Can the Texans Make the Playoffs Without J.J. Watt?
Replacing a superstar is no small task, but that is what the Houston Texans will have to do after losing superstar defensive end J.J. Watt for the rest of the season during a Week 3 loss to the New England Patriots.
Now, with a 3-2 record, can they hang on and clinch a playoff berth?
A Glance Back
For reference, FiveThirtyEight found that only 3% of teams between 1990 and 2013 made the playoffs after starting the year 2-5.
Among the 12 playoff teams from last season, 11 -- including the Texans -- ranked in the top 13 in Adjusted Defensive Net Expected Points (NEP) per play. However, the Texans' offense ranked 25th in Adjusted NEP per play and were not one of the nine teams who ranked in the top 12 by this metric.
Is their defense still good enough to overcome their offensive woes again this year?
This year though, the Texans jumped out to a 3-1 start prior to Week 5. Historically, 3-1 teams since 1990 have a 63% chance of making the playoffs.
Entering Week 5, our nERD metric had the Texans ranked 12th, giving them a 1.73-point advantage over an average team on a neutral field, and they had a 79.4% chance to make the playoffs and a 76.9% chance to win the AFC South, per our algorithm.
While the Texans were 3-1 before the weekend, the team ranked 29th in scoring (17.3 points per game) and were being outscored by an average of one point per game.
Like last year -- when the defense ranked 3 in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play, 3rd against the pass, and 10th against the run -- the defense was surging with Watt leading the charge. Before Week 5, the defense ranked 3rd, 3rd, and 14th in the same categories.
However, the Texans' offense -- highlighted by their 29th-ranked Adjusted NEP per play -- ranked in the bottom third for all per play categories on offense before Week 5.
After a drubbing by the Minnesota Vikings, Houston's metrics dropped.
The loss pushed the defense down to 6th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play, 4th against the pass, and 16th against the run. With a bottom-six offense, the defense needs to hold steady to hold onto a playoff spot.
Had the Texans improved to 4-1, they would have an almost 80% chance of making the playoffs based on historic data from FiveThirtyEight. At 3-2, the odds aren't nearly as promising, as they hold a 60.5% chance to win their division and a 64.6% to make the playoffs.
Even with a softer division, the Texans -- without Watt -- are very much in danger of missing the playoffs if the offense cannot pickup the slack.