In two games against the Kansas City Chiefs last season, the Houston Texans' biggest problem was, well, the HOUSTON TEXANS. With a slew of turnovers, shoddy special teams plays and ill-timed penalties, the Texans spent virtually all of eight quarters over two games' worth of football getting dominated by a nice little (but hardly elite) wild card team, the exception being the last ten minutes or so of the regular season opener in 2015 with the Chiefs already up three scores.
On Sunday, as in 2015, the Texans were inept in some crucial areas — they averaged under three yards a carry running the football, converted just 26 percent of their third downs, turned the ball over twice in Chiefs territory (including a pick in the end zone) and went 0 for 4 in the red zone.
Unlike in 2015, though, this Texans team plays defense at a high enough level, and has just enough playmakers on offense to cancel out a whole lot of bad in the box score, and in the end, their 19-12 win over the Chiefs on Sunday was less surprising if you watched it in person or on TV than it might have been if someone just handed you the "on paper" glitches outlined above.
It's only two games, but so far this season, this version of the Houston Texans has shown a knack for making the necessary plays in the most highly leveraged situations within a game — getting off the field on defense on third down, buckling down in the red zone (zero touchdowns allowed in six quarters), and making glorious things happen virtually anytime a ball is thrown in the direction of Will Fuller or DeAndre Hopkins.
For the seventh time in franchise history, and the sixth time in seven seasons, the Houston Texans are 2-0. That milestone has never been a harbinger in helping forecast anything — the Texans went 2-0 in the two best seasons in franchise history before starting 2-0 in the 2-14 disaster in 2013 — but, damn, this season's "fun potential" seems high, doesn't it? Especially with New England entering Thursday night about as wounded as a Texans fan could reasonably hope for.
All of that said, let's look at winners and losers from yesterday...
4. J.J. Watt
Well, if forwarding empty narratives is your hobby, and you were all geeked up to carry the torch for "Is J.J. Watt ever gonna be the same again?" you can go ahead and search elsewhere. Your cause célèbre died after one week. Watt is still probably a notch or two away from being all the way back to "vintage Watt," but clearly he is trending in the right direction — 1.5 sacks, two QB hits, a fumble recovery and a practically full workload. On top of that, the Texans seem to have found a solution to the Jared Crick Conundrum (my nickname for the Texans' inability to find a suitable DE opposite Watt, and I include Crick on the "underwhelming" list) by bumping Jadeveon Clowney onto the defensive line full time, which works for me. Hooray!
3. Bernardrick McKinney
I won't fall into the trap of saying, "No Brian Cushing, no problem," but we're one game into the Texans inside linebacker's latest injury stint and the team appears to be handling things all right in his absence, in large part thanks to second-year man McKinney's taking to the passing of the "transmitter helmet" like a Packer fan to cheese. On Sunday, he led the team in tackles with eight, had a sack on Chiefs QB Alex Smith and, for the most part, got everyone lined up where they needed to be before the snap. In fact, with McKinney's rapid development, it gets you thinking about...
2. Defensive player development
...how many guys on the defensive side of the ball are better players now than they were, say, a year ago. Like McKinney, CB Kevin Johnson continues to progress as a player after a stellar rookie year. CB A.J. Bouye has developed into a versatile tool in the secondary, including handling TE Travis Kelce (just 5 catches for 34 yards) and the Kansas City running backs in spots in single coverage on Sunday. Also, don't look now, but the Texans are now 9-3 (dating back to last season, including the playoff loss) with safeties Andre Hall and Quintin Demps handling starting duties. Whitney Mercilus, Clowney, John Simon, the list goes on...Romeo Crennel and his defensive staff have done a masterful job in developing the personnel on their side of the ball. (We will save the offensive side of the ball for another time and place...I'm in too good of a mood to bring that up.)
1. DeAndre Hopkins
Last week was Will Fuller's week to be targeted double-digit times. This week was Hopkins's as he drew 11 targets from QB Brock Osweiler and made seven catches for 113 yards and the only touchdown of the game. The seven catches included at least three where you found yourself saying, "Okay, just please go ahead and pay him, Bob..." afterward. In actuality, the most breathtaking play from Hopkins didn't even count for anything, but probably should have — a catch in the back of the end zone in which Hopkins was ruled out of bounds both in real time and after review. You be the judge...
The refs called this an incomplete pass LMAO pic.twitter.com/r53CjH0b5w— Erick Shakur (@PacDaGoat) September 18, 2016
In fact, it was kind of a rough game for the referees...
There was the botched Hopkins catch, and on top of that, there was confusion over the number of timeouts the Texans had left at one point (which we heard over a "hot" referee microphone, a gift from the football gods!), and perhaps my favorite crappy call of the day — a taunting penalty on Chiefs CB Marcus Peters for wagging a finger in the direction of Fuller after an incomplete pass, on the same day in which the LEAGUE'S TWITTER ACCOUNT sent this out....
The NFL is the best.
3. Andrew Luck
My money is firmly where my mouth is on the Indianapolis Colts — they were my biggest season win total bet, as I fired gleefully on "Under 9 Wins." Thus, needless to say, I am thrilled with how the season is unfolding in Indy. The roster blight that general manager/resident doofus Ryan Grigson has allowed is tantamount to personnel malpractice, and the complete failure at constructing either a defense or an offensive line has had the dual effect of 1) putting the Colts in perpetual deficit mode because of said crappy defense, which means that 2) Andrew Luck is having to throw the ball in predictable situations behind a sieve of an offensive line, and, frankly, Luck is not good enough to overcome shortcomings this drastic on crucial parts of his team's roster. The fact of the matter is Luck is closer to Jake Plummer than to Tom Brady at this point in his career. Ultimately, this whole story probably ends with Andrew Luck in a body cast. Spoiler alert.
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2. Special teams
After a week one performance in which eight of the nine returns they defended (kickoff and punt) would be given a high grade, the Texans' coverage units regressed badly in week two, allowing four punt returns of nearly a 16-yard average, and kickoff returns of around a 26-yard average, and on top of that, they were bailed out by a questionable holding call on what would have been a kickoff return for a touchdown by Tyreek Hill. It wasn't as bad as their collective performance in the two losses to the Chiefs last season, but it wasn't far off. The Texans will need to tighten up their special teams play, especially as they continue to struggle running the football. It's tough to play a "field position" game when running the ball AND covering kicks are both "minus" areas.
1. New England Patriots
I shed no tears for the Patriots, who, other than in the 2008 season when Bernard Pollard massacred Tom Brady's knee, have experienced full health with the greatest QB of this generation for 15 years now. So with Brady suspended for two more games, and now Jimmy Garoppolo out with a shoulder sprain, it looks like the Texans will get rookie Jacoby Brissett as the Pats' starter this Thursday night. That is, unless the Patriots are able to come to terms with "Dom Trady"...
BREAKING: Unknown 3rd-string Patriots QB Dom Trady enters the game for the injured Jimmy Garoppolo pic.twitter.com/xgcyqxa3On— NFL Memes (@NFL_Memes) September 18, 2016
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.