Texans/Falcons -- 5 Things to Watch
The NFL playoffs, hopefully brought to you by T.J. Yates.
Over the last two seasons, Texan fans have been conditioned to spend the first half of the season basking in a decent start (5-3 and 4-2 the last two years, respectively) and then spend the remainder of the season waiting for a safe to drop on our collective heads. Soul-crushing close loss after soul-crushing close loss will do that to you.
The football gods are cruel, and admittedly this season it feels like they've turned up the heat with lengthy injuries to Arian Foster, Andre Johnson, James Casey, Danieal Manning and season-ending injuries to Mario Williams, Matt Schaub and Schaub's backup Matt Leinart.
And miraculously, the same team that couldn't knock down a Hail Mary at the end of a game or make a chip-shot field goal to send a game to overtime is winning.
So this weekend, it's back home to Reliant with the 8-3 Texans taking on the 7-4 Atlanta Falcons. Here are five things I will be watching from the cozy confines of the eighth level of our home field:
5. The beginning of the T.J. Yates Era By all accounts, Yates has looked solid in practice this week and will be ready to go for Sunday. Granted, most of the glowing reports are coming from people who probably wouldn't say otherwise, but tight end Owen Daniels went as far on my radio show as to say that Yates is "going to surprise a lot of people." It would stand to reason that he is at least somewhat comfortable, given that he was a four-year guy at North Carolina; he's played a lot of football.
4. Andre Johnson is playing again, right? I heard that he is, although you wouldn't have known by the way the game went down in Jacksonville last Sunday. I'll chalk up Dre's non-appearance as partially his trying to get his legs back, partially a quarterback in the first half (Matt Leinart) who was check-down happy, and partially a second half where the Texans were just trying to get the hell out of Jacksonville with a win and no more injuries. One of the things I'm most anxious to see in the Texans' first series will be if they give Yates a bunch of "dink and dunk" pass plays to get his confidence, or if they let him turn one loose on the first or second play of the game to Johnson, if for no other reason than to tell Atlanta that "we ain't checking down every play this week."
3. What if it's close.... The Falcons are quietly one of the hottest teams in the NFL right now, as they are one "headscratch-inducing Mike Smith call to go for it on fourth and inches in his own territory in overtime against the Saints" from riding a six-game winning streak into Reliant. Other than a 31-7 rout of the Colts, over the last five weeks, the Falcons have been playing in relatively close games, games where fourth-quarter possessions are of maximum importance. The Texans, on the other hand, have had an average margin of victory of 19.6 during this five-game winning streak and have spent the majority of each game leading by double digits. In short, it's been awhile since the Texans have had to march down the field in the fourth quarter needing a score. It will be interesting to see what happens if they need one on Sunday. (Vegas, by the way, thinks they will. The Texans are a three-point underdog.)
2. Turnover battle Among a slew of season-changing defensive statistics this season, the Texans have at least one interception in every game this year. Matt Ryan, while solid most of the time, is still not the best at throwing the ball down the field and through 11 games has ten interceptions. (He had nine all of last season.). Also, Ryan is 20-0 as a starter in games when he has a quarterback rating of over 100.0. If you need to boil this game down to one player, it's probably Ryan. Pressure him, force some mistakes and the Texans should win the game.
1. The Jon Weeks Game returns! The Texans haven't played a home game since early November, and one of the truly unfortunate parts of having to watch road games is that the camera doesn't follow "everyman" long snapper Jon Weeks as he runs down the field on punt coverage. Admittedly, this item "to watch" is only for those in Reliant, but I encourage all of you to join me in watching the 5-foot-10, 244-pound Weeks "sprint" down the field on coverage team after snapping the ball to punter Brett Hartmann. Trust me.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game, starting Monday, each morning with John Granato from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. on "John and Sean in the Morning." Also, the show is simulcast each morning from 6 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. on Comcast 129 (View at your own risk.), and Sean can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.
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