From year to year, the ability to win close games is a constant attribute of playoff teams in the NFL. Unfortunately, the Texans haven’t figured this out yet, which is a big reason why they’ve stayed home every January since their inception in 2002.
Although the Texans have improved in nearly every phase of the game during Gary Kubiak’s reign, they still haven’t found a way to win close games. In fact during his three-year tenure as head coach the Texans have lost nine games by six points or less.
Now considering the Texans have posted back-to-back 8-8 seasons under Kubiak one can clearly see the difference winning those close games can make for this team.
No match up has highlighted this deficiency more than that of the divisional rival Titans. In seven years the Texans are a mere 3-11 against the Titans with six of those eleven losses coming by a touchdown or less.
If the Texans hope to make the 2009 season their first dance with the playoffs then they’ll have to fix this problem immediately.
While a big part of their previous inability to “seal the deal” could be attributed to their relative youth and inexperience, that excuse is now gone. Despite being the second youngest team in the NFL last year the Texans finished the season ranked third overall in offense, despite playing the season with two quarterbacks.
With the continued experience and gelling of their youthful offensive foundation there shouldn’t be any reason they take a step back this year. Yet even their surprisingly stellar offense last year couldn't carry them into the playoffs for the first time.
So if they want to be singing a playoff tune this year, they can’t let close games slip away from them as they have so many times in the past. In order to do so it’s imperative that they find a way to limit turnovers.
Turnovers have absolutely killed the Texans chances of winning close games during Gary Kubiak’s tenure. Last year it didn’t get any better as the Texans led the league in interceptions thrown between Matt Schaub and Sage Rosenfels. Moreover, since Kubiak has been at the helm the team has posted an atrocious combined turnover margin of -26. In fact during this three-year span they’ve finished the season ranked 29th, 31st, and 21st in turnover differential.
No NFL team can expect to be playing in January while turning the ball over that much. Note that of the twelve teams to make the playoffs last year only two (the Vikings and Falcons) posted a negative turnover differential. Both were bounced from the playoffs in the first round.
Another glaring weakness and contributing factor to their inability to close out games is their defense. While their offense has improved mightily under in the last three years their defense has yet to do the same. In the last three years the Texans have finished the season no higher than 22nd in points allowed per game and they’ve never finished a season having averaged more points scored than allowed.
However the Texans are hoping that a change in defensive philosophy (more "big" plays) under new defensive coordinator Frank Bush, as well as, a slew of personnel additions can change that.
In just three years Gary Kubiak and Rick Smith have turned the Texans around from an NFL doormat into a competitive franchise. They’ve done so by building a solid foundation of young players on both sides of the ball. If they can continue to improve and gel, they should be able to correct a lot of their youthful mistakes, and finish off close games.
In fact last year's week six, fourteen, and fifteen victories offer a glimmer of hope that the Texans are finally learning how to do so. In those three games the Texans were able to beat the Packers in Lambeau, as well as, the playoff bound Titans and Dolphins, by a combined five points. Those victories should give Texans fans a reason to believe that their youthful team is finally finding a way to win close games, that have so often eluded them in the past.
However, if they want to continue an upward trend this year they’ve got to improve their defense and limit their turnovers. If not, then the Texans will yet again be watching the playoffs from home. And Gary Kubiak will be under pressure that none of us would want.