suffered a clean break and he had season-ending surgery the next day. An unprepared Savage entered the game, forced to learn as he played. That was the first in a string of dominant games by the Texans' defense. They held the Colts to what was then a season-low 17 points and lost by only a touchdown. Winning that game would have meant a franchise-first win in Indianapolis and controlling their own destiny in Week 17.

2015 outlook: This offseason will be important for the Texans with respect to player personnel. They'll have to resolve a question at quarterback, and they'll have a lot of work to do with their own free agents. Half of the defensive starting lineup is at the end of their contracts and that's a unit that played its best in December, having had almost a full season to jell and understand defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel's system. Safeties Kendrick Lewis and Danieal Manning and nose tackle Ryan Pickett were on one-year deals. Cornerback Kareem Jackson and outside linebacker Brooks Reed are at the end of their rookie deals, and inside linebacker Akeem Dent, who arrived in a trade this season, also will be a free agent if he's not re-signed before the league year ends.

2015 Houston Texans' draft order

December, 29, 2014
Just one year ago the Houston Texans had the top overall pick in the NFL draft.

Since then, the team's improvement under new head coach Bill O'Brien was substantial. As such, the Texans' 2015 NFL draft pick will be exactly in the middle of the pack. Houston will select 16th.

Resolving the quarterback position is the most important item on the Texans' offseason checklist. Over the next few days, the Texans coaching and personnel staff will determine how they feel about the quarterbacks on their own roster and what that means for their drafting needs. Ryan Mallett, who played well in his one healthy start, becomes a free agent at the end of the year, as does Case Keenum who was called upon in Week 16 as an emergency starter. Ryan Fitzpatrick has another year on his contract and Tom Savage, a fourth-round draft pick, has the bulk of his rookie deal remaining. At No. 16, the Texans would have to get creative if they're to fill the quarterback position in the draft.

What the Texans opt to do in free agency will have an impact on their other biggest needs elsewhere. They have two important safeties, a starting nose tackle, a starting inside linebacker, a starting cornerback and a starting outside linebacker all set to hit the market and won't be able to keep all of them.
HOUSTON -- Ryan Fitzpatrick made his way into the Texans' locker room during clean-up day, spotted during the portion open to the media for the first time since his season-ending broken leg. He came in with two crutches, though he was holding one more than using it to walk.

It hasn't been an easy few weeks for Fitzpatrick, but he's finally at the point where he is allowed to put as much weight as he can stand on his injured leg.

"There was a lot of disappointment," Fitzpatrick said. "I was down about it. It’s just part of the game. I think I was heading in the right direction in terms of some of the stuff I was doing, the way I was playing. ... It was a lot of fun to watch, to see everybody pick their games up and rally, and the way the defense played. It was weird watching it on the couch at home."

Fitzpatrick suffered a cleanly broken tibia during the Texans' game against the Indianapolis Colts on Dec. 14. He and all of his teammates knew, when he tried to stand up and sat back down, that this injury was significant.

"When I went to stand up, I knew it was broken," Fitzpatrick said. "I reached down and could feel the bone displaced a little bit. I knew at that point it was broken. The doctor came out and asked what was wrong. I said I just fractured my tibia. He put the aircast on and carted me off."

Rookie draft pick Tom Savage came in for Fitzpatrick and suffered a hyperextended knee. Savage also was around during availability today, another quarterback with a crutch. His knee brace was off, though, which he noted as a good sign. In an effort to not be called "Dr. Savage" and partly because (according to him) he didn't understand the doctors' big words, Savage couldn't offer a specific prognosis.

After starting nine games for the Texans, Fitzpatrick was benched in favor of Ryan Mallett. Mallett suffered a torn pectoral muscle, which he played through in his second start, then was placed on injured reserve. Fitzpatrick returned, set a franchise record for touchdown passes in a game, and then suffered a broken leg in his second start back.

The Texans initially signed Fitzpatrick to a two-year deal, so he remains under contract. His future, though, is a little insecure.

"I’d love to be here," said Fitzpatrick, whose fifth child is due in April. "I think aside from all the football stuff, which we’ve talked about a lot, just the city of Houston, the family’s settling in. ... We think it’s a great place to live and raise a family."

2015 Houston Texans' opponents finalized

December, 28, 2014
With the regular season wrapped up, the Houston Texans' 2015 slate of opponents is coming into focus.

We won't know the order or times of these games, but know where they'll be and against whom.

The Texans face the NFC South and the AFC East next season. They'll also have a second-place schedule, having finished second in the AFC South.

At home, the Texans will play the Chiefs (second in the AFC West), Titans, Colts, Jaguars, Jets, Patriots, Saints and Buccaneers. On the road, they'll play the Bengals, Titans, Colts, Jaguars, Bills, Dolphins, Falcons and Panthers.

