Texans 31, Broncos 25: At Long Last, Houston Has Its 3-0 Start (Four Reasons Why)
Happytown, USA. Population: Texans fans.
Borrowing a famous analogy from Wade Phillips's father, Bum, the Texans have knocked and beaten on the door of the NFL's elite for three straight Septembers.
In 2010, a 2-0 start came crashing down in an embarrassing home loss to Dallas. In 2011, they nearly improved to 3-0 before the defense unraveled in the fourth quarter in New Orleans.
In 2012, however, they smashed the door in. Sunday's win over the Broncos (1-2) and longtime nemesis Peyton Manning moves the Texans to 3-0 for the first time ever and cements their status as one of the league's premier franchises.
After just three weeks, the Texans now have a full two-game lead on the entire AFC South. Historically, teams that start 3-0 make the postseason 76 percent of the time.
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"We had the character to find a way to finish the game and get out of here with a win," said head coach Gary Kubiak.
Cliché as it may be, Sunday represented the epitome of a team win. The Texans offense hit the Broncos early with explosive bursts, including touchdown strikes from Matt Schaub of 60 and 52 yards to Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter.
Then, as Denver tightened the screws a bit in the second half, Phillips's group stifled Manning and the Broncos in the third quarter as the Texans broke open a 31-11 lead.
"If we play our defense, our offense, our game, I don't think there's a team that could beat us," said defensive end Antonio Smith.
The victory, of course, didn't come without intrigue. The Broncos scored a safety on the Texans' first play from scrimmage and then raced down the field to a 1st-and-goal.
In the second half, just as the Texans appeared to be in cruise control, a bizarre combination of a Ben Tate fumble, several awful penalties on the Houston secondary, and a fluke tipped-ball touchdown to former Texan Joel Dreessen seemed to have them reeling.
But on every occasion, the Texans had an answer and came out with a statement win on the road. Here's a look at the key players who made that happen.
5.) Johnathan Joseph The secondary spotlight in the first two weeks was on the improvement of third-year No. 2 corner Kareem Jackson. On Sunday, Joseph showed why he remains among the league's best at his position. Denver's Demaryius Thomas entered with a touchdown in each of his first two games, averaging over six catches and 90 yards per game. Against Joseph, he caught just three passes for 30 yards and no scores.
Manning completed a mere 50 percent of his passes Sunday, and only reached that mark by padding statistics late in the game with the outcome all but decided. On three occasions, the Texans should have intercepted him. The airtight coverage of Joseph on the prized young wideout had a lot to do with that.
4.) Arian Foster Foster was his usual self against the Broncos, rushing 25 times for 105 yards while adding a receiving touchdown. But what was most impressive was how his success early in the game opened things up for Schaub, Johnson and the Houston passing game. Foster's first three carries went for 41 yards, drawing in the Denver safeties and allowing Schaub to go playaction and find his receivers over the top.
Matt Schaub can carry this team.
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3.) Andre Johnson On a day in which he caught a 60-yard touchdown, it was a routine 12-yard out that may have been his biggest play. With things on the verge of slipping away late in the fourth and the Texans facing a 3rd-and-5, Johnson's precise route-running helped him find a small crease on a drag route. His first-down catch essentially ended the game. Meanwhile, the earlier touchdown came with the Texans trailing, 5-0, and facing a 1st-and-20 after back-to-back penalties.
"I've been through the worst of the worst with the organization, and now we've climbed that mountain and we're still climbing," said Johnson.
Two catches for 72 yards and a touchdown are far from career numbers for the most storied player in Texans history. But it was the timing of each that proved most critical, knocking the wind out of the sails of the raucous crowd of 76,566 at Denver's Mile High.
2.) J.J. Watt After the explosive first half had the Texans up 21-5, the offense hit a mid-game lull. Schaub threw an interception at the end of the half that set up a Denver field goal, bringing them within 10. In the third, the Texans put up two three-and-outs and had a promising drive stall with a field goal, owing to a dirty hit that cost Schaub a chunk of his ear and briefly took him out of the game.
Manning and the Broncos, however, were unable to make any headway in that time frame. In fact, the first three Denver drives of the second half never advanced beyond their own 30-yard line. The biggest factor was Watt, who drew a pair of holding penalties and blew up several attempted running plays in the backfield.
Watt finished with 2.5 sacks and six tackles (four for loss), astounding numbers for a player in a position (3-4 end) that, in theory, is supposed to occupy blockers and allow others to make plays. It's just another Sunday at the office for the best defender in the NFL.
1.) Matt Schaub For the first time this year, Watt isn't at the top of the list. That's because on this day, Kubiak made the perfect call by giving the postgame "game ball" to his quarterback. Schaub took an absolute beating from the Broncos, injuring both his ear and his non-throwing shoulder. But he missed only a single play, threw for four touchdowns and averaged nearly 10 yards per attempt, all on the road against one of the NFL's better teams.
"He was a warrior out there," said tight end Owen Daniels. "He's one of the toughest guys I know."
One of the only questions about the Texans surrounded their ability to win a shootout. The team, on paper, is built around defense and the potent rushing attack of Foster and Tate. In Denver, Schaub stole the show from one of the league's all-time greats and proved the Texans are capable of winning a big pressure-packed game through the air.
That could be an enormous confidence boost if the Texans find themselves playing Manning or Tom Brady come January.
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