Patriots 41, Texans 28: Offense Turns Offensive On Big Stage. Again.
Despite Arian Foster's work, it just wasn't the Texans' day.
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Ignore the main box score numbers. Forget the 425 total yards for Houston and the 28 points. Same for the 41 placed in the New England column.
In the big picture, it's more of the same. Gary Kubiak, Matt Schaub and the Houston offense shoulder the majority of blame in yet another crucial game, this time a season-ending defeat in the divisional round of the playoffs at the hands of the hated Patriots.
More depressingly, it's time to wonder whether the Texans (13-5) can ever truly contend for a Super Bowl under the current regime and system.
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With the game on the line -- that is, before Houston trailed, 38-13, in the fourth quarter -- the offense mustered a mere 13 points. Of those 13, six came courtesy of other-worldly special teams efforts in the form of a 94-yard kickoff return from Danieal Manning and a career-long, 55-yard field goal from Shayne Graham.
In other words, the offense effectively put up seven meaningful points against Tom Brady in Foxboro. And that lone touchdown came after a Manning return and subsequent penalty set up the Texans in New England territory.
That's not good enough to win in the modern NFL.
"I think we're gonna go back and be really disappointed in our opportunities to make plays," said Kubiak, referring to his offense.
The Texans put up a fight in the fourth quarter with 15 points, but make no mistake about it: The Patriots were happy to exchange yards for time taken off the clock. The Texans needed quick strikes to mount a serious challenge, and they couldn't do it.
Lacking both explosive plays, time-consuming drives
In the first three-plus quarters, Brady's Patriots had three pass plays of more than 30 yards, two of which went for over 40. They also had three passing touchdowns and no turnovers. The Texans? None in the positive categories and one back-breaking Schaub interception.
Of course, the Texans will tell you that they believe in a "ball control," run-oriented offense. That didn't work, either. With the exception of the one touchdown drive, the run blocking was generally pathetic and the offense couldn't convert third downs (1-of-9 in the first three quarters).
Not a single Houston drive lasted more than seven plays until midway through the third quarter. That gave Brady numerous opportunities, and he eventually cashed in, especially when the defense became noticeably fatigued.
One way the Patriots caught the Texans defense off guard was by pushing the tempo and finding mismatches. On the other side, the Texans were so unequipped to play a hurry-up style that even when down 18 in the fourth quarter, it took them nearly five minutes to march down the field, with the team wasting countless seconds to huddle and deliver instructions.
Adapting to new NFL norms
Ideally, you wouldn't want the opposing offense to score 41 points. But it's not unheard of. Removing the Texans and Patriots from consideration, the other six divisional playoff teams put up 38, 35, 45, 31, 30 and 28 points in their games -- an average of almost 35.
The Patriots weren't significantly above the norm, and that was with Brady playing at home. In the playoffs especially, the tempo gets pushed and points are put up. It's often up to the other offense to match.
In another meaningful game, the Texans couldn't match. Yet again, Schaub looked jittery and rattled in obvious passing situations, overthrowing a wide open Andre Johnson in the end zone and not identifying Rob Ninkovich dropping into coverage on the pick.
Perhaps most damning was a throwaway on Houston's first drive of the third quarter, when Schaub actually managed to elude a defender but threw the ball out of bounds when it appeared he had several seconds to let the play develop.
Schaub is capable of putting up points if everything else is ideal, allowing him to work bootlegs off playaction. But in the salary-cap era, it's tough to hold a great offensive line together, and the shelf life of a top-flight running back like Arian Foster is very limited.
The Texans lost two good linemen last offseason in Eric Winston and Mike Brisiel, and this year's version of Foster often lacked the burst seen in his first three seasons. That put more of a burden on Schaub as a pure passer down the stretch, and he couldn't handle it. Moreover, Schaub will be 32 when next season starts, and it's hard to imagine much more development at this stage of his career.
Basically, Schaub is what he is. And without an elite ground game, it's not good enough to win a Super Bowl.
Where to go from here
Unfortunately, there's not much of an option to look elsewhere. The Texans signed Schaub to a massive extension before this season started, effectively securing his place as the starting quarterback for at least the next two years.
In addition, the Texans have somewhat of an aging core with Johnson, Foster and Owen Daniels, much of which wouldn't be around by the time a young quarterback could hypothetically develop.
To win a Super Bowl with the current Houston core, the only hope is to invest heavily in the offensive line -- both in the draft and with their limited salary-cap space -- and hope they strike gold to replace Winston and Brisiel, thereby reviving the elite rushing attack.
The defense can't be forgotten, but it doesn't need as much work. With J.J. Watt, the return of a healthy Brian Cushing and a secondary that features young playmakers in Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson and Glover Quin, they're capable of competing for a Super Bowl in the modern NFL.
The same can't be said for the offense, so long as Schaub is asked to be the focal point. That's the lesson the Texans learned time and time again in the final six weeks of 2012.
Even on a night when the offense put up 28.
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