Sometimes, in football, it's just about survival — if you're an NFL team in 2016, those words have never rang truer. In a league where the only thing really assuring you of success right now is the presence of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick on your sideline, if you're one of the other 31 teams, on most Sundays, you're just going to have to buckle up and hope you make enough plays to win.
That's probably as good a place as any, four hours after finishing up a dizzying postgame show that ended at two in the morning, for me to begin typing about the Houston Texans, their improbable fourth quarter comeback and eventual 26-23 overtime win against Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts.
Depicted via graphs and charts, here's how improbable Brock Osweiler's first real "gut check" win as the Texans quarterback was...
Depicted via "heat of the moment" tweet, here's what was avoided thanks to the frenetic final seven minutes of regulation and roughly seven minutes of overtime...
Barring a miracle comeback in the next seven minutes, this season is in danger of a 2013 type spiral.— Sean Pendergast (@SeanTPendergast) October 17, 2016
And I guess, other than an acute need to stock up on whiskey to get through this season, that is my takeaway from last night's game — on a night where the flaws of this team were put on display like an interactive billboard in Times Square, an open house for the rest of the nation to see exactly why we are all so skeptical right now, the Texans could have folded up the tents and gone home (like so many of their fans had).
But they didn't.
They won a football game, they fished their season out of the grease, they kept their lead in the AFC South and they took the Broncos game next Monday night off of the "must win" list and put it back on the "stealing a win would be nice" list.
It wasn't pretty and there's a ton to fix, but as an NFL fan in 2016, (if I can steal from Gary Kubiak for a moment) that's this league.
Now, winners and losers from last night:
4. Brock Osweiler
For about 53 minutes of game time on Sunday night, the Colts game was a carry over of last Sunday afternoon's embarrassment in Minnesota for Osweiler, the main difference being the nationwide audience on NBC that allowed for this game to turn into a public mocking of the Texans's signing of Osweiler to that $72 million deal last March (and a thinly veiled feting of Denver GM John Elway for... well... for Osweiler's rejecting his $64 million offer, I guess).
I'll be honest — when the Texans were down 23-9, my notes for this post had a lot more to do with the need to see Tom Savage, and eviscerating Osweiler for his presidential-candidate-level of "all is well" speak during the week. I suppose the question becomes, should the remaining 14 minutes of that game (seven in regulation, seven more in overtime), in which Brock went 13 of 15 for 171 yards and two touchdowns (153.75 passer rating), drastically alter how we process his performance so far this season? Do we functionally ignore that he was 12 of 24 for 97 yards and a pick (43.23 passer rating) before the comeback? Quite honestly, the answer is probably baked a week into the future when we see how he comes out in prime time (again) against his former teammates next Monday in Denver. Does he build on this? For now, it's okay to celebrate that Brock Osweiler at least showed the balls to get up off the mat and go win a football game — even if it was at home against a bottom-three-in-the-league defense. In 2016, Texans fans, take it. Style points have never been less important.
3. Robert Nelson
In the spirit of "next man up," the Texans got one from their practice squad in this game on Sunday with Nelson getting the call up to help the depleted secondary, a secondary dealing with Kareem Jackson's hamstring and now dealing with an injured Johnathan Joseph (left game and came back Sunday with some sort of arm injury) and, perhaps more daunting, a limping Kevin Johnson in the tunnels of NRG Stadium after the game. Nelson, who should be bumped up ahead of the ultra-shaky Charles James in any CB rotation, had a crucial pick to close out the first half, when Luck could've driven a dagger into the Texans's heart and put them down 20-3 at the half. Nelson was also solid on special teams as well covering kicks. On his third NFL team in three seasons, Nelson is the kind of pickup that has been an underrated strength of the Rick Smith regime (a regime not long on strengths) — street guys who can make a few winning plays here and there.
2. Whitney Mercilus
On a defense where it is, at times, hard to ignore the gigantic space left behind by J.J. Watt's tattered back and spine, Whitney Mercilus is establishing himself as a Pro Bowl-caliber player. On Sunday night, he was there making plays once again, with six tackles, a huge sack on a 4th and 1 pass play deep in Texans territory and two tackles for loss. It's worth noting here, too, that Jadeveon Clowney is establishing some more consistency, as he combined with Mercilus for double-digit QB pressures between the two of them throughout the night. These two are carrying a massive load for this defense right now.
1. Lamar Miller
Of all the individual performances on Sunday, the most crucial, from an in-game and "big picture" standpoint, came from Miller, who finally had the breakout game that Texans fans (and, let's face it, Miller fantasy owners — shout out to all of you downtrodden souls!) have been waiting for. Miller shredded an absolutely porous Colts' run defense for 149 yards on 24 carries, including several big "chunk yardage" plays. However, it was actually a play in the passing game that was Miller's most impressive play of the night — a circus run after a short catch, in which Miller weaved through a maze of Colts defenders for a 10-yard touchdown pass to cut the Colts's lead to one score. Most importantly, on that play, Miller's touchdown ended the drive without the Texans having to run any more time off the game clock, as their "hurry up" offense to that point had been moving painfully slowly — the drive burned 4:27 off of a game clock that had 7:04 remaining — for a team that was down two scores.
