After back-to-back games of exhilarating drama, the Texans seem back to their usual selves. That's just fine for soon-to-be Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.
Led by Watt and a defense that suffocated Tennessee and second-year QB Jake Locker, the Texans cruised to 11-1 and clinched the second postseason berth in club history.
"Today is what we're used to and the way we're used to playing," said Watt, who recorded a sack (raising his season total to a ridiculous 15.5), forced a fumble and deflected a pass.
"That was our defense."
It was indicative of the Texans we've seen for most of 2012, including the Buffalo and Chicago games to start last month -- not the aberrations against Jacksonville and in Detroit.
Turnovers, sacks prove critical
It's tough to lose when the turnover margin is plus-six. That's what the Texans had Sunday with three interceptions and three fumble recoveries, including a fourth-down sack and fumble in the fourth quarter when the Titans were only eight yards from scoring and making it a one-possession game.
"We've been looking for this for a couple weeks, with the turnovers and the momentum swings," said Watt.
The questions about pass defense weren't completely answered, with Locker throwing for 309 yards. However, the vast majority of those came against a prevent defense nursing a huge second-half lead.
The yardage is also explainable considering the Texans were again without star cornerback Johnathan Joseph (hamstring), leaving second-year corners Brandon Harris and Roc Carmichael with marquee roles for the first times in their NFL careers.
While each turned in an understandably mediocre performance, the pressure the Texans generated up front was enough to overwhelm the Titans. Locker was sacked six times and hit on several other occasions as Houston denied him the time to look downfield and exploit the young secondary.
It started with Watt, but on the other end, Antonio Smith turned in his best performance of 2012 with a sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery. Rookie linebacker Whitney Mercilus continued his strong play as well with two sacks and a recovered fumble.
"They were exceptional today," head coach Gary Kubiak said of his defense.
"I just told the team, you come in here missing some key defensive players and you think you have got to play really well offensively, and we turn around and may have played as good of a defensive game as we have played this year. That tells you you're a team."
Many had expected Mercilus to go back to the bench when Brooks Reed (groin) returns in a month or so. But despite his limited playing time this season, the rookie now has as many sacks (5) and fumble recoveries (1) as Reed and Connor Barwin combined. He also has more forced fumbles (2) than the starting linebackers.
For a defense that thrives on pressuring opposing quarterbacks and creating turnovers, coordinator Wade Phillips may have a tough time taking him off the field.
The best thing the Texans did on offense was avoid making mistakes. With the Titans turning it over six times and routinely giving Houston great field position, the Texans took advantage with 17 points off turnovers and no giveaways of their own.
"It's a great feeling to know that we've reached that goal," quarterback Matt Schaub said of the playoff-clinching win. "But we have a lot more to accomplish. The game ball goes to the defense because we weren't holding up our end on offense."
The run blocking was worrisome at times, with Arian Foster rushing 14 times for just 38 yards. But part of that can be chalked up to playing with a big lead and the Tennessee defense knowing exactly what was coming.
On the passing side, the Texans saw a rookie wideout grab his first career touchdown for the second time in three games. Two weeks after finding Keshawn Martin against Jacksonville, Schaub connected with Lestar Jean on a 54-yard catch-and-run to open up the scoring.
For a franchise that's long been in search of reliable receiving weapons opposite Andre Johnson, the past three games represent very positive signs.
"The team played very well offensively in the first half and played very poorly offensively in second," said Kubiak.
The offense also benefited from an unusually strong performance from kicker Shayne Graham. After missing 47- and 51-yard kicks (each a potential game winner) in the past two games, he drilled a 50-yarder in the second half and routinely sent kickoffs deep into the end zone.
Quite frankly, Graham kicked like a man who felt his job was on the line. He responded with his best outing of the year.
The 11 wins are already a franchise-best for Houston, but they need more to ultimately clinch the AFC South and potentially a bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
A win in New England next Monday would be enormous, effectively giving the Texans a three-game lead over the entire AFC with only three games to play.
"We've got another goal that we want to reach, and that's bringing the playoffs to Houston," said Smith.
Lose, however, and things get tricky. With the AFC South-rival Colts (8-4) pulling off another improbable win this week, Indianapolis could find itself just two games behind Houston after next Monday -- with both head-to-head matchups remaining between the Colts and Texans.
The Texans control their own destiny either way, of course. But next Monday's result against the Patriots (9-3) likely means the difference between a celebratory three-game stretch to close the year and an early start to do-or-die, postseason-intensity football.
With injuries mounting, the Texans could really use the former.
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