The way the Texans' 2014 schedule lays out, given the caliber of opponent they've played, the first quarter of the season looked a lot like the same portion of many college teams' schedules -- a few non-divisional opponents, one of them (as it turns out) that's pretty good, the remainder being lower level teams the Texans should beat.
And that's how it played out, because here they sit at 3-1. So, in theory, as well as according to oddsmakers (the Texans have been favored in all three wins and a slight underdog in their one loss), the Texans are right where they should be.
However, if you're looking for a specific positive takeaway from Sunday's hideously beautiful 23-17 win over a feisty Buffalo Bills squad (who was also looking to go 3-1, incidentally), it's that the Texans found a different way to win an ugly football game.
Here's what I mean...
In their first two wins, the Texans were tied or led in those games for all but 1:51 of the 120 minutes of football played. Their running game was just as effective a weapon in burning the clock as it was moving the football. They were +5 in turnover margin, and Ryan Fitzpatrick was nearly flawless. They were ahead of the chains most of the game and when they were in third down, it was nearly always third and short.
In short, they could stay "in character," or what we perceived to be their necessary "character" to win games.
On Sunday, none of those things happened.
They fell behind 10-0, thanks in large part to multiple 15 yard penalties in the first half. They finished with 37 yards rushing on 24 carries. Their leading rusher was Ryan Fitzpatrick with 14 yards. Fitzpatrick threw two interceptions on the first plays of drives, including the first play of the second half (off a deflection).
Basically, the only thing it had in common with the first two wins is it was ugly. Different warts, same result. Maybe not the sign of a great team, but the sign of a team that believes in itself and its coaches. And everything starts with a belief.
Oh, it also starts with this guy....
4. J.J. Watt Great players in the NFL generally fall into two categories -- great quarterbacks and great players-at-some-other-position (for brevity's sake, we will call them PASOPs). Great quarterbacks can singlehandedly win you games against anybody (including other great quarterbacks). Great PASOPs can singlehandedly win you games against teams without a good quarterback. J.J. Watt is a great PASOP, and on Sunday, he was a true franchise player. Maybe even more amazing than his pick six is that Watt hit Bills QB E.J. Manuel nine times. Say that with me....NINE TIMES....
....NINE TIMES. That's as many times as the Bills hit Fitzpatrick as a team (and they hit him a TON). Yes, it was a team effort on Sunday, but Watt won this game for the Texans. He should be getting MVP run, and will if they win a couple of these upcoming games, all of which are high profile games ("Battle for Texas" with Dallas, and then Indy and Pittsburgh in prime time).
3. The waiver wire As part of the consolation prizes for being 2-14, the Texans had first crack at the waiver wire rejects throughout training camp and the first three weeks of the regular season. The post preseason round of waiver pickups yielded wide receiver Damaris Johnson and cornerback Darryl Morris, both of whom played big roles on Sunday. Johnson only had two touches offensively, but both were in the fourth quarter and both were important -- a third down catch for 10 yards that was good for a first down on a drive that ended in a Randy Bullock field goal and an eight yard catch that got them out of 1st and 20 into a manageable second down in a drive that ended in another Bullock field goal. Morris was very active at corner (subbing for an inactive A.J. Bouye) and special teams, and had the game clinching interception. Solid pickups, both guys.
2. Ryan Fitzpatrick My biggest Fitz takeaway from this game (aside from Fitzpatrick's amazing pre game pep talk) was that the dude is tough. As I mentioned earlier, he was hit nine times (sacked twice), had two huge third down scrambles for first downs on scoring drives, and even threw a block to spring Damaris Johnson on his eight yard run. He may be tough to a fault, rarely sliding when he breaks out of the pocket. You can see why his teammates like him so much.
1. Randy Bullock Midway through last season, not only was every Texan fan ready to cut Randy Bullock, they would have all volunteered to drive him to the airport (and by "airport," I mean "middle of the desert and kicked him out of a moving car"). The team brought in some competition during the week following the Arizona game, and decided to keep him. (It would've been very interesting to see if they'd have kept Bullock if they were 7-2 instead of 2-7.) A slightly less pungent stink enveloped by the larger overall stink of a wilting 2-14 mess, Bullock worked out his issues, and now he's truly a weapon for this team, as evidenced by his two 50+ yard field goals to keep the Bills at bay in the fourth quarter. Additional kudos to Bill O'Brien for aggressively showing confidence in Bullock.
4. Mario Williams, Judgment Day II This week on my radio show, we had Bills' play by play guy John Murphy on to preview the game, and I asked him "So does Buffalo feel like it's getting its money's worth in Mario Williams?" (Williams, of course, was the highest paid defensive player in football before J.J. Watt signed his extension a few weeks ago.) Murphy basically sidestepped any hardcore criticism, talked about Mario showing flashes of dominance, how he had double digit sacks, and "hey, is anybody really worth what they're paid?" (Um, yes...J.J. Watt.) It was basically every answer that Texan fans ever had for that question from 2006 through 2011. It was glorious reaffirmation that the overpayment of Mario Williams is someone else's problem. Oh, Mario's stat line Sunday -- 2 tackles and one QB hit. (To be fair, he had a sack called back on a penalty.)
3. Soccer celebrations DeAndre Hopkins had another HUGE touchdown on Sunday, this one right before the half to get the Texans back in the game at 10-7. That was good. Hopkins, though, got hit with a celebration penalty for doing this...
My apologies that it's a video game facsimile of the celebration, it's all i could find. DeAndre doing that was bad. How do I know it was bad? Because Bill O'Brien chewed him out like he was in a fit of road rage and Hopkins hit his rear bumper.
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2. C.J. Fiedorowicz The tight ends in general have not been a huge part of the offense in the early part of the season, and Fiedorowicz on his one target of the day had an unfortunate drop. (On the post game show, Ted Johnson joked that Fiedorowicz won't see another ball thrown his way until November.) That said, Fiedorowicz is the one rookie chosen in the first five rounds who actually saw the field on Sunday. Jadeveon Clowney is injured, Xavier Su'a-Filo is nailed to the bench, Louis Nix is done for the season, and Tom Savage is an inactive rookie project. That the Texans are 3-1 with almost nothing from the rookie class is mildly stunning. Oh and.....
1. Anonymous scouts who hate skinny knees ....speaking of rookies, did any of you see Teddy Bridgewater on Sunday? He was 19 of 30 for 317 yards, no turnovers, and a rushing touchdown as the Vikings upset the Falcons 41-28.
He was taken one pick before Su'a-Filo.