The Texans suffered a pair of devastating injuries on Sunday night that could wind up ruining their chances at contending in the AFC.
During a 42-34 loss to the Chiefs, J.J. Watt suffered a season-ending tibial plateau fracture in the first quarter. He left the game and was eventually taken to the hospital. Whitney Mercilus was injured earlier in the first quarter, suffering a torn pectoral muscle that ended his season.
"I think that is tough, but at the end of the day that is not an excuse," Texans coach Bill O’Brien said after the game. "We have to do better in all three phases. Look, I thought we competed until the end and the next guys are going to have to step up and play.
"We have to do a good job of coaching and scheming, but that is the National Football League. Guys get hurt and the next guy in the team meeting room at that position needs to step up."
The reality is, though -- and this isn't news to O'Brien -- "the next guys" in this case are not going to be the game-changers that Watt and Mercilus have been.
Watt is arguably the best defensive player of this generation, having won three Defensive Player of the Year awards (2012, 2014, 2015). Mercilus was a Second-Team All-Pro last season and made up a three-headed pass-rushing monster in Houston alongside Watt and Jadeveon Clowney.
Having both Watt and Mercilus in the mix with Clowney and linebacker Bernardrick McKinney is what made the Texans defense one of the most dangerous units in the league. Before the Patriots and Texans matched up in Week 3, we took a deep dive into why the sheer number of pass-rushers Houston possessed was such a problem.
"I mean, they have too many good players so it’s hard to help," Bill Belichick said before the game. "If you help one, then you’re light on the others. If you help one of the others, then it’s tough. That’s what makes them so good, is they get a lot of those matchups and you can’t help.
"Like I said, too many guys so the guys that get singled are productive and they make plays. They make plays for a loss. They make plays in the running game. They make plays in the passing game and they make plays in pursuit."
With Watt and Mercilus unavailable, the Texans will lean heavily on Clowney and McKinney to provide pressure while defensive lineman Christian Covington and linebacker Brennan Scarlett, in all likelihood, see more playing time.
Houston made it to the Divisional Round without Watt last season, and they gave the Patriots offense fits at Gillette Stadium. But to make any noise in January without both Watt and Mercilus, the Texans will need rookie quarterback DeShaun Watson -- one of the best stories in the league through five weeks -- to continue to surpass expectations by leaps and bounds. And even that may not be enough.