They entered the season with 200-1 title odds. Only the Arizona Cardinals were worse. Their rookie head coach and rookie QB didn't have much to work with, but here we are entering December and they are right in the thick of the AFC playoff race.
They could do more damage than that, too, and become one of the NFL's best underdog stories in recent history.
Here's five reasons why the Texans are contenders in the AFC:
Let's start with the simple facts. The Texans are really good. If we were analyzing an NCAA Tournament resume we'd want to know things like their record, recent performance and notable wins and losses. Here goes nothing:
2023 Houston Texans Resume (6-5)
- 6-3 in last nine games (each loss by three or fewer points)
- Sixth-most time leading since Week 3
- 3-1 vs teams entering with winning record
- Best wins: at JAX, at CIN
- Bad losses: at CAR
That's a good looking resume. They are 6-3 in the last nine games. Their only losses have been on game-winning field goals as time expired vs. the Panthers and Falcons, plus last week's missed game-tying 58-yard field goal off the crossbar from Matt Ammendola. They've controlled most of these games, ranking sixth in time lead over this span.
They could easily be 7-2 or 8-1 in this stretch, which includes statement wins on the road by 20 in Jacksonville and in Cincinnati with a healthy Joe Burrow. That's a confidence booster for a team that will need to win road games if they make the postseason.
And of course, driving the dominance is a rookie QB. C.J. Stroud, who leads the NFL in passing yards per game and is third in yards per attempt. He could be the first rookie to finish top-three in MVP voting since Randy Moss in 1998, and the first rookie QB to get a vote since Dan Marino in 1983. It's a QB-driven league so with one of the better signal callers in the NFL already, the Texans are legit.
2. AFC is wide open
The Texans are also capable of making a run in the AFC and possibly being the Chiefs' biggest threat in part due to the injury luck around the conference.
The two biggest threats to the Chiefs entering the season may both miss the playoffs. The Bengals lost Joe Burrow and the Bills lost Matt Milano and Tre'Davious White for the season, plus are battling one heartbreaking loss after another.
The Dolphins recently lost one of the NFL's better edge rushers in Jaelan Phillips (torn Achilles) and are the only team who hasn't beaten a team entering with a winning record since the start of last October.
The Browns lost Deshaun Watson for the season and Joe Flacco would be their fourth different starting QB this year. The Chiefs are flawed themselves. There's clearly room for a new contender and Houston could be that team.
3. Houston has Super Bowl traits
Another reason I wouldn't rule out a Texans deep playoff run: They share key traits with recent Super Bowl teams.
They have an explosive offense with great QB play, ranking top five in the NFL in yards per play and yards per pass. The last 10 Super Bowl teams all ranked top 10 in each category.
They can sustain drives. They are sixth in third down conversion rate. The last 14 Super Bowl teams ranked in the top half of the league. I credit Stroud and an underrated offensive line here. The Texans are the second-best team in ESPN's pass block win rate this year, anchored by Pro Bowl LT Laremy Tunsil.
They have an average defense, which actually isn't a big red flag. A great offense is more important than great defense for recent Super Bowl teams. The Texans are 14th in scoring defense. Four of the last 10 Super Bowl teams have ranked 14th or worse. I do worry about Houston's pass defense, ranking bottom 10 in third-down defense and yards per pass allowed this year. But I'm optimistic enough with a pair of plus edge rushers (Will Anderson Jr. and Jonathan Greenard) and a healthy Derek Stingley Jr.
They have a positive turnover margin. Only five of the 46 teams to make the Super Bowl since 2000 had a negative turnover margin. Some would say C.J. Stroud is due for some interception regression, but I'm not so sure, he has the second-lowest turnover-worthy throw rate (2.0%) in the NFL.
I wouldn't disqualify the Texans based on inexperience either. If the 2009 Jets could make a Conference title game with Mark Sanchez, and the 2022 49ers could be one step away from the Super Bowl with Mr. Irrelevant, I'm not ruling anything out here. The Texans could be the fifth team to ever make the postseason with a rookie QB (Stroud) and rookie head coach (DeMeco Ryans).
4. Ahead of schedule version of 2021 Bengals
You don't have to look too far to find a team like this year's Texans who made a playoff run.
Check out the similarities between the 2021 Bengals and 2023 Texans
- Cinderellas: The Bengals had 150-1 preseason title odds. The Texans had 200-1 preseason title odds
- Head coach under 40: Zac Taylor vs. DeMeco Ryans
- Young superstar QB: Joe Burrow (No. 1 pick) vs. C.J. Stroud (No. 2 pick)
- Explosive offense: Both top five in 25+ yard plays
- Average defense: Bengals were 17th in scoring defense and Texans are 14th
- Slow start: Bengals started 7-6 and Texans are 6-5
The Bengals made the Super Bowl in Burrow's second year. Perhaps Houston is just really ahead of schedule.
5. Cinderellas are IN
Almost every major sports championship is being crashed by a Cinderella lately.
2023 was an All-Wild Card World Series between the Rangers and Diamondbacks, who combined for the fewest regular-season wins in a fall classic.
The Florida Panthers and Miami Heat made the 2023 Stanley Cup Final and 2023 NBA Finals, respectively, as eight seeds.
LSU just matched the worst seed (3) to win a Women's national basketball title.
The 2023 Men's Final Four (featuring UConn, San Diego State, Florida Atlantic, Miami) was the first without a top-three seed. So was Super Bowl LVI between the Bengals and Rams.
The Texans check off every box. Cinderella's shoe would certainly fit a team with 200-1 preseason title odds. The longest odds by a team to make the Super Bowl in the last 40 years were 150-1 by the 1999 Rams and 2021 Bengals. Heck, no team has even won a playoff game with 200-1 or longer preseason title odds since the 1981 Giants.
Of course, I'm getting a little carried away here. Houston has to make the playoffs first, but barring a C.J. Stroud injury, I think they will. Following their game against the Broncos in Week 13, they don't face another QB who began the year as their season's starter (Tim Boyle, Will Levis twice, whoever the Browns are starting and Gardner Minshew).
The Texans have a chance to write an incredible story here. They currently have 31-1 odds to win the AFC. Not a bad time to take a flier.