If NFL games were played in and decided by the crux of the volume stats in a box score, how well a team moved the football and how well they