Cowboys 20, Texans 17: 4 Winners, 4 Losers

Well, it's been a while since we had a game like that to invest in here in Houston.

No, I'm not talking about a mere loss by our NFL team. We had 14 of those last season, and already had one a couple weeks ago against the Giants. I'm talking about a gut punch loss, where the emotional investment went beyond merely slipping on your J.J. Watt battle red jersey, drinking beer, and watching the game with a few friends.

Sunday, for reasons both geographical (suck it, Dallas) and empirical (where did you come from tied-with-us Indianapolis Colts?), that game mattered more than any game had around here in a long while, probably going back to the Seattle/San Francisco back-to-back season killers in 2014.

And after nearly 68 minutes of arduous and ultimately pulse-quickening football, and a 20-17 overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys, there are two things we can unequivocally say about the 2014 Houston Texans:

1. Effort will never be an issue with this team. As offensively challenged as they are (and oh, they are offensively challenged), they found a way to tie up a game they had very little business being in position to tie up, a game in which they were out-gained by over 100 yards and in which they were winning the turnover battle by two and were still down ten points late in the fourth quarter.

2. It's a good thing effort level isn't an issue with the Texans, because this team does very little to make life easier on themselves offensively through execution. Watch other aspiring NFL playoff teams and see if moving the football feels even remotely as laborious as it does for the Texans. From Ryan Fitzpatrick's throwing like the ball weighs about twenty pounds, to Arian Foster grinding out yard after yard (he actually had a little more daylight in the second half on Sunday, but still), to Andre Johnson's every catch this year seemingly being under the duress of a defender draped all over him, everything for this Texans offense is a chore. And not an easy chore like emptying the dishwasher. More like a nightmare chore, like actually constructing your own dishwasher from spare parts.

So in the end, the Texans fall to 3-2, about the time that the Colts were elevating their record to 3-2, setting up what amounts to as close to a "must win" as an NFL team can have this Thursday night at home against Andrew Luck and the Colts.

Win that game, you're 4-2 and own the tie breaker. Lose that game and you're 3-3, a game back, losing the tie breaker, with the Steelers in Pittsburgh looming the following Monday. Also, you've never won in Indianapolis before, which will matter when you play them again in December.

A lot of stuff going on this Thursday night. For now, let's assess Sunday in a bit more detail. Winners, losers, go....

WINNERS

4. Dez Bryant The Texans actually did an outstanding job on Bryant for most of the afternoon. Prior to his catch down the field in overtime, Bryant had a high volume, barely efficient 8 catches for 48 yards. He had one touchdown catch on a back shoulder throw near the goal line that nobody in the league could really defend (and certainly rookie Andre Hal showed he couldn't), but great players find a way to put their signature on a game, and Bryant happily scribbled "Dear Texans, Warmest Regards, Dez Bryant" on this game with this play to set up Dan Bailey's field goal in overtime....

At the risk of sounding like Craig Biggio in every postseason in the late 90's, on that play you just tip your cap and know you got beat by a better player. Johnathan Joseph can't defend that any better. Impossible.

3. Andre Hal The Texans' secondary has been ravaged with injuries early on this season. A.J. Bouye, who had been a nice surprise as the third corner, came down with a groin injury a couple weeks ago, and has now missed two games. He was replaced last week with Darryl Morris, who was a nice surprise in place of Bouye, but came down with a leg injury of his own to miss Sunday's game. So against Dallas, it was seventh round rookie Andre Hal's turn to become a nice surprise in place of Morris. And by God, he did not disappoint, helping do his part limiting Bryant, and looking the part as the team's third corner. Right now, cornerback has evolved into one of this team's deepest positions when everyone is healthy. Thank God, because we are a few bad bumps away from Toro being the nickel corner.

2. Traveling Texans The huge throng of Texans fans that made the trip up to Dallas (braving the obstacle course that is I-45 North) was noticeable on the broadcast, and apparently, according to Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, noticeable in the building. Here's what Romo had to say about the Texans crowd in the AT&T Stadium:

"No question today we played on the road throughout a lot of it," Romo said. "It was probably half and half our fans to their fans. I don't know what it was, more than you can just tell with the crowd noise. That was every bit as loud as going to St. Louis or Tennessee. We need to understand that. We lose a lot of our ability to do some things at the line of scrimmage, pre-snap and lot of stuff that gives us a big advantages.

