Sunday morning, as I made my way up Highway 288 from Pearland, on an otherwise perfect weather day, there was a fog covering NRG Stadium and the Houston skyline. As I got closer to the stadium, around 9:30 a.m., the parking lots were surprisingly quiet and largely empty. As I plowed through some busy work in the press box during the pregame, I looked up to see we were 15 minutes from kickoff and the stadium was still mostly vacant.
I bring up all of this humdrum, borderline dreariness to illustrate that the gauge on the buzz factor for Sunday's Texans game against the Detroit Lions was about as close to "empty" as you could get for a game pitting two teams above .500 against one another, and quite honestly, the game itself kind of emulated its pregame malaise. Sure, there was a modicum of drama in the Texans's 20-13 victory. It's hard for there not to be in a game that finishes with a margin of a touchdown or less.
However, there weren't any particularly remarkable plays or individual performances, and in some sense, the fact that both teams finished with nearly identical sub-300 yardage totals was a perfect box score metaphor for this game, an afternoon memorable only because it kept the Texans in first place in the AFC South and undefeated at home through five home games for the first time in franchise history.
There were winners and losers, though, so let's examine...
4. Brock Osweiler
Coming off another embarrassing nationally televised performance in Denver on Monday, Osweiler needed, at a minimum, a serviceable performance against one of the worst defenses in the NFL. He also needed a win. He got both. The numbers weren't eye popping, by any means — 20 of 29 for 186 yards — but Osweiler made some early clutch throws on third down, four in total, on the first touchdown drive, and game-managed very well, with one notable exception, the interception right before halftime that kept the Texans from building a three-score lead. There's still a ton more work to do, but this was overall a decent performance for Osweiler heading into the bye week.
3. College Football Playoff "bracketologists"
Taking a brief break from the NFL — as I was sitting in the press box this morning, on one of the televisions, ESPN was carrying its college football recap show. They ran an advertisement for their unveiling of the first set of College Football Playoff rankings this Tuesday night. They also showed their mock bracket for the four-team playoff, an exercise they'll do for real on that Tuesday show. At this point, is there a job in sports that's less dramatic than the prognostication of the four-team playoff in college football? There are four undefeated Power Five teams remaining, all in different conferences, and the fifth Power Five conference (the Big XII, more on them in a second) is distant garbage from the top four. Even the seeding lacks drama, as Alabama is very clearly the one seed, Washington very clearly the four seed, and Clemson and Michigan some combination of two and three. So basically the only drama right now is who wears what color jersey in the Michigan-Clemson semifinal. All of this means that there's a crazy weekend coming soon. The regular season never ends this clean.
2. Texans defensive group effort
The Texans only had one sack and forced no turnovers in this game — if you'd told me before the game that those would be the numbers in those columns, I would have guessed the Lions scored a bunch of points and the Texans probably lost. Well, the Lions scored just 13 points, and it wasn't even a particularly harrowing 13 points. The Texans building a 14-0 lead in the second quarter made the Lions running game, which had some pep early in the game, less useful, and the defense played, quite simply, a very sound game, in which the pass rush forced QB Matthew Stafford into enough errant throws and in which they tackled extremely well on short completions designed for yards after the catch. Solid performance for a disciplined unit.
1. Running game closers
When the Texans took over the ball with 10:14 to go in regulation, up 17-10, they had rushed 15 times for 36 yards in the game up to that point. Over the final two drives, which resulted in a field goal and three Brock Osweiler "victory knees," respectively, Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue combined for 72 yards on 13 carries, and more importantly, allowed the Texans to possess the ball for 8:58 of that 10:14. For all the inconsistency in the running game this season, the Texans have been very solid in clock killing situations in the fourth quarter of a few of their wins this season. If you're looking for reasons for optimism in the second half of the season, a cohesive set of five healthy offensive linemen (even if one of them IS Chris Clark, not Derek Newton) should help the running game improve.
4. Will Fuller
It's been a rough few weeks for the rookie out of Notre Dame, ever since his scintillating punt return to win the Week 4 game against the Titans. Including Sunday's game, Fuller has just six catches for 49 yards in his last three games, and he missed the Week 6 game against the Colts with a hamstring injury, which may be a partial explanation for his production slide. Fuller just doesn't look nearly as explosive as the first month of the season, and maybe he's banged up. If that's the case, then the bye week comes at a good time for Fuller, who the Texans need to regain his field-stretching form in the second half of the season to open the intermediate portion of the field back up for DeAndre Hopkins and the tight ends.
3. The Big XII
Making the College Football Playoff picture much less murky was the complete elimination of the Big XII from any playoff conversation, as their only two remaining undefeated teams, Baylor and West Virginia, were kind enough to bow out over the weekend to Oklahoma State and Texas, respectively. Now that the conference has decided not to expand beyond its existing ten teams, about the only Big XII drama remaining is whether or not Charlie Strong keeps his job. Yay.
2. Buffalo Bills Mafia
If you want to get lost on YouTube for a couple hours (and let's be honest, who doesn't?), go search "Buffalo Bills fan tailgate" and you'll be cyber-deluged with some of the most ridiculous tailgate debauchery you'll see outside of a college campus. I say that because if someone asked me "Which NFL fan base do you think is most likely to toss a dildo onto the field in the middle of an active play?", Buffalo would be the heavy betting favorite.
And so it was, on Sunday, that this occurred during the Bills' loss to the New England Patriots.....
....which gave us another fantastic Gronk moment when he was asked about said dildo...
1. Larry Izzo
You want to know a good way to get on Bill O'Brien's bad side? Oversee a special teams unit that puts ten men on the field for a kickoff return just moments after a Brock Osweiler interception. Larry Izzo found this out the hard way on Sunday.....
If nothing else, this footage should functionally make Jason La Canfora's non-story about O'Brien and Osweiler yelling at each other after a film session inside the building even less of a story. Bill O'Brien yells at everybody, Jason.
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.
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