Check out our photos of Sunday's hard-fought game against the Jaguars.
Arizona in 2009. Baltimore in 2010. Oakland in 2011.
This was that game for the Texans. The one they seemingly have every season where they repeatedly shoot themselves in the foot with self-inflicted errors and stage a valiant comeback, only to find themselves in a hole one play too large.
This year, with the help of career days from Andre Johnson and Matt Schaub, they finished that game. Even with an understandable letdown after the emotional Sunday night win in Chicago.
That's the optimistic outlook, of course.
The pessimist would say red flags are abundant. The Texans (9-1) needed a miraculous comeback and overtime to beat now 1-9 Jacksonville. The league's No. 2 ranked defense surrendered 37 points to a team directed by Chad Henne. The meltdown against Green Bay was excusable because of MVP Aaron Rodgers. This one? Not as easy to explain.
Which side is more realistic? Let's take a look.
1. The secondary. The same unit that looked flawless in Chicago appeared helpless against the Jaguars. Three pass plays of 60+ yards. Two touchdowns of 67 and 81 yards, one after a blown tackle (by Kareem Jackson) at the five-yard mark, and the other after Brice McCain and safety Danieal Manning collided and took themselves out of the play. It's now twice in five games that Wade Phillips' defense has been shredded against the pass.
"They caught us," said safety Glover Quin. "It seemed like every time we did something, they had the right play called."
2. The kicker. Indoors, anything of 50 yards and closer should be almost automatic. Shayne Graham missed two, including a 47-yarder that would've won it in regulation. Moreover, in the first half, Gary Kubiak opted to punt from the Jacksonville 36-yard line - an indication that he may not trust Graham's leg. Graham hasn't held a full-time kicking job since his postseason meltdown in January 2010 with Cincinnati. If the Texans need a long kick in a pressure situation, it's hard to trust Graham right now.
"You can't make them all," said Graham after the game. "You wish you could. It's not a great feeling, but that's over with and now we move on for the future."
3.) The pass rush. Has anyone seen Antonio Smith lately? The Houston defensive end has now gone three consecutive games without as much as a half-sack. On Sunday, his most notable contribution was a 15-yard personal foul in overtime that jumpstarted a Jacksonville scoring drive (field goal). While Smith has struggled, so has the rest of the Houston pass rush - with only J.J. Watt being somewhat of an exception.
"We needed to get a little more pressure and do what we did at the end of the game," said Watt. "Do what we did in the overtime period, get pressure, bat some balls."
Until overtime, the Texans were unable to generate much pressure on Henne without blitzing - and when that happened, it left holes in the secondary for the likes of Justin Blackmon. Things did turn around late, though, with Watt notching a critical fourth-quarter sack and the defense collectively knocking down several passes in overtime.
4.) The coach. This was not the 13-6 defensive slugfest we saw in Chicago. Unfortunately, it took a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter for Kubiak to recognize that. While trailing or tied with a dynamic offense, Kubiak opted to punt from the Jacksonville 36, kick a field goal on 4th-and-inches inside the 10, run a draw on 3rd-and-17 (which ended in a fumble) and settle for a 40+ yard kick in the closing seconds with a shaky kicker. The final decision was particularly egregious, considering Schaub was set up at the Jacksonville 30 with a minute left, two timeouts and moving the ball at will. Instead, the Texans twice handed off to Arian Foster and took their chances with a lengthy kick.
Appropriately, it missed.
"I'll have to go back and look at every situation," said Kubiak, who was asked about the playcalling. "We tried to stay aggressive, but at the same time they made us be patient the way they played us. "
Those types of conservative decisions make sense in games like last week with a lights-out defense. It was obvious early on that this was a very different style of game, yet Kubiak stubbornly clung to a defensive posture until it was almost too late. Are he and the Texans capable of learning this lesson without actually losing? We'll soon find out.
1. Andre freakin' Johnson. Remember a few weeks back, when a few writers (this one included) were ready to concede that the 31-year-old Johnson had turned the page to the next chapter of his career as a possession receiver? Uh, scratch that. Johnson's 14 catches for 273 yards were a career-best game, and his burst on the winning 48-yard bubble screen looked as good as ever.
"Like I said before, I've been telling you guys I've been feeling better and better every week," said Johnson. "Maybe you guys will believe me after that."
The point was certainly hammered home against the Jaguars. If the Texans find themselves in a postseason shootout with Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, Johnson and Schaub (527 yards, 5 TD) showed they have the firepower to win one of those games.
