They’ll never be on the freshly painted Arrowhead field at the same time but be under no illusion, the NFL Divisional round clash between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans will come down to the performance of their first-round quarterbacks. The 2017 NFL Draft will forever link Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes. Which of the two will make the most significant impact on the 2020 NFL Playoffs?
General convention would suggest that Patrick Mahomes is the most crucial player for the success of the Kansas City Chiefs. We’re talking about a player who cakewalked his way to the NFL Most Valuable Player Award last season as he guided the Chiefs to within a whisker of Super Bowl VIII. Despite a knee dislocation suffered in the Week 7 win at the Denver Broncos, Mahomes has still thrown for over 4000 yards and 26 touchdowns.
I think we can agree; this is all very impressive. No-one is disputing that Mahomes is a great player.
However, you only need to witness the impact Watson has already made in the 2020 NFL Playoffs to understand who is truly more critical to their team’s success.
In last week’s Wild Card games, Watson strapped the Texans to his back and dragged them from a 16-0 deficit to a 22-19 win in an overtime thriller against the Buffalo Bills. History will state that Ka’imi Fairbairn kicked the winning field goal, but without Watson, the Texans don’t get to that point. It’s a point not lost on the young quarterback himself.
“Someone had to be great, why not me?”
Herein lies the point.
Watson is pivotal to the success of the Texans
If the Texans want to win, they will rely on Watson being great. The Chiefs have proven multiple times this season that they can win when Mahomes isn’t at his best. They can even win without Mahomes if required, as the Week 9 victory over the Minnesota Vikings with Matt Moore at the helm attests to.
Allow me to use Pro Football Network’s Offensive Share Metric (OSM) to illustrate how critical Watson’s impact on the 2020 NFL Playoffs is for a Texans win today.
OSM grades players based only on the factors they can influence, and therefore gives a greater impression of a player’s contribution than simple box score statistics.
For the 2019 NFL regular season, Watson is our 10th ranked quarterback with an overall OSM grade of 25.7. Mahomes finds himself a few places back, with an overall OSM grade of 22.48, which is 17th amongst qualifying quarterbacks. Watson has been a top 10 graded QB seven times, whereas Mahomes has only made the top 10 in five of the 17 regular season weeks.
You begin to get a greater impression of Watson’s impact on the Texans when you compare his highest and lowest graded games to Mahomes’ and the result for their team.
As you would expect, when the two starting quarterbacks have a high grade and therefore have played to the best of their ability, their respective teams have been victorious.
For Watson, that is the Week 12 win over the Indianapolis Colts, where he received an OSM grade of 47.72. He was the highest-graded QB that week. It’s also the Week 5 win over the Atlanta Falcons, where he threw for 426 yards and five touchdowns with a completion percentage of 84% for an OSM grade of 41.47 (QB2). Finally, the win over the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 9, where Watson was QB4 with an OSM grade of 35.43 despite a below-average performance from star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
It’s a similar pattern for Mahomes. The Week 15 win over the Denver Broncos was his highest-graded game with a 42.00, good enough for QB2 that week. He had back to back 30+ grades in Week 3 and 4 as he guided the Chiefs to victory over the Oakland Raiders and Baltimore Ravens with over 800 passing yards and seven touchdowns.
When Watson struggles, so do the Texans
What is telling is the impact a poor performance or grade has on their team’s ability to win.
The Chiefs won all three of their games when Mahomes had his lowest grades of the season. In Week 11 against the Los Angeles Chargers, he threw for 182 yards and a touchdown but had a completion percentage against expectation of -12.2% for an OSM grade of 9.46. The Chiefs still won. After their bye week, Mahomes had a grade of 8.84 (QB 31) with just a 52% completion percentage. The Chiefs still won 40-9 against the Raiders. The following week, in New Engand, Mahomes received his worst grade of the season with a 7.36 grade. The Chiefs still won.
It’s a different story entirely for Watson and the Texans. In two of his three lowest graded games, the Texans have lost. If you count his four lowest games, it’s three out of four. When Watson hasn’t performed, the Texans have lost to the Denver Broncos (OSM grade 10.53), the Carolina Panthers (OSM grade 13.66), and the Baltimore Ravens (OSM grade 17.49).
The game against the Broncos illustrates Watson’s impact perfectly. Hopkins and fellow wide receiver Keke Coutee both contributed to the offense, making yards after the catch above expectation and receiving OSM grades of 30+. However, Watson had a -7.3% completion percentage against expectation and a -4 yard per play intended air yard differential.
NFL Next Gen Stats calculate the expected completion percentage based on a passer’s completion probability. Throughout the 2019 NFL regular season, Watson had a +1.4% completion percentage above the expectation. This demonstrates just how disappointing his play against the Broncos was, and the impact of that was a loss for the Texans. Incidentally, Mahomes had a -0.6% completion percentage against expectation.
Grinding out results on the ground
It’s important to note that OSM grades quarterbacks solely on their primary function, and that is passing the football. It doesn’t take into account the rushing characteristics that quarterbacks like Watson, Lamar Jackson, and Mitchell Trubisky bring to their game.
It would be foolish to ignore that element of Watson’s play and the impact that has on the Texans. They undeniably have had a better ground game than the Chiefs through the regular season, and people will point to that to detract from his importance to the offense compared to Mahomes’.
However, Watson is the second leading rusher for the Texans with 413 rushing yards. He leads the team in rushing touchdowns with seven.
The Chiefs have had first-hand experience of that impact already. In the Week 6 clash between the two teams, Watson led the Texans to a 31-24 victory in Arrowhead with two rushing touchdowns.
Can he repeat the feat on the big stage of the NFL Playoffs?
Watson is no stranger to the big game, having orchestrated a College Football National Championship win for Clemson. In his NFL career, he has carried his team with three fourth-quarter comebacks and five game-winning drives.
The Texans and Chiefs had both Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes in their building just three years ago. Head coach Bill O’Brien is under no illusion as to what Watson can do for the Houston Texans.
“With a guy like DeShaun at quarterback, your team feels like they have a chance to win every game they play.”