On the surface, it seems an easier draw to have the NFC South than this year's NFC East, but I also thought the NFC East would be a far more favorable draw than the NFC West, which the Texans played in 2013. So... let's save the prognosticating for some other time.
HOUSTON -- The lyrics needed only a little adjustment to become an anthem for Houston Texans fans and their hero alike. When the stadium sound system blared the rap song "Turn Down for What," J.J. Watt embraced it.

Each time the music started Sunday, so did Watt's dance moves -- moves that have come a long way since the days of the failed Nae Nae attempt after his first defensive touchdown. That one drew offers of lessons from Rockets star Dwight Howard and a chuckling Watt postgame, shaking his head at how he must have looked.

[+] EnlargeJ.J. Watt
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsThe Texans' J.J. Watt sacked Blake Bortles three times in each game against the Jaguars this season.
This time Watt danced each time the song played, comfortable in the spotlight that's grown brighter throughout the season. The crowd who calls him MVP delighted in the moves -- in the fun he had -- almost as much as in their bearing witness to one of the greatest seasons any defensive player has had. He danced right into the NFL's history books -- again. With three sacks in a 23-17 win over the Jaguars, Watt became the first player since sacks were recorded in 1982 to have multiple seasons with 20 or more.

"If he doesn't win the MVP, the NFL is out of their mind," Texans receiver Andre Johnson said.

An MVP has to be spectacular. An MVP can be historic. Watt has been both this season.

A rundown: Watt finished with 20.5 sacks, 50 quarterback hits/hurries, 29 tackles for loss, nine batted passes, five fumble recoveries, four forced fumbles, a blocked extra point, one pick-six, one fumble recovery returned for a touchdown and three touchdown catches on nine offensive snaps. He is the only player in NFL history to have a pick-six, a fumble recovery for a touchdown and three touchdown catches in the same season.

On Sunday, he made it a clean sweep of the AFC South; he notched two or more sacks in every divisional game this season. He sacked Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles three times after sacking him thrice the first time they met. Once, he got Bortles in the end zone for a safety.

"Lights out. Tremendous effort. Nothing he hasn't done each time he hits the field," cornerback Johnathan Joseph said. "After a performance like that and a year like he's had, if he don't get the MVP, I don't think ... a defensive player should ever be capable of getting it because I don't think you can top that performance."

He might not think so, but Watt does.

"There are plenty of places I can get better," Watt said. "I watch the film and ... I kind of click past the good plays pretty quickly. It's the bad plays that you watch, and you go over and over and say, 'OK, what can I do better here? How can I help my team more here?'"

Even if he can help his team more, there wasn't a player this season who did more on his side of the ball than Watt did for the Texans' defense. Watt was a big part of why the Texans became one of five teams since the organization began in 2002 to have a winning record a season after having two or fewer wins. The Texans were 4-1 when Watt scored a touchdown -- neutralizing Watt was a focus of every opponents' offensive game plan, and it was certainly a focus of the Jaguars.

"I look like I'm 60 years old, but I'm only 45, and I haven't been around long enough to say if he's the best of all time and all those things," Texans coach Bill O'Brien said. "But I can tell you, in my time in the league, I've never seen a defensive player like him that affects the play on every play."

Watt sees it as his responsibility -- a feeling that's characterized a lot of his life. When his parents agreed to pay for college at Wisconsin -- allowing Watt to walk on after leaving his scholarship at Central Michigan -- Watt felt a responsibility to earn that scholarship and reward their faith. When Wisconsin gave him a scholarship, he felt a responsibility to prove he deserved it. When the Texans gave Watt a $100 million contract extension ...

"They gave me a hundred million," Watt said. "I'm trying to give them a hundred million's worth. Whatever that is, offense, defense, special teams, however I can, I'm trying to make sure that they get their money's worth and the fans get their money's worth because they deserve that."

They've gotten that and more. They've danced along with him while watching a historic individual performance. Watt's final act of 2014 only punctuated the case he's made all year.
Observed and heard around the Texans' locker room after their 23-17 victory over the Jaguars:
  • Players were kept in the dark about scores from across the league during the game. Quarterback Case Keenum asked someone in the tunnel if the Texans had made the playoffs. They came close; they needed the Chiefs and Browns to win. Despite leading in the fourth quarter, the Browns lost 20-10. "Normally, you're excited after a win," Keenum said. "Today was bitter. ... I've never felt this bad after a win. It's a sick feeling."
  • Lewis
    Five or six defensive starters (depending how you count starters) face expiring contracts once the league year ends. On a unit that began playing like a great defense, they are eager to return and pick up where they left off. "The camaraderie, how we're all on the same page, how we're clicking in all phases," safety Kendrick Lewis said. "It's just a blessing and a good feeling to see that all come together after a long season. I would love to see this defense come back." Lewis, cornerback Kareem Jackson, safety Danieal Manning, nose tackle Ryan Pickett, inside linebacker Akeem Dent and outside linebacker Brooks Reed are at the end of their contracts. Dent, Lewis, Manning and Pickett each had one-year deals.
  • The Texans' future at quarterback is uncertain. Coach Bill O'Brien addressed it after the game: "Are we going to draft a quarterback? Are we looking at a quarterback in free agency? Is there a quarterback that we have here now on our roster? Is he the quarterback? These are all discussions that we haven't had yet because we've been concentrating on trying to win games. I think you'll see soon enough what our plan is there."

