With the passing of their team's founder and late owner, Bob McNair, as the backdrop last night, the Houston Texans went out and played as close to a complete game as they've played all season in a 34-17 victory over the Tennessee Titans, functionally ending any chance the Titans have of competing for an AFC South crown in 2018.
In a way, the game was the perfect metaphor for McNair himself, who sustained his fair share of hardships during his formative years as a businessman, knocked down and beaten a few times, before becoming a self-made billionaire and miraculously bringing NFL football to Houston. I don't know if there was anything miraculous about this win, but the Texans did dig themselves a 10-0 hole, before stomping the Titans into the ground by the middle of the third quarter. Somewhere, McNair was looking down and loving this night.
As a practical matter, the Texans extended their winning streak to eight games, a franchise record and a league-record streak for a team after starting 0-3, and they maintained their two game lead over the Colts in the division. With an 8-3 record, and a VERY manageable schedule the rest of the way, they remain very much in the hunt for a first round bye in the playoffs.
For the Texans, there were contributions from all three phases — offense, defense, and special teams — and there were winners and losers. Let's take a look.
4. Lamar Miller
I know there have been a few times this season where we've said "Now, THAT is the Lamar Miller that the Texans thought they were getting when they signed him in 2016." He's been very good, at times, this season. However, on Monday night, I really mean it — THAT is the Lamar Miller the Texans thought they were signing in 2016. On Monday, Miller was an explosive game changer, as his 97-yard touchdown run in the second quarter extended the game to a two score lead for the first time all night, and finally brought what had been a somewhat tepid crowd to a fever pitch. Miller finished with 162 yards on just 12 carries, and was just as important on the team's first touchdown drive (runs of 21, 12, and 15 yards) to answer the Titans' 10-0 lead, as he was in sprinting down the sidelines on the 97 yard jaunt. By the way, his 97 yard touchdown was the longest run in the league since 2014, which at that time was a 97-yard run by... Miami Dolphin Lamar Miller!
3. Demaryius Thomas
Last week, the newly acquired Thomas had just one target and zero catches for the entire game against the Washington Redskins. Bill O'Brien made no secret throughout the week that getting Thomas involved early would be a priority, and he was true to his word, as Thomas scored the first touchdown of the game. He finished with four catches for what looks like a pedestrian yardage total (38 yards), but they were impactful catches, including two touchdowns and a short catch for a first down on third and short in the second half, when the Texans were playing keep-away from the Titans. This game was a good example of what Thomas can bring to the table for this team.
2. Christian Covington
If there's one area of this team where you have to be playing at a very high level just to be active on game day, it's the defensive line, where the numbers are deep. Earlier in the season, Christian Covington found himself injured and then out of the mix, inactive on game day for at least a week or two. Well, if Monday is any indication, Covington should find himself in the regular rotation for the foreseeable future, as the defensive tackle out of Rice had a career night, highlighted by 2.5 sacks of Marcus Mariota. The entire defensive front was stout against the run and overall very solid in pressuring Mariota (six sacks overall).
1. McNair memories
While they came out of the gate slowly, credit the Texans for ultimately channeling all of the energy of the evening into positive performance. With the passing of Bob McNair on Friday, along with a strange week schedule-wise due to the holidays and a Monday night game, the Texans showed a nice degree of adaptability, and once they steadied the ship, they showed a killer instinct their late owner would have been proud of. After the team's most well rounded win of the season, Bill O'Brien gave the game ball to McNair's son, Cal, who will be taking the reins of the organization after his father's passing. Here is the video of the team's locker room celebration:
4. Marcus Mariota
You'd look at Mariota's box score for this game, and if you put your hand over the final score, you'd think he was the quarterback of the team that won by 17 points — 22 of 23, 303 yards, two TD passes, and no turnovers. Statistically, that's a phenomenal night. Now, let's get to the nuance of all of it, because THAT tells a different story. Aside from the two busted coverages that turned into long Titan touchdowns, Mariota's completions were largely a slew of innocuous checkdown throws in unfavorable down and distance situations that were set up by sacks, penalties, and an overall inability of the Titans to run the football. The stats are what they are. The fact of the matter is that Mariota still isn't a guy who scares the opposition in crucial situations, and his football IQ is suspect, at best. To wit, one underrated key play was his scrambling out of bounds for a four-yard gain on 1st and 25 at the end of the first half. The Texans had two timeouts left, and he essentially provided them with a third timeout with that decision, as the Texans got the ball back (after using their two timeouts on defense), and went down and got a field goal to extend their lead to 24-10 at the half.
3. Titans' "offensive line of the future"
Remember a couple years ago when Titans tackles Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin were going to be the bookends of the offensive line that would steamroll the rest of the AFC South for years and years to come? Yeah, me too! Well, the Texans handled that offensive line just fine throughout the evening, notching six sacks (nine QB hits) in the passing game, and if you remove a 39 yard end around by Corey Davis (not really a conventional run), the Texans held the Titans run game to 66 yards on 22 carries. The pivotal play of the game was a Texans' stop of a Titans' 4th and 1 at the Texans' three yard line. (Thank you for handing it off to the tight end, Matt LaFleur!) If that's the offensive line of the future, I'm glad that the Texans are part of that future for two games every season.
2. Keke Coutee's hamstring
In a night of practically all good news for the Texans, there was one troubling bit of news, as rookie wide receiver Keke Coutee left the game with a hamstring injury. (At this point, Coutee's hamstring getting injured has happened enough times to where I just keep a copy of that sentence in my "Drafts" folder for the next time it happens.) This is beyond problematic now for the Texans, as with Will Fuller now out for the season, they need the element that Coutee brings to the passing game. While it's not Fuller's top end speed, Coutee's repertoire of working the middle of the field with run-after-catch plays is crucial for when the Texans are trying to win REALLY important games in January.
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1. Titans 2018 season
Maybe the best part about this victory is that the Titans' 2018 season, which was looking so promising early on with a win over the Eagles, and even looked promising once again a couple weeks ago with a blowout of the New England Patriots, is now functionally over, and the Texans got to execute the whacking of their season themselves. Yeah, mathematically the Titans are still in the wild card hunt, I suppose. However, that's a crowded field that includes at least three teams — the Ravens, Colts, and Broncos — that are playing much better football right now, and all of those teams are duking it out for the same, solitary playoff spot, the sixth seed in the AFC. So thanks for playing, Tennessee. Hope you enjoyed all of Mike Vrabel's little victory speeches in the first few weeks of the season. As a Texan fan, they're funny to go back and watch now....
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.