Sunday morning, about an hour before the Texans and Bengals kicked off, I was driving to the grocery store with my girlfriend Amy to pick up some "Texans watching" supplies -- chips, sandwich paraphernalia, beverages, etc. (Xanax no longer necessary this season.) Unsolicited, I started raising the possibilities of which dates the Texans could be playing a home playoff game come January, especially relevant for Amy, who is a season-ticket holder since inception.
Amy jumped in after about the second scenario, and suggested perhaps I stop forecasting playoff permutations for fear that I may be jinxing the team.
Normally, I'd oblige, but I reminded her that this team has overcome lost seasons to Mario Williams, Matt Schaub, Schaub's backup Matt Leinart, and sizable lost chunks of the season to Andre Johnson, Danieal Manning, James Casey and Arian Foster.
In short, there's nothing I can do to this team that the football gods haven't already tried to do to them.
Unsuccessfully, I might add.
When T.J. Yates hit Kevin Walter with a six-yard touchdown pass with two seconds left in regulation, it extended the Texans' franchise-record winning streak to seven games and by the time the team was ready to shower after the game, a Titans loss had given the Texans their first division title and playoff berth in team history.
The playoff berth was the grand prize. The silver lining was the way that the Texans won this game.
This winning streak has been marked by mostly lopsided scores where the Texans jumped out to early leads and then just choked their opponent into submission. Last week against Atlanta, they never trailed but had to play meaningful, pressure-packed possessions in the fourth quarter. A team that fate has dealt a very slim margin for error, the Texans have rarely had to test said margin.
Through a combination of inexcusable turnovers and poor execution on both sides of the ball, the Texans found themselves trailing the Bengals 16-3 at the half, the biggest crippling blow being a Ben Tate fumble inside the Bengal five-yard line that not only kept the Texans from going up 10-6, but swung momentum to where the Bengals then went on a 7:45 Texan-esque drive of their own to go up 13-3.
The Bengals would take a 16-3 lead into the locker room, and I'll be honest -- it felt like a 28-3 lead for a few reasons:
-- The defense played its first bad half of football since the Baltimore game in Week 6, and even worse, the mistakes in the secondary weren't just confined to the periodic Kareem Jackson "invisible roller skates" pirouette. Johnathan Joseph has his hands full with rookie A.J. Green.
-- The 7:45 drive by the Bengals made it clear that this would be a game where possessions would be at a premium, meaning the Texans would have to play close to perfect football on one side of the ball (wound up being the defensive side) and above average on the other side of the ball (would up being the offensive side of the ball).
-- This was T.J. Yates's first NFL start on the road. Just look around the league at the various backup quarterbacks who can barely get their teams across midfield, and then think about how unlikely this admittedly small sample space of Yates's leading this team is. More on this in a minute.
Last season, coming back from being down 16-3 at the half would have meant Matt Schaub's throwing the ball about 30 times in the second half and the defense praying that the other team screwed up enough to mitigate further damage.
But this isn't last season.
To me, four plays stood out as pivotal, necessary plays that we probably wouldn't have seen from this team in 2010: 4. 14:19 Third Quarter: Connor Barwin sack and strip Barwin is at the center of two great debates, if you're a Texans fan, one current and one future.
The current one is just an opinion debate that has no bearing on wins or losses -- who is the Texans' least expendable player on defense? The top three has to be (in no particular order) Brian Cushing, Johnathan Joseph and Barwin, right? There is a great case to be made for Barwin, given how prolific he's been rushing the passer.
As for the future debate, it is fun (and at some point, necessary) to look at the personnel storylines that will come out of this season. The fact of the matter is that the injuries have given the Texans a much clearer picture as to what their depth looks like at several positions, and I'll tell you right now, the most debated topic this offseason will be what to do with Mario Williams.
Do you sign him to what would be a cap space-swallowing extension? Do you franchise-tag him and trade him? Do you let him walk? The fact of the matter is that Barwin is giving you everything you've been expecting from Mario Williams only at bigger, more critical times. The play yesterday at the beginning of the third quarter is the perfect example. In a game where the Texans offense needed a short field, at a time in the game when the Bengals could have put the game away with a long drive, Barwin smokes his man off the corner, forces a fumble, the Texans recover and a few plays later it's 16-10.
