Why Redskins, Texans Cannot Be Overlooked in 2016 NFL Playoffs

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJanuary 5, 2016

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 03: Kirk Cousins #8 of the Washington Redskins looks for an open receiver against the Dallas Cowboys during the first quarter at AT&T Stadium on January 3, 2016 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

For the vast majority of the 2015 NFL regular season, the AFC South and NFC East were considered the two weakest divisions in football. This is why the winners of those divisions—the Houston Texans and Washington Redskins, respectively—probably aren't going into the postseason commanding a high level of respect.

These two certainly aren't considered legitimate Super Bowl contenders by the football world at large. Over at Odds Shark, for example, the Redskins have 40-1 odds of winning Super Bowl 50. The Texans are listed at 66-1. 

NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 27:  Head coach Bill O'Brien of the Houston Texans watches the game against the Tennessee Titans at LP Field on December 27, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

To be fair, Washington and Houston aren't going to be seen in the same light as top Super Bowl contenders like the New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks, Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos until they prove they can win big postseason games. Yet we shouldn't be so quick to define the AFC South and NFC East champs as easy outs either. 

Criticism of those divisions is appropriate, of course. The eight teams within the two combined for a winning percentage of just .398, and a week ago, no team in either division owned a winning record. The Texans and Redskins, each finishing 9-7, are the only teams from the AFC South or NFC East to end the regular season with winning records 

However, it would be a mistake to lend no respect to Houston and Washington. And it would be an even bigger blunder for their playoff opponents to overlook them. The Texans will open the postseason by hosting the Kansas City Chiefs. The Redskins will be home against the Green Bay Packers.

However, these teams could be dangerous for any opponent.

Wild Card Weekend Schedule
Date/TimeAway Team (seed)Home Team (seed)TV Network
Jan 9, 4:20 p.m. ETKansas City (No. 5)Houston (No. 4)ABC/ESPN
Jan 9, 8:15 p.m. ETPittsburgh (No. 6)Cincinnati (No. 3)CBS
Jan 10, 1:05 p.m. ETSeattle (No. 6)Minnesota (No. 3)NBC
Jan 10, 4:40 p.m. ETGreen Bay (No. 5)Washington (No. 4)Fox

Yes, Houston and Washington won relatively weak divisions, but they deserve to be in the postseason. Each won nine games, and each has enough talent to be a legitimate threat in the playoffs. Here's why.

Exhibit A: Quarterbacks

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 03: Kirk Cousins #8 of the Washington Redskins looks on before the Redskins take on the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on January 3, 2016 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Both Houston and Washington have a reliable, healthy quarterback. Not every squad entering the NFL postseason can say the same.

The Cincinnati Bengals, for example, don't know when they'll have starting quarterback Andy Dalton (right thumb injury) back in the fold. The Broncos don't even know who their quarterback will be, after head coach Gary Kubiak benched Brock Osweiler in favor of Peyton Manning in the regular-season finale.

Washington has its quarterback in Kirk Cousins. The Texans have their guy in Brian Hoyer. Each comes with his own merits.

Cousins appears to be the greater pure asset of the two signal-callers. He has performed at a near-Pro Bowl level for much of the season, especially down the stretch. For the year, he produced 4,166 yards passing, 29 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, five rushing touchdowns and a passer rating of 101.6.

Former Washington quarterback Joe Theismann believes Cousins is franchise material.

According to Chris Lingebach of CBS DC, Theismann said the following during an appearance on 106.7 The Fan:

If you don’t sign Kirk Cousins, and let’s say he goes someplace else, where are we as a football team after having invested the three years in himfour years, reallyand this particular season that he has had? You have to sign him and the number’s between $80 [million] and $100 million. You can’t get around it; that’s where the numbers are. 

Pro Football Focus rated him 15th overall among quarterbacks for the season.

Hoyer, who has dealt with both an early-season benching and a pair of concussions this year, hasn't been as prolific as Cousins. However, he has been steady. In his 11 games, Hoyer passed for 2,606 yards, 19 touchdowns, seven interceptions and earned a passer rating of 91.4. Pro Football Focus rates him 18th overall among quarterbacks for the year.

According to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, Texans coach Bill O'Brien admitted to players that it was a mistake to bench Hoyer after he struggled in the season opener. 

Hoyer isn't likely to scare the Chiefs defense or any future opponents by himself. But he is a savvy veteran with command of O'Brien's offense and decent weapons around him. As is the case in Washington, the Texans should feel good about going into the postseason with their quarterback.

Exhibit B: Weapons

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 03: Pierre Garcon #88 of the Washington Redskins attempts to make a touchdown catch against Deji Olatoye #29 of the Dallas Cowboys during the first  half at AT&T Stadium on January 3, 2016 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Penning
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Having talent at the game's most critical position is obviously important. Yet no NFL team can truly succeed without talent at other key positions. Fortunately, both the Texans and Redskins have this—though the squads are built very differently.

For Washington, most of its weapons reside on the offensive side. This is one of the reasons why Cousins pieced together a standout year—and why he should have success in the postseason. Opposing defenses must deal with the talented wide receiver tandem of DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. They also must contend with third receiver Jamison Crowder and Pro Bowl-worthy tight end Jordan Reed. 

This quartet of pass-catchers makes it difficult for opposing defenders to key in on any one target. It also helped Washington's passing attack earn a rating of 12th overall by Pro Football Focus.

Though the rushing attack hasn't been stellar (it ranked just 20th in the league with an average of 97.9 yards per game), it provides enough balance for the Washington offense to be effective.

The Redskins also have a strong defensive pass rush, led by linebacker Ryan Kerrigan (9.5 sacks) and defensive end Chris Baker (6.0 sacks). Pro Football Focus rated that pass rush ninth in the NFL for the season.

