One week after exorcising their Peyton Manning demons, the Texans found themselves squarely in the crosshairs of another familiar enemy: complacency.
In 2011, a 3-1 start turned sour with a demoralizing loss to Oakland in Reliant Stadium. Likewise, a home disappointment against Carolina ensued after the division-clinching win in Cincinnati.
To make the leap from good to great, the Texans know sustained excellence is required. For a quarter-and-a-half of game action Sunday, it eluded them as old habits returned. But one tipped interception turned the tide, allowing the Texans to cruise to the first 4-0 start in Houston's NFL history.
"This football team is really hard on itself," said head coach Gary Kubiak. "It knows how to push itself, and that's great for me as a coach."
Check out the Texans slideshow from Sunday's game.
Things couldn't have been more ideal in the first quarter. Not only did the Texans have two touchdowns in three drives and a 14-0 lead, but they knocked out Tennessee quarterback Jake Locker when safety Glover Quin and lineman J.J. Watt converged on him almost simultaneously.
From there forward, however, it slowly deteriorated -- particularly in the trenches. On offense, the protection broke down repeatedly, especially with right tackle Derek Newton. After Matt Schaub connected with Andre Johnson two times on the game's opening drive for 53 yards, Johnson caught only one more pass for three yards the rest of the way, with Schaub lacking time to allow routes to develop.
On defense, the Texans were gashed by much-celebrated Tennessee bust Chris Johnson, whose 141 yards easily topped his previous season high of 45. That opened up playaction for veteran backup QB Matt Hasselbeck, whose 19-yard scoring strike to Craig Stevens brought the Titans within 14-7, leaving the Reliant crowd in relative silence. By early in the third, even with a lead, the Texans drew a few boos.
In seemingly an instant, though, the Texans flipped the switch. Danieal Manning's pick six doubled the lead. The ensuing Tennessee possession ended with a punt after gaining just six yards. Then, Houston used the momentum to bury the Titans (1-3) with a quick 7-play, 75 -yard drive, punctuated by Schaub's 28-yard touchdown pass to Owen Daniels.
"Once we got reignited, everybody started making plays," said defensive end Antonio Smith. "That's the most beautiful way to play football."
Whether the Texans have truly learned their lesson regarding complacency will be put to the test next week. They're well aware of two enormous games at a raucous Reliant in the near future -- Green Bay on Oct. 14 and Baltimore on Oct. 21.
But in the standings, next week's Monday nighter against the struggling Jets (2-2) counts just as much as either. A 5-0 start should be a near formality if the Texans find the same bursts of energy they did Sunday. Here's a look at five players most responsible: 5.) J.J. Watt For the first time all year, Watt isn't at one or two on the list. That's because he and the rest of the Houston defensive line were blocked too easily on running plays, particularly in quarters two and three. But Watt remained his usual dominant self against the pass, recording a pair of sacks and recovering a fumble. At the season's quarter mark, he's already up to 7.5 sacks, 16 tackles, five passes deflected and a fumble recovery -- phenomenal numbers for a 3-4 end. It makes him the obvious frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year.
4.) James Casey With the exception of the opening drive, the Texans were forced into a physical, grinding game because the protection didn't buy Schaub enough time to find receivers for big plays downfield. That allowed Houston's fullback to shine with his finest performance of the young season. The Texans frequently put Casey in motion and gave him opportunities in the short passing game, where he caught five passes for 36 yards and a touchdown. But Casey was equally impressive in run blocking, most notably when he leveled a blitzing Tennessee linebacker to spring Arian Foster for a first-quarter touchdown.
"We've got a ton of weapons," said Schaub. "Whether it's our wideouts or tight ends, James at fullback or our halfbacks. They all make plays for us. It really is pick your poison as a defense."
As strong as the Texans were in 2011, they did it largely without Casey after he severely strained a pectoral muscle in Week 5 against Oakland. This year, Gary Kubiak's offense adds arguably the best dual-threat fullback in football, and they reaped the rewards on Sunday. 3.) Kareem Jackson The division-rival Titans personally witnessed many of Jackson's worst days in his first two years. They found out Sunday that in his third year, he's an entirely different cornerback. Hasselbeck frequently targeted Jackson in man-to-man coverage against Kendall Wright, but the first-year, ex-Baylor wideout didn't catch a single pass until garbage time. On a perfectly thrown deep ball late in the third quarter, Jackson put on a masterful display -- showing the speed to stay stride for stride with Wright downfield, the technique to lean against the receiver without interfering, and the awareness to turn at the last moment, identify the ball and swat it away. Jackson also, of course, capped his day with a fourth-quarter interception, which he returned 63 yards for a touchdown to officially launch the celebration.
"The last three weeks, he's been exceptional," said defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. "He's really grown up as a player and as a person."
If Phillips' defense had any flaw in 2011, it was the revolving door at No. 2 cornerback. This year, Jackson has taken hold of the position and slammed it shut.
2.) Matt Schaub On statistics alone, it wasn't one of Schaub's finer days. After connecting on two 50-plus yard scoring bombs in Denver and averaging nearly 10 yards per attempt, the Houston QB threw for just 202 yards against Tennessee on 7.2 per attempt. But Schaub deserves high praise for his patience. In a sluggish game with shaky pass blocking where it would've been easy to force the issue, he never came close to turning the ball over. He took what the Tennessee defense gave and knew his team was good enough to eventually break through, as long as they didn't make the big mistake.
"It's just us playing through that adversity," said Schaub.
Schaub is clearly among the league's better quarterbacks. But if he has one career black mark, it's an occasional penchant to force throws that aren't there. For much of his Houston tenure, those mental mistakes were understandable, considering the lack of a competent defense to back him up, occasionally compounded by an M.I.A. running game. Now, the Texans have the most-complete team in football and Schaub can focus on efficiency. With eight consecutive regular season wins under his belt, he's more than doing the job.
1.) Danieal Manning Yes, he's mostly at the top for one play. But when it's as big as Manning's interception and 60-yard touchdown return were on Sunday, it's justified.
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SHOW ME HOW
It can't be stressed enough just how listless the Texans were in the nearly two quarters preceding the play. They were outplayed up front physically, and the game slowly began to resemble the Oakland disaster almost a year ago. The crowd sat almost in stunned silence. But not only did Manning make the pick, he had the presence of mind to look upfield and weave his way through seemingly the entire Tennessee offense and convert the interception into seven immediate game-changing points.
"Those guys were never able to get back in the game from that point," said Manning. "We needed the big score right there. Early they were going right with us, but it changed."
Cornerback Johnathan Joseph drew most of the headlines, but it was the signings of both Joseph and Manning that were responsible for the night-and-day turnaround of the Houston secondary between 2010 and 2011. That turnaround has continued into 2012, and Manning proved Sunday that his playmaking ability remains an enormous part of it.