The Houston Texans host the Buffalo Bills on Saturday afternoon in what will be the first playoff game of the 2019-2020 NFL season. It will be the Texans’ fourth time hosting a first-round playoff game under head coach Bill O’Brien. In 2015, the Texans were blanked 30-0 by the Kansas City Chiefs. The following year, they defeated the Oakland Raiders at home before losing in Foxborough to the New England Patriots. Last year, Houston lost to the Indianapolis Colts 21-7.
For Houston, this is a chance to show the world that they have taken the next step as a playoff contender. They have shown repeatedly that they can qualify for the tournament—now, they need to show that they can win games upon qualifying.
Here are the Houston players we’ll be watching on Saturday.
QB Deshaun Watson
Houston’s third-year quarterback is set to start his second career playoff game. Last year against Indianapolis, Watson completed 29-of-49 passes for 276 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. He added eight rushes for 76 yards in what was a disappointing performance overall. During the 2019 regular season, Watson continued his development towards becoming the great quarterback most believe he is destined to be, as he completed 67.3% of his passes for over 3,800 yards in just 15 games. He matched his touchdown total from last year in one fewer game, throwing for 26 touchdowns for the second straight year. His interception total rose to 12, however, and he fumbled ten times. Watson is an outstanding quarterback—one who excels at hitting the deep shot, can beat teams with his athleticism, and has the ability to read the entire field to find a weakness. Buffalo will need to play disciplined football in order to slow down Watson.
RB Duke Johnson
Sure, Carlos Hyde had a 1,000-yard season at age 29, the first 1,000-yard season of his career. However, the Bills are more susceptible to giving up big plays when a running back is used as a receiver out of the backfield, and Hyde only had ten catches on the year. Enter Johnson, the former Cleveland Browns back who excels as a receiver. The 26 year old was third on the Texans in both targets (62) and receptions (44), and he was fifth on the team in receiving yards (410) and fourth in receiving touchdowns (3). Johnson is no slouch as a runner, either, as he carried the ball 83 times for 410 yards and two touchdowns. Johnson’s versatility makes him the tougher mark this week.
WR DeAndre Hopkins
This is the match-up that everyone will be watching this week. When Tre’Davious White lines up across from Hopkins, it will pit arguably the league’s best wideout against arguably the league’s best corner. Hopkins was targeted 150 times, fifth-most in the league, and caught 104 passes, tied for third-most. He had 1,165 receiving yards and seven touchdowns on the year. Last season, Hopkins caught a touchdown pass over White when the Bills and Texans met, something that Hopkins reminded us of via a since-deleted post on Instagram. If Hopkins can win against White and, potentially, some additional help in the form of a safety or another corner, then Houston will have a much easier time moving the ball. This is the game-within-the-game on Saturday.
EDGE J.J. Watt
The league’s best edge rusher missed half the year with a torn pectoral muscle, but the Texans activated him from injured reserve just in time for the playoffs. This is all you need to know about how good Watt is. He tied for 20th in the NFL this year in quarterback hits with 21. He only played eight games. Watt had 24 tackles, four of which went for a loss, and four sacks before he was injured. He had three pass breakups, something that is especially important given how often Bills quarterback Josh Allen seems to have passes batted at the line (for a big guy, it seems to happen far too often to him). Even at 50%, Watt is a threat who needs to be accounted for on every play. I imagine he’s much further along than 50%, as well.
EDGE Whitney Mercilus
The second of Houston’s excellent edge rushers actually had a better year this season even though defenses focused on him without Watt healthy. Last year, Mercilus had 39 tackles, 15 quarterback hits, two forced fumbles, four sacks, and five tackles for loss. This year, he had 48 tackles, 7.5 sacks, nine tackles for loss, four forced fumbles, 15 quarterback hits, one fumble recovery, two pass breakups, and two interceptions. Mercilus will benefit from Watt’s return, as the Bills will need to scheme a way to neutralize both players rather than one of them. Will the Bills go up-tempo with some empty sets? Or will they use Lee Smith and Patrick DiMarco to help and chip? Perhaps a little bit of both? We’ll have to wait until Saturday to find out.