For the last three weeks, the Houston Texans have been winning football games, three in a row, but they've come with caveats. Against the Colts, it was Frank Reich's going for it on a risky fourth down in his own territory in overtime that opened the door for a Texans win. Against the Cowboys, it was Jason Garrett's choosing to punt in Texans territory in overtime doing the same. Against the Bills, it was Nathan Peterman doing Nathan Peterman things (room service pick six to Johnathan Joseph) that handed the win to the Texans.
Yeah, the Texans had climbed out of an 0-3 hole on the season to even their record at 3-3, but the wins didn't inspire confidence in fans nor media. Well, finally, on Sunday, Texan fans got a win that they SHOULD be happy with, a 20-7 grind-it-out, workmanlike victory over the Jaguars in Jacksonville to seize sole possession of first place in the AFC South.
Indeed, the Texans are now 4-3, and suddenly riding a wave of momentum with Brock Osweiler coming to town this coming Thursday night at NRG Stadium. The ultimate magnitude of each win is often determined by what transpires in the subsequent weeks following the win. If the Texans finish the season 6-10, and/or the Jags wind up becoming the Jags of pre-2017 again, then Sunday's win won't feel quite as big retroactively as it does right now.
However, in the moment on Sunday, considering the Texans were underdogs, considering that the Jags outscored the Texans 74-14 last season, considering Bill O'Brien's sketchy approval rating, and considering Deshaun Watson took a goddamn bus to Jacksonville because his bruised lung couldn't handle the altitude of a flight — well, hell, this feels like it's in the conversation for O'Brien's biggest win as Texans head coach.
Let's examine some winners and losers from Sunday's game, and the weekend at large....
4. Brad Seely
While the hand wringing will continue over the Texans' offense looking a lot more like the ones Brian Hoyer skippered in 2015 than the ones that Deshaun Watson led in six games last season, there are parts of this team that are considerably better than they've been at any time during O'Brien's tenure as head coach. Chief among those improved areas are Brad Seely's special teams units. It's quite a liberating feeling when, with the Texans punting, you're not concerned about a 25-yard return putting the opposition in Texans territory every time. And I really don't miss Eddie Pleasant's weekly holding penalties. The coverage units for this team are legit. The two specialists, Trevor Daniel and Ka'imi Fairbairn, continue to gain confidence, and both have been weapons during this four game surge. It took four seasons, but O'Brien appears to have finally fixed special teams. A new general manager helps, too.
3. Andre Hal
It was awesome when Andre Hal announced to the media a few weeks ago that he was cancer free, having beaten Hodgkins lymphoma via holistic methods, and eschewing the more debilitating chemotherapy treatments that some choose. The goal was simple — Andre Hal wanted to beat cancer and return to play football. Not in two seasons, not next season, Hal wanted to play THIS season. On Saturday, the Texans activated Andre Hal, and on Sunday, he was in the starting lineup. The box score says Andre Hal finished with just one solo tackle, but his appearance in that game was about so much mroe than that. It's great to have Andre Hal back on this team.
So just minutes before kickoff on Sunday, a story surfaced on Twitter (reported by The Athletic's Jay Glazer, and I would include the tweet, but Glazer, for some reason, has blocked me on Twitter) that Deshaun Watson had taken a 12-hour bus ride to Jacksonville, due to the potential complications that flying could cause with his reportedly bruised lung. It sounds like Watson was in one of those plush, private buses, with all the bells and whistles, including a large television to study film. It's much more fun, though, to picture Watson having to take Greyhound for 12 hours, and sitting down next to some unkempt, overly talkative tourist making small talk and asking him "So, what do you do?" In all seriousness, while Watson's stats in this game were VERY pedestrian (12/24 for 139 yards and a touchdown pass), I feel like he took a big step forward in his maturation, protecting the football and protecting his body from big hits. Kudos to the offensive line, who had arguably their best game of the season, paving the way for 100 yards rushing from Lamar Miller, and holding Jacksonville's defense to one sack.