That could prove problematic for the Packers, who allowed 46 sacks on quarterback Aaron Rodgers (second-most overall) during the regular season. 

The pass rush, and the defense in general, is where most of Houston's weapons are found. 

Pass-rusher J.J. Watt, one of the league's biggest weapons at any position, leads a defense that has produced 45 sacks this season. By himself, Watt produced 76 tackles, 17.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and eight passes defended in the regular season.

Watt isn't the only difference-maker on the defense. Cornerback Johnathan Joseph leads a secondary that has limited opponents to just 210.4 yards per game passing (No. 3) and helped produce 14 interceptions in the regular season (tied for 13th).

As a unit, the Texans defense has allowed a mere 310.2 yards per game (third-fewest in the league) and is rated third overall by Pro Football Focus.

That defense could be a problem for Kansas City, which is rated only 30th in pass-blocking and 23rd in overall offense by Pro Football Focus. The Houston D has already shown it can dominate good teams during regular-season wins over the Bengals and New York Jets.

What makes the Texans an even more intimidating opponent is the fact that the defense has been peaking late in the season. Over the past nine games, it has allowed an average of fewer than 13 points per game. Not so coincidentally, Houston has gone 7-2 over that span. Per AP writer Kristie Rieken, Coach O'Brien said of his defense:

There's a lot of trust on that side of the ball among each other and with the coaches. You've got some guys playing some great football ... you've got better tackling, better communication. All the things that you need to play good football in this league and good defense in this league, you're having it. 

The defense might even be good enough to dominate postseason opponents. 

While Houston doesn't have a full cadre of intimidating offensive weapons, it does boast DeAndre Hopkins, who is arguably one of the league's three best wide receivers. He finished the regular season with the third-most receiving yards (1,521), third-most receptions (111) and tied for seventh in touchdown receptions (11).

According to NFL Media's Chris Wesseling, Hopkins is the first player in NFL history to post 100-yard games with four different quarterbacks in the same season:

Chris Wesseling @ChrisWesseling

NFL Research confirms DeAndre Hopkins is the first player with 100-yard receiving games under 4 different starting QBs in a season.

Hopkins brings quick-strike capability to a team that is otherwise built to win grinding, low-scoring affairs. 

Exhibit C: Home-Field Advantage

Another asset that both the Texans and Redskins will have—at least in the opening round of the postseason—is home-field advantage. While playing at home might not seem like a massive edge, it is an advantage.

During the 2015 regular season, NFL teams playing at home had a combined 138-118 record. That's a winning percentage of 53.9 percent. The Texans and Redskins went a combined 11-5 at their own venues, a winning percentage of 68.8 percent.

Even if you discount the league-average, 20-game home-winning advantage, it's hard to discount the psychological edge teams should get by playing in a familiar environment and in front of their fans.  

Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

Travel has to be taken into consideration as well. The Packers, for example, will have to make the roughly 700-mile trip from Wisconsin to Washington, D.C., for their late-afternoon game Sunday. Packers fans from the surrounding area will have to do the same if they wish to cheer on their team. The Chiefs, and their fans, will have to travel approximately 750 miles south from Missouri to face the Texans.

This helps make for a hostile environment for visitors, and of course, is part of the reason why home-field advantage can be a postseason boon.

In addition, consider that the Texans have never lost a home playoff game (2-0). Washington is 13-3 in home postseason contests.

Exhibit D: Precedent 

CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 03:   Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers celebrates a 4th quarter touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during their game at Bank of America Stadium on January 3, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Leck
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Consider that winners of weak divisions don't always go on to be postseason pushovers. 

The most famous example of this might be the 2010 Seahawks, who won the NFC West that season with a 7-9 record. Seattle beat the 11-5 New Orleans Saints in the opening round of the playoffs. For a more recent example, let's look at last year's Panthers. Carolina finished the 2014 season with a record of 7-8-1 but went on to beat the Arizona Cardinals in the Wild Card Round.

Now in some ways, these examples also tie into the importance of home-field advantage, especially in Seattle's case—the 2014 Cardinals were operating with a third-string quarterback in their loss to home-team Carolina.

However, home-field advantage isn't everything.

Let's not forget about last year's Indianapolis Colts, who went just 5-5 outside of the weak AFC South. That team won the postseason opener and then went into Denver to shock the Broncos en route to an appearance in the AFC title game.

Rick Snider of the Washington Post believes a team like Washington could make a similar—or even better—run this postseason:

If they beat the Packers (10-6) on Wild Card Weekend, the fourth-seeded Redskins (9-7) would then travel to No. 1 Carolina or No. 2 Arizona in the divisional round. Win that game and get a little help from the sixth-seeded Seahawks (Seattle would have to beat the Vikings and Panthers on the road), and the NFC title would be decided at FedEx Field. And the Redskins have never lost an NFC championship game at home. Things could fall the Redskins’ way just as they did in 1987 when Washington won the Super Bowl as a No. 3 seed.

The Bottom Line

NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 27:  Defensive end J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans looks on during a NFL game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on December 27, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images)
Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

Much of the allure of today's NFL is found in the parity the league prides itself on. While the disparity of division strength in 2015 seems to counter this idea, the reality is that every team—even those emerging from downtrodden divisions—have a chance, once in the tournament. 

There will be more than a few who will discount Washington and Houston because of how the teams got into the postseason. This undermines the fact that both franchises are in the playoffs and will have the opportunity to end Wild Card Weekend as winners.

Just how far either the Texans or Redskins can go is anyone's guess. Assuming they can't make it any further than they already have, however, could be a very critical misstep.