2. Defense not consistently bad, steps up when needed. It would be easy to write off a 37-point, 458-yard performance as a disaster for the Houston defense. But look closer, and this was far from a typical bad defensive game. The Texans weren't consistently gashed. They forced a pair of three-and-outs in the fourth quarter and held in overtime after a Jacksonville 1st-and-goal at the 6 (needing a touchdown) and a 1st-and-10 at the Houston 47 (needing a field goal). Both times, they were roughly 10 yards or fewer from losing. On each occasion, they made plays when they had to.
"Down the stretch we were able to come together as one defense and shut them down," said Jackson. "We played the way we expect to play late in the game."
For the most part, Jacksonville's success came courtesy of a select few big mistakes. Jackson's whiffed tackle led to the 67-yard touchdown. McCain and Manning's collision caused an 81-yard touchdown. Arian Foster's fumble set up Jacksonville at the Houston 11, practically gifting seven more. Taking a step back, for a unit that was No. 2 in the league through 10 games, it's hard to imagine those types of mistakes being repeated. It seems much more likely to reflect an emotional letdown or a clichéd "trap game", sandwiched between the Sunday nighter in Chicago and Thanksgiving Day in Detroit.
3.) Martin's breakout game. For much of 2012, special teams have been an unmitigated disaster for Houston. On Sunday, we saw the first signs of hope. Rookie Keshawn Martin returned five kickoffs for 162 yards (average of 32.4) and two punts for 76 yards, including a 71-yarder that almost went the distance. The blocking schemes looked much improved and Martin routinely flipped field position for the home team.
"It means a lot," said Martin. "It shows that I'm getting more comfortable out there, especially with the returns. I'm getting better every day and I want to keep doing that."
Martin also added a 9-yard receiving touchdown, the first of his career. Pundits have questioned if the Texans have enough explosive playmakers, both in the receiving corps and on special teams. On Sunday, Martin showed flashes that he could become one of those guys.
4.) They CAN come back! Analysts have questioned if the Texans could win a shootout. For much of this year, the Texans have ridden superb balance on offense and strong defense to coast to businesslike wins. They haven't had the Eli Manning specials - that is, stealing a game in the final minutes when the other team knew they had to throw. Even with Jacksonville as the opponent, overcoming a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter is a massive achievement. There's a reason only one quarterback has EVER thrown for more yards than the 527 accumulated by Schaub on Sunday.
"I knew that if we ever got in a situation where we had to throw it 50-plus times, our quarterback is capable of doing it," said Kubiak. "We don't want to do it. It's not how we want to play, but we got caught in one of those games today. And obviously he took us down there and made some huge plays."
Better yet, the team as a whole maintained peak effort and poise throughout. When Schaub underthrew Johnson in overtime and was intercepted, Jacksonville corner Derek Cox had open field ahead and seemed highly likely to return it into field goal range. Instead, Owen Daniels scrambled into position and tackled Cox at the Houston 47, keeping the Jaguars out of range by 10 yards or so. The defense held, and the rest is history.
"We never gave up," said Daniels. "We stayed optimistic. Great teams find different ways to win no matter the situation or circumstance."
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The verdict: The Texans won a week ago in a defensive battle. They beat Jacksonville on Sunday in a shootout. That versatility counts for something. Schaub has long maintained that the brilliance of the Texans is that they can win in many different ways. Never has that been more apparent. On the other side, it's hard to completely sour on a top-five-ranked defense based on a few wild plays in one game.
The minor concerns center on coaching and the kicking game. Can Kubiak adjust his strategy and take a more aggressive approach, when necessary? And will Shayne Graham hit pressure-packed kicks of more than 40 yards?
We may not have to wait long to find out. The Lions (4-6) have the league's No. 2-ranked offense, and desperately need a win at home on Thanksgiving. Three weeks from today, the Texans take on Brady and the Patriots (7-3) on Monday Night Football. Both games are likely to be close, and high scores wouldn't surprise. If the Texans make the necessary adjustments, experiences like Sunday could be very beneficial.
"This is stuff that we can build on as we get into the stretch run here into December," said Schaub. "Something we can look back on as we move through this because there are going to be games like that. It's not always going to be a two- or three-score lead in the fourth quarter where you're trying to run the clock out. There is going to be close ballgames where you have to go make plays, and guys did that."