Rapid Reaction: Houston Texans

December, 28, 2014

HOUSTON -- Thoughts on the Houston Texans' 23-17 victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars:

What it means: Though the rest of the games didn't fall their way, the Texans finished the season with nine wins -- a seven-game improvement on last season. They were more adept at handling adversity than last year's team and became a stronger, tougher defense in December. Houston's new coaching staff, led by Bill O'Brien, set a foundation for the tenure. That the Texans were even in a position to possibly make the playoffs in Week 17, given their quarterback situation, was remarkable.

Stock watch: Andre Johnson notched his first 100-yard receiving game of the season. Interestingly, the past five times Johnson has accomplished the feat, the starting quarterback in the game was Case Keenum. Through his illustrious career, Johnson hasn't been one to score too many touchdowns, but he caught one today. In the past two seasons, six of Johnson's eight touchdown catches have been thrown by Keenum. He has caught passes from five quarterbacks in that time.

Turnovers haunt QB: Keenum committed two costly turnovers. One was an interception returned for a touchdown. A fumble gave the Jaguars the ball deep in Texans' territory, and Jacksonville scored a touchdown one play later.

Game ball: The Texans' season MVP had a game typical of his record-setting year. J.J. Watt sacked Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles twice on the same drive in the first quarter. He has had six games this season with at least two sacks -- all of them against AFC South opponents. Watt finishes the season as the franchise leader in sacks with 57 and is the only player in NFL history to have a pick-six, fumble return for a touchdown and three touchdown catches. With three sacks (one of which was a safety) against the Jaguars today, Watt is the first player in NFL history to have two seasons with at least 20 sacks.

What's next: Despite Houston's victory, the Cleveland Browns could not beat the Baltimore Ravens, so the Texans' season is over. They will now turn to an offseason in which five defensive starters' contracts expire and will need to answer a pressing question at quarterback.

Jaguars vs. Texans preview

December, 25, 2014
We come to the end of a tumultuous season for the Houston Texans and one that, remarkably, has a chance to continue past Week 17.

If the Texans win, the Kansas City Chiefs beat the San Diego Chargers and the Cleveland Browns beat the Baltimore Ravens, Houston gets a playoff berth. That leaves the Jacksonville Jaguars in the role of spoilers.

In their first meeting, the Texans struggled early and Jacksonville went into halftime with a lead. Houston took over in the second half and came away with an important win. The Texans were swept last season by the Jaguars, but this year, Houston is going for the season sweep. A win here would give Houston a 4-2 division record.

They are facing a Jaguars team that earned its third victory of the season last week and enters Sunday's contest with 10 days' rest.

ESPN NFL Nation Texans reporter Tania Ganguli and Jaguars reporter Mike DiRocco discuss.

Ganguli: Mike, the Jaguars didn't have much success against J.J. Watt last time these teams met. Any reason to think that will change this time?

DiRocco: Watt did get three sacks, but one came when he was intentionally unblocked on a bootleg (not sure why you’d choose to do that) and another came when he tapped quarterback Blake Bortles after he slipped on a sprint out to this right. He beat right tackle Sam Young for another sack. Watt also had another tackle for loss and drew a holding penalty that stalled a fourth-quarter drive, but overall the Jaguars felt like they did a decent job of keeping Watt from doing too much damage. They’ll do the same thing on Sunday they did the last time: chip him with a back, keep a tight end in for extra help, and try to throw quick passes to somewhat neutralize his rush. It’s hard to really take him out of the game because he lines up everywhere on the defensive front. He spent a lot of time lined up over Young in the last meeting and the Jaguars are expecting to see him do that again. Watt will still make an impact because he is such a game-changer, but the Jaguars are hoping that’s limited to one or two plays and he doesn’t dominate the game as he has against other teams.

We talked about it before, but I need you to give me the definitive argument on why Watt should be the league's MVP.