"For sure my perspective, we have to make sure going forward we have a lot more percentage all Cowboys. The funny thing is when we are all here it's been rocking. This place has really been a tough place for other teams to come in and win when it gets going. I think the fans have been awesome this year. We just need to tighten up maybe on selling our tickets."

Way to go, Texan fans! If Fanduel ever adds a category where we can draft fan bases, I'll pick you every week!

1. Arian Foster Amidst a dismal first half in which the Texans managed only 86 yards of total offense, the one positive takeaway was that Arian Foster appeared to be back to his old self, gaining 40 yards on seven carries and, perhaps more importantly, looking like the Foster we saw in Weeks 1 and 2 this season. We got a heaping dose of that in the second half as Foster went for over 100 yards in the second half alone, and scored both Texan touchdowns. Any possibility of January football rests on a healthy Foster. He is irreplaceable.

 

LOSERS

4. Bill O'Brien, game manager For the first time in the Bill O'Brien Era, I found myself on Sunday openly perturbed about strategy decisions by the head coach, and oddly enough, it was amidst a scenario which in the end achieved the desired result. Down 17-7 with under five minutes to go in regulation, O'Brien had his offense huddling and playing at its slowest, most deliberate pace of the afternoon, at a juncture in the game that clearly called for a faster tempo, especially after they burned over seven minutes (and converted a fourth down) to come away with just a field goal to make it 17-10. But thankfully, the Cowboys put together maybe the worst drive a Texans opponent had all year in a crucial situation, and the Texans actually tied the game (maybe with too much time, since Dallas got a look at a 53 yard field goal for the win). Again, it all worked out, the Texans tied the game 17-17, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't concerned for the next time the Texans trail by two scores late in a game.

3. Offensive discipline and opportunism Bill O'Brien said after the game that every close game comes down to a handful of plays, and the ones you think are most important may differ from person to person, but for me, aside from the Romo completions to Terrence Williams (43 yard TD) and Bryant (38 yards in overtime) I would pick two sets of plays:

I. All five Texans penalties The Texans had five penalties on the afternoon, and they go like this:

* TE C.J. Fiedorowicz, false start on the first play of the game, putting the team in 1st and 15. * LG Ben Jones, holding, negating a 6 yard run for a first down by Arian Foster, putting the team in 2nd and 16. * LT Duane Brown, ineligible downfield, negating a five yard gain, putting the team in 2nd and 15. * QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, delay of game, putting the team in 3rd and 17. * RG Brandon Brooks, holding, negating an 18 yard run by Foster, and putting the team in 2nd and 21.

Notice a) the penalties are all on the offense (gold star to Romeo Crennel!) and b) they all put the Texans in virtually untenable down and distance situations for this team. THESE are the mistakes O'Brien was livid about in his post game presser, my guess.

II. Three and out following Cowboys special teams fumble Early in the third quarter, special teams aces Jeff Tarpinian and Alfred Blue combined on a huge play to set the Texans up at the Cowboys 43 yard line, with Tarpinian forcing a Dwayne Harris fumble and Blue recovering the loose ball. The game was still 0-0 so this was a chance for the Texans to take control of the game on the road. Instead, they moved the ball two yards before Shane Lechler punted the ball into the end zone, a very uninspired four play stretch.

2. Crime It feels like a while since we've had a domestic violence case involving an NFL player, like at least a couple weeks. All of this "talking about actual football" stuff feels weird. And good.

1. Cancer We finish with a feel good story from the Sunday night game. Bengals defensive lineman Devon Still has a four year old daughter named Leah with stage four cancer. She was recently operated on, having a tumor removed, and hopefully the procedure will leave her cancer free. Well, the Patriots did a nice thing for Still, whose jersey is the best selling in Bengals history as a result of a campaign to donate proceeds from selling it to Cincinnati Children's Hospital. The cheerleaders all sported his jersey while a tribute video to Still's daughter played on the big screen....

Very cool. Nice work, Patriots.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.


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