1. Jadeveon Clowney
Yes, Jacksonville had one sack as a team, which is half of Clowney's output for the afternoon. It was another one of those "holy crap, he's the best player on the field" performances from Clowney, as he registered seven tackles, two sacks, two tackles for loss, four QB hits, and he also recovered the fumble that led to the Texans' first points of the game. Clowney is playing like someone seeking a $100 million contract extension, and more importantly, Whitney Mercilus had his best game of the season (four tackles, a sack, a couple forced fumbles), meaning we are finally seeing the three headed monster of Clowney/Mercilus/Watt that we'd all envisioned four seasons ago, when Clowney was drafted.
4. Titan nation
Three weeks ago, Tennessee Titans head coach (and former Texans defensive coordinator) Mike Vrabel was the toast of the league, having upset the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles to move to 3-1 on the season.....
Now, three weeks later, it turns out that beating the Eagles isn't THAT big a deal (they're 3-4 on the season), and Vrabel's last three weeks have seen the Titans lose to the Bills, get shut out by the Ravens, and on Sunday in London, Vrabel's decision to try a two point conversion for the win over the Chargers backfired when Marcus Mariota sailed a pass out the back of the end zone. The Titans are now 3-4, and scare exactly nobody. Life comes at you pretty fast.
3. Chris Sale
Shifting gears to non-football losers for a moment — first, Red Sox starting pitcher Chris Sale, who was declared ill during the ALCS, to where he missed the Game 5 start against the Astros (unfortunately, for the Astros, who were mowed down by an unconscious David Price). As it turns out, here was what caused Sale's illness:
Chris Sale says he’s feeling better.— Jason Mastrodonato (@JMastrodonato) October 20, 2018
Asked what caused the stomach illness, he said, “I had irritation from a belly button ring. Constantly taking it in and out caused irritation. Doctors and nurses at MGH were awesome. Things happen. You handle them. And keep moving forward.”
So, if you're keeping score at home, Sale has now been the guy who rebelled against his former team (the White Sox) choosing to ban a 12-year-old son of a teammate from the clubhouse, he's been the guy who used scissors to destroy throwback uniforms he didn't want to wear, and now he's the guy who missed an ALCS start with a belly button ring issue. True pro.
2. Rajon Rondo
Speaking of true pros, Rajon Rondo is a professional disease, plain and simple. In Saturday night's Rockets win over the Lakers, Rondo, Chris Paul, and Brandon Ingram were all ejected for fighting. Part of the dust up was caused, according to Paul, by Rondo spitting on Paul. Some people didn't believe Paul's assertion (as if Rondo isn't enough of a loon to spit on somebody), but the video below pretty much proves it....
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The suspensions for the incident went as follows — Ingram four games, Rondo three games, Paul two games. Three games for spitting on someone feels about 15 games shy of what it should be.
1. Bortles believers
Blake Bortles (6/12 for 61 yards, two fumbles) was abjectly terrible on Sunday, and that was a gigantic reason the Jaguars lost the game. When you're being replaced by Cody Kessler because Kessler is viewed as a possible "spark," your lot in the NFL is pretty dire. However, the self-inflicted, long-term damage the Jaguars have caused by choosing to ride with Bortles goes so far beyond Sunday's game. The Jaguars had three years of piss poor Bortles performance off of which to base their personnel decisions in the 2017 draft, and with the fourth overall pick, they chose oft-injured RB Leonard Fournette with Pat Mahomes and Deshaun Watson on the board. Then, when Bortles wasn't even one of the dozen or so most important players behind their run to the AFC title game in 2017, they chose to extend and pay him like he was. This is the path the Jags have chosen, and the foundation is cracking. This team is on the verge of implosion, and their quarterback isn't remotely capable of stopping it. All in all, great news if you're a Texans fan!
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.