Ganguli: Your answer to my previous question actually gives me a good starting point. Watt had three sacks, a batted pass, another tackle for loss, five quarterback hurries or hits and drew a holding penalty on a critical drive and his opponent felt like that was a job well done. That's quite a compliment. In watching the game, it was apparent Bortles was thinking about Watt's whereabouts, including on the sack that resulted from Bortles tripping as Watt sprinted after him. You can't say Watt's pursuit didn't affect Bortles there. This kind of thing happens a lot. I recall a Titans lineman a few years ago downplaying Watt's impact despite his two sacks against this particular lineman.

Regardless of what shows up on the stat sheet, Watt impacts every play in an opponent's game plan. He has the trust of his coaches, which means if he finds a spot from which he thinks he can wreak the most havoc, they'll sometimes let him park there and do it. It doesn't matter how someone gets to the quarterback, when he does it makes a difference. Defensively, here are Watt's numbers: 17.5 sacks, 72 tackles, 42 tackles for loss or no gain, nine batted passes, five fumble recoveries, three forced fumbles and one interception. He leads the NFL in TFLs, batted passes and fumble recoveries. Only once since sacks became an official statistic in 1982 has a player accounted for a larger percentage of a team's sacks than Watt's 53 percent. He's played better this season than he did in 2012, when he won Defensive Player of the Year.

Now let's get to the historical significance of his offensive touches. Watt is the first player in NFL history to have three touchdown catches, a fumble return for a touchdown and a pick-six in the same season. Watt is the first defensive lineman since 1944 to have at least five touchdowns in a season. He's the first defensive player to have five touchdowns in a season since 1971. The Texans are 4-1 when Watt scores a touchdown. By the very nature of his position, he isn't going to be able to affect every game's outcome as much as a quarterback -- who touches the ball on every play -- does. But he shouldn't be penalized for that.

The vibe around Jacksonville has seemed exceptionally positive the past few years, though the Jags' record isn’t improving much. Do you think it will next year?

DiRocco: It should, but I thought it would be better this year than it was in 2013 (4-12), too. Logically, though, the offense should be significantly better with Bortles, right guard Brandon Linder, center Luke Bowanko, and receivers Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns in their second season. They all started at least seven games as rookies. Just because they’re a year older doesn’t mean they’ll be a lot better, but it would be unusual if they weren’t at least somewhat improved. The offense was what held this team back from being more competitive. With that unit theoretically better, the Jaguars should be able to win more games. Some other caveats: The offensive line as a whole has to improve (team-record and NFL-high 66 sacks allowed), the speed at linebacker needs to be upgraded, and the defense has to force more turnovers. It sounds like a lot, and it is, but if two of those areas improve, the Jaguars should be able to win more games in 2015.

Great performance by Case Keenum last week to keep the Texans alive in the playoff chase. Does that outing say more about Keenum or the rest of the offense?

Ganguli: He didn't make big mistakes, which allowed the Texans' defense to take over the game. Last season in his eight starts, Keenum led the league in yards lost per sack (10.58). That's an incredible figure. On Sunday, with the help of his protection and play-calling, Keenum didn't take a single sack. He made one horrible decision that ended in an interception, but recovered well and didn't turn over the ball again. It helped that his interception was not in Texans territory. Keenum's numbers weren't especially good, but that's OK for the Texans if he takes care of the ball and manages the game plan well, like he did on Sunday.

Keenum’s protection was great last week against a really strong front that blitzed him a lot. What can he expect from the Jaguars' defense?

DiRocco: The Jaguars likely won’t blitz him as much as Baltimore did, mainly because coach Gus Bradley’s defense doesn’t use a lot of blitzes. Bradley calls it rush and cover: get pressure with only four rushers and blanket the field with seven in coverage. But while Keenum won’t see as many extra rushers as he did last week, he will have to deal with pressure coming from inside and outside. Defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks leads the team with 8.5 sacks, an unusually high number for an interior lineman, and ends Chris Clemons (7.0) and Ryan Davis (6.5) are right behind him. Three other players have three sacks, including rookie end Chris Smith and second-year tackle Abry Jones. The Jaguars are fifth in the NFL with 42 sacks, which shows marked improvement from the past two seasons, when they had 51 combined.

Back to the quarterback. Is the Texans' quarterback of the future on the roster or IR?

Ganguli: He definitely could be on injured reserve. Ryan Mallett showed some very positive things in the game he played. He showed off his arm strength, his football intelligence and his leadership ability. He's played only one healthy game. When I talked to him last week, he wouldn't admit how much pain he was in during that second start, which he played with a torn pectoral muscle, but you can imagine. A one-game sample size isn't one with which you can draw sweeping conclusions, but it offered hope for his future. The X factor here is the free-agent market. Whether or not he's back next year will have more factors than just mutual affinity, which does exist between Mallett and the team right now.



Sunday, 1/25