After stuttering out of the gate and losing their first three games, the Houston Texans have now won nine on the bounce. Their remaining schedule - home against the Colts, at the Jets, at the Eagles, home against the Jaguars - means they could very conceivably close the season by winning 13 in a row. They're well in the hunt to claim the number one seed in the AFC. But are they actually that good?
That seems like a very unfair question to ask of a team in such a lofty position, but the NFL is a very strange league. The Texans are going to cruise into the playoffs without every being tested. Not properly. In their first 13 games, Houston have only played two teams which currently have a winning record: the Patriots way back in the irrelevancy of week one, and the Cowboys in week five, before they started playing well.
Unless the Eagles win each of their next two that number will remain at two through the end of the season. No other team has had an easier schedule. But then, as the old, cliched, but accurate saying goes, you can only beat what's put in front of you, and the Texans have done that ever since week four.
So the question is, can they go all the way? Is there a chance we might see the Texans representing the AFC in Atlanta on 3 February? And what are the keys to their success?
Deshaun Watson's cleaner play
The Texans' poor start to the season can be waved into insignificance with one very simple argument - their two star players were working their way back from serious injuries. More on JJ Watt later, but what really held Houston back early doors was Deshaun Watson's ring rustiness coming back from last season's ACL tear.
Even the very best quarterbacks struggle when returning from a serious injury - you only need to look at how Andrew Luck started this season for a recent example - but Watson had made just six NFL starts coming into week one. He was basically still a rookie, and it showed.
Watson really struggled to move the ball in weeks one to three, and he threw at least one interception in each of his first six games. Since then he's thrown just two - both in the week 11 win over the Redskins - and put up five clean games.
Watson lit up the league to a near-Patrick Mahomes level in his rookie season. In his final four games before that devastating injury in practice he threw four, five, three and four touchdowns in a streak that culminated in a wild 402-yard performance against Seattle in which he averaged 13.4 yards per attempt, rushed for 67 yards, was intercepted three times and sacked five.
We're not seeing that version of Watson this year. In a league where 400-yard games have become almost common he's yet to hit that mark once - but that's actually a good thing. The Texans are a team who want to run the football - they run the ball about 48 per cent of the time, second only to the Seahawks this season. They focus on ball retention and orchestrating long, defense-tiring drives, which means they don't want Watson to be tossing the ball about with abandon.
Watson drew comparisons with Alex Smith before entering the league. Those comparisons looked way off last year, but are now starting to make sense. Watson is a more exciting player to watch, but shares Smith's athleticism in the pocket and his slightly cautious nature.
In this system, Watson is not going to win you games in such spectacular fashion as quarterbacks like Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers, but he has been extremely effective. He's seventh in the NFL in passer rating and eighth in yards per attempt, showing he isn't just taking checkdowns and dumping the ball off to his running backs. In fact, every game you watch him Watson makes at least a few beautiful throws. One to DeAndre Hopkins in the first half against the Browns last week jumped off the tape, but he pulls of passes like this with real consistency.
Watson's sack problem and Will Fuller's injury
Watson's most glaring issue is the number of times he gets sacked. Yes, sacks are partially on the offensive line, which has been much stronger in run blocking than pass protection, but they're listed as a quarterback stat for good reason. Watson is often guilty of holding onto the ball too long, and it has led to him being the second most-sacked QB in the league this season. He's been taken down 41 times over 12 games - only Dak Prescott (45) has been sacked more.
It's no coincidence that in Watson's only game without a sack this year - in week eight against the Dolphins - Houston put up 42 points, their biggest total of the season. He's had six games with four or more sacks and two with seven. The best pass rush Watson has faced this season was against the Broncos in week nine, when he was sacked four times - it was also the narrowest win of Houston's season and a game they probably should have lost.
The other thing holding this offense back is the injury to Will Fuller in that win over Miami. The Texans brought in Demaryius Thomas to replace him, and he's done a solid job, but Watson and Fuller have developed an excellent rapport in just a short space of time, and he was a perfect complement to Hopkins out wide. Nuk is outstanding, comfortably one of the league's very best receivers, but the supporting cast isn't quite there, not to the level of teams like the Saints and Rams.
JJ Watt leading a talented defense
Houston's defense is one of the NFL's few difference-making units on that side of the ball. In terms of a defense worth actually fearing, perhaps only the Bears sit above them. Only the Ravens and Cowboys are giving up fewer points per game than the Texans (19.6), and they're also fourth in the league in turnovers, behind the Bears, Browns and Dolphins.
But stats aside, what really makes this Houston defense go is the number of impact players they have. I don't mean that in the "Shane Long coming off the bench to score a late equaliser" way, I mean these are players who can make big, impactful plays which change the course of football games.
At the forefront of this is, of course JJ Watt, back and playing healthy again for the first time since the 2015 season. Watt is one of the best pass rushers to ever play the game. He's racked up 11.5 sacks and five forced fumbles through 12 games, and is one of those players who comes alive in key situations. Got a crucial third down play late in the game? Watt will find a way to get to the quarterback. That's the true sign of greatness, making those highlight reel plays in the pivotal moments.
It isn't just Watt, though. Jadaveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus are both elite defensive linemen, and there are studs throughout the secondary. Tyrann Mathieu, Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson have all shown their big playmaking ability, but it's rookie safety Justin Reid I'm most excited about. Eric's younger brother is a deep safety who plays smart and has top-level coverage talent. He's Pro Football Focus' seventh-ranked safety in all of football this season - an incredible feat at a position where it usually takes a couple of years to acclimatise at a pro level, and he already has three interceptions and a forced fumble to go with his 60 total tackles.
So can the Texans win the Super Bowl?
Can they? Yes. Will they? Probably not. Against the league's very best offenses - you're looking at the Chiefs, Rams and Saints - it's tough to see the defense pulling off a shut-down job, and I think Houston's offense will struggle to keep up with any team which can comfortably score 30+ points.
I also think Deshaun Watson will struggle when faced with an Aaron Donald or a Joey Bosa - a pass rusher capable of consistently breaking the pocket and putting pressure on him early, before he's had a chance let plays develop.
If I were to rank the Texans in the AFC right now, I'd put them fifth, behind the Chiefs, Patriots, Chargers and Steelers, in that order. That said, I think they can beat any of those last three on their day. The Chiefs? A bit of a bad match-up, and probably a step too far. The Texans have never made it past the Divisional Round of the playoffs, and that's where I see them falling this time too, but this team has a genuine chance to make history, and that's something in itself.