3. 11:35 Fourth Quarter: Eric Winston recovers a lost fumble inside the Texans' five-yard line Down 19-10 with under 12 minutes to go in the game, Yates threw a short pass to Arian Foster which Foster caught and then fumbled at about the Texans 25-yard line (NOTE: The fumble call was questionable, at best.). The Bengals recovered briefly, but were then stripped and after a tense game of hot potato, a hustling Winston came up with the ball on the Texans' two-yard line. If Winston doesn't hang with that play, the Bengals likely go up 26-10, which would have been the kill shot. The play required a lucky bounce or two (which never would have happened last season), but without Winston's stick-to-itiveness, the Yates drive at the end of the game never has a chance to happen.
(It's funny, if you go back and read the play-by-play for the Atlanta game and the Cincinnati game, the two pivotal drives in each game both started with near-catastrophic screw-ups by the Texans -- the reversed pick-six by the Falcons last week and this "double fumble" play yesterday. It really speaks to this team's ability to turn the page immediately on bad plays.)
2. 2:43 Fourth Quarter: Bengals' entire fourth down sequence After cutting the lead to 19-13 with a little over five minutes left, the Texans' defense had essentially two series of downs to get the ball back from the Bengals in order to give the offense enough time to mount a winning touchdown drive. The Bengals got one first down and then on the next series of downs, on 3rd and 14, the Bengals' Bernard Scott took a shovel pass to about a foot shy of a first down. With the ball at about midfield, the Bengals lined up to go for it. They were likely trying to "cadence" the Texans offside, but we'll never know.
The Bengals' right guard moved before the snap, forcing a punt, and the door was left slightly ajar for Yates and the Texans. That sequence embodied everything that's different about this year's defense -- they imposed unfavorable down and distance situations on their opponent just enough to get off the field. Hell, merely getting off the field makes them different from last year's defense.
1. 0:40 Fourth Quarter: T.J. Yates scrambles for 17 yards on 3rd and 15 On the final two drives of the game, minus spikes to stop the clock, Yates was 11 for 17 for 128 yards, but perhaps his biggest play was a "leaking transmission fluid all over the field" 17-yard scramble in the final minute on 3rd and 15 to keep hope alive. When you ask Yates's teammates what's different about him versus the two Matts, they immediately say "his mobility." (Admittedly, this answer would also apply if you were asking about the difference between an elephant and the two Matts.) Two of Yates's most important, drive-sustaining plays in his short tenure as starter have been third-down scrambles -- the fourth-quarter scamper to set up the 4th and 1 against the Falcons, and then the tense weave through traffic yesterday.
Shortly thereafter, the Bengals set up the Texans at the six-yard line with a Pac Man Jones pass interference penalty on Jacoby Jones (Why would anyone interfere with a receiver who has a fifty percent chance of dropping the ball? Oh well, not my problem.), and Yates ended up hitting Kevin Walter, who had some huge catches yesterday, for the winning touchdown.
Calling this performance by Yates unexpected is probably fair, but it only speaks to expectations of those outside the organization. The fact of the matter is that Gary Kubiak saw something special in Yates from Day One. Go back and read Kubiak's draft-day comments about the rookie (important parts in bold):
From a quarterback standpoint, obviously there was a lot of talk in the draft about the group and what was going to happen. I was really just surprised that his name never came up in the group, to be honest with you, after studying him. I think this kid is a fine player. A very solid career in college, which nowadays, we look at some players that have one-year careers, two-year careers-- this kid had a nice four-year career and he played his best as a senior. He also overcame adversity at North Carolina.
I just like everything he stands for. He is basically running our offense there at North Carolina. He walks in and he's going to know what we're doing. He reminds me of (QB) Matt (Schaub) a great deal. He's got a great play clock in his head. I just think we're very fortunate. Rick and I were sitting there talking in round five and couldn't believe he was still on the board. This kid has a chance to be a 'one' in this league if he keeps moving forward. It's a great pick for us.
The statements in bold say it all. He walks in and he's going to know what we're doing....the kid has a chance to be a 'one' in this league....it's a great pick for us.
Say what you will about Texans' drafts during the Smith-Kubiak Era (and some of them are starting to look better this year with the improvement on defense), but Kubiak nailed this Yates pick. Nailed it to the point where, as tasteless as it may be for me to say this, you wonder if Matt Leinart getting hurt wasn't actually a good thing for this football team. That isn't me wishing bad things on Matt Leinart, that's merely me saying that the Texans wound up with the right guy playing quarterback.
And now we know that Reliant Stadium will see its first playoff game. The Texans are AFC South champions and they did it with Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and Mario Williams all watching a rookie quarterback lead them.
No, these things never would have happened last year. These are not your older brother's Texans.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. weekdays, and watch the simulcast on Comcast 129 from 6 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.