By and large, the Houston Texans dominated the Oakland Raiders on Saturday afternoon in their 27-14 wild card round victory. That's not bragging, that's not myopia, it's just fact. The Texans more than handled business that the oddsmakers expected them to handle the moment that it was confirmed the No. 1 defense in football would be facing a rookie making his first start at quarterback.
Still, even in a game that was played with a double-digit margin for a vast majority of the afternoon, things can get tense. Even Connor Cook, said rookie quarterback, can heat up (ever so briefly). When Cook engineered a touchdown drive to make it 10-7 in the first half, there was a little angst creeping into NRG Stadium, angst to the effect of "Oh man, so these guys are gonna hang around all day, huh?"
Then in the fourth quarter, when the Raiders managed to cut the lead to 27-14, I'd be lying if I said the press box didn't have a "Here we go again" vibe. Thankfully, the Texans steadied the buffs, forced a couple more turnovers and got out with a win. But those aforementioned stress points in the game mean that, by definition, there were some underrated plays that helped deliver victory.
Here were nine of them.....
4th and 5, OAK 37 yard line
11:25 to go, 1st quarter
PLAY: Shane Lechler punts 30 yards to Oakland 7 yard line (fair catch)
I'll be honest, I disagreed with this decision by Bill O'Brien to punt the football here on the Texans' opening drive. They had run eight plays, and Brock Osweiler had completed a couple of passes. There seemed to be a little bit of juice going for the offense, as they'd moved the ball almost 40 yards (or as we call 40 yards, a "Houston Texans Mile"!). 4th and 5 at a spot that was a little outside Nick Novak's field goal range felt like a solid risk early in the game, figuring your defense would throttle Connor Cook if you didn't convert. Instead, O'Brien chose to play conservative, try to pin the rookie deep and go from there. It turned out to be the correct decision. Lechler punted an absolute pooch-kick gem, the Raiders obliged by fair catching it, and this triggered a brief exchange of favorable Texans field position that ended in a Novak 50-yard field goal to give the Texans the first points of the game, and a 3-0 lead.
3rd and 16, OAK 38 yard line
4:48 to go, 1st quarter
PLAY: Connor Cook incomplete pass to Michael Crabtree. Oakland challenged the incomplete pass ruling, and the play was upheld. The ruling on the field was confirmed.
This was a gigantic swing for the Texans early in the game. They had just taken a 10-0 lead following Jadeveon Clowney's interception setting up Lamar Miller's 4-yard TD run. The Raiders needed a momentum swing here, and got a 19-yard pass play on the first play of the series. Two plays later, on 3rd and 16, this pass to Crabtree would have given them a first down in Texans territory, and with Sebastian Janikowski as their kicker, the Raiders are probably at least coming away with some points on a field goal. At first glance, I was mildly surprised this "incomplete" call was upheld and confirmed. Second glance, a little less so. You be the judge....
I'll admit, I was fearful the referee was going to overturn this one. Would've been big for OAK at that point ... pic.twitter.com/vsyQg5AC5Q— Sean Pendergast (@SeanTPendergast) January 9, 2017
1st and 10, HOU 40 yard line
2:25 to go, 2nd quarter
PLAY: Osweiler pass over the middle to Will Fuller to Oakland's 41 yard line for 19 yards
It's been awhile since rookie Will Fuller caught a deep ball, a true "nine route" where he just runs past his guy and Osweiler hits him in stride. That's what they drafted him for, but with that said, his hands have steadily improved throughout the season, and he HAS been good for a couple of catches like this one each game, intermediate stuff that moves the chains, flips the side of the field the Texans are on, and gets the offense moving a little bit. This one directly preceded the deep ball to Hopkins inside the Raiders' five yard line that set up the Texans' second touchdown.....
Fuller hasn't caught a deep ball in forever but he's been good for a couple of these each week. This was play before deep ball to Hopkins.. pic.twitter.com/v1tAJfFILC— Sean Pendergast (@SeanTPendergast) January 9, 2017
That throw and the next throw to Hopkins were two of Brock Osweiler's best throws of the season. He will need like a dozen of those this weekend in New England.