4. T.Y. Hilton
Hilton entered the game Sunday as a noted Texans killer, averaging a little over 97 yards a game in his career against Houston, a span of eight games. On Sunday, the Texans' secondary, led by Kevin Johnson's standout performance, held Hilton to just three catches for 49 yards on nine targets. Credit, once again, to Mercilus, Clowney, and the Texans's pass rush for applying heat on Luck. (Also, dear God, if you think the Texans offensive line is a mess, watch the Colts line, which appears to be on some sort of dark comedic mission to get Andrew Luck murdered before their bye week.)
3. Crowd shaming
In what was probably as much a carry-over in frustration from the embarrassment of the loss to the Vikings last Sunday as it was a commentary on how they were feeling about the Texans' chances late in the game last night, about half the Houston crowd decided to head for the doors when the team fell behind 23-9 with seven minutes to go. And to be completely fair to those folks who left: a.) The Texans showed absolutely ZERO signs to that point of being capable of a 14-point comeback, and b.) it was a Sunday night game, when most people were about six hours from the alarm going off to wake them up for work Monday morning. Discretion is the better part of having to wake up at 6 a.m. (or something like that). Trust me, I get it.
Apparently, though, some Texans players do not get it...
Vince Wilfork and Charles James II not too happy so many fans left early on Sunday. Vince: "I hope their brisket turned out ok" pic.twitter.com/XGrwjdfGBX— Daniel Gotera (@DTGoteraKHOU) October 17, 2016
I guess all I'll say here is that these guys should focus a little less on the crowd during the game and more on not falling behind 23-9 at home to a bad Colts team, and if this is going to serve as some sort of motivation or metaphorical "chip on the shoulder," keep it to yourselves after the game, don't bitch about it to the cameras. There's a fine line between a feisty underdog and a chronic whiner.
2. Will Fuller's hamstring (and Texans fans who don't understand how the inactive list works)
So Sunday morning, this little bombshell was dropped on everybody's Twitter timeline by ESPN.com's Adam Schefter...
Texans' WR Will Fuller is unlikely to play tonight vs Colts due to a hamstring injury, per source.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) October 16, 2016
Texan fans and Will Fuller fantasy owners cursed all the football gods loudly, but then came this beacon of hope from FOX's Jay Glazer...
Texans not counting WR Fuller out for later at all. Unless it tightens up on him has better chance of going than not, still could be limited— Jay Glazer (@JayGlazer) October 16, 2016
From here, Texan fans and Will Fuller fantasy owners rejoiced, and cursed the name of Schefter, and crowed about Glazer's razor sharp reporting accuracy! However, in the end, it was Schefter who proved correct, for all he said was "Fuller is unlikely to play," not "Will Fuller will be listed as inactive for the game." Fuller suited up, but only because every non-QB3 spot on the inactive list was already occupied by an injured Texan...
Tonight's @HoustonTexans inactives:— Texans PR (@TexansPR) October 16, 2016
5- QB Weeden
25- CB Jackson
27- S Demps
41- RB Grimes
52- ILB Peters
79- G Allen
89- TE Anderson
Fuller only dressed because he was literally capable of putting his uniform on. That was it. (I'm still amazed how many people and media members didn't grasp this concept, wondering why the team "wasted" a spot on dressing Fuller. I mean, who exactly do they dress instead of him from that list above?)
1. Every team that doesn't have Tom Brady
So we bring it all back around to my point at the top of the page, and it's this — don't get too caught up in HOW the Texans are winning games, if indeed they ARE winning games. I'm not saying ignore what needs to be fixed; I'm merely pointing out that if your quality of life is going to be dictated by your need for the Texans (or virtually any NFL team) to play aesthetically pleasing football for large portions of games, you're going to live a horrible existence.
For reference purposes, let's just take a look at Elliott Harrison's preseason NFL Power Rankings and see how great life is for the fans of the 12 teams ranked ahead of the 13th-rated Texans back in mid-August:
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1. CAROLINA (1-5)
2. ARIZONA (2-3)
3. GREEN BAY (3-2)
4. DENVER (4-2)
5. NEW ENGLAND (5-1)
6. SEATTLE (4-1)
7. PITTSBURGH (4-2)
8. MINNESOTA (5-0)
9. KANSAS CITY (3-2)
10. OAKLAND (4-2)
11. CINCINNATI (2-4)
12. WASHINGTON (4-2)
13. HOUSTON (4-2)
The Texans have a record as good as or better than all but three of those teams. So breathe, Texans fans... and hope that whatever happened from the 7:04 mark of the fourth quarter on can be be bottled up and deployed next Monday in Denver.
The Texans are gonna need it.
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.