3rd and 3, HOU 42 yard line
9:46 to go, 3rd quarter
PLAY: Cook sacked by Whitney Mercilus at Oakland's 48 yard line for -10 yards
For the second straight season, Whitney Mercilus had multiple sacks on a playoff game — three last season in the loss to the Chiefs, and two on Saturday. Video for both is below; the second one was huge, as the Texans had just gone three-and-out on offense early in the second half, and it came on a third-and-short situation on the edge of field goal range for the Raiders....
Next season, add JJ Watt to this ... pic.twitter.com/qDbn6PKnt1— Sean Pendergast (@SeanTPendergast) January 9, 2017
Tweeted the other Merci-sack last night. Here's Mercilus' second sack, shakes his guy while Clowney draws extra attention ... pic.twitter.com/VeTnm54CQ9— Sean Pendergast (@SeanTPendergast) January 9, 2017
Look at the attention Clowney draws on both of those sacks...then add J.J. Watt to that mix...then get excited.
3rd and 10, OAK 38 yard line
7:30 to go, 3rd quarter
PLAY: Cook pass incomplete deep left, dropped by WR Amari Cooper
For as much as the Texans led Saturday's game by double digits (it was most of the day after they went up 10-0), there were a few plays that would have gotten the Raiders back into the game and made the Texans VERY uncomfortable. This was one of them....
If Amari Cooper is trying to break into the upper upper crust of WRs, he's gotta come up with plays like this in games like Saturday's... pic.twitter.com/KZdl14Hsjr— Sean Pendergast (@SeanTPendergast) January 9, 2017
4th and 21, OAK 14 yard line
0:28 to go, 3rd quarter
PLAY: Tyler Ervin muffs punt at Houston 30 yard line, recovered by Eddie Pleasant and returned to the Houston 47 yard line
Tyler Ervin has had some costly turnovers this season — Week 3 in New England, also in the Mexico City game against the Raiders. Quite simply, Ervin doesn't do enough to justify ANY negative plays. That said, he did return the punt right before this for a touchdown that was called back because Mercilus ran into the Raiders' punter. Unfortunately, on the re-kick, THIS happened....
Tyler Ervin on a Saturday night in New England feels like a heavy drinking endeavor. Eddie Pleasant to the rescue here ... pic.twitter.com/OnOdQbw9yl— Sean Pendergast (@SeanTPendergast) January 9, 2017
Sorry, Tyler. Eddie Pleasant's saving your bacon here is not enough for me to want you in there against the Patriots this Saturday night. Put Keith Mumphrey back there and fair catch them to death.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Support Our Journalism
2nd and 7, OAK 18 yard line
13:14 to go, 4th quarter
PLAY: DeAndre Hopkins. draws pass interference in the end zone, sets up final TD with 1st and goal at the Oakland 1 yard line
Another one of those Hopkins plays that doesn't show up next to the five catches for 67 yards in the box score. He sets up their final touchdown by "being DeAndre Hopkins"...
Gruden, your "Raider" is showing ... (he didn't think THIS was DPI) ... pic.twitter.com/C4csA50f0j— Sean Pendergast (@SeanTPendergast) January 9, 2017
4th and 9, HOU 27 yard line
6:34 to go, 4th quarter
PLAY: Lechler punts 55 yards to Oakland 18 yard line, 1 yard return
We started this post with a Lechler punt, and it's appropriate to finish with one as well. Shane Lechler was outstanding on Saturday. Other than Clowney, and maybe Hopkins, he might have been the Texans' most valuable player. This final salvo from the future Hall of Famer came late in the game, with the Texans nursing a two-score lead, following a Raider touchdown to make it 27-14 and a subsequent Texans three-and-out on offense. The Raiders still had a shot at this point, but Lechler's leg bomb sent them all the way back to their 19 yard line. Six plays later, Texans safety Corey Moore intercepted Cook to basically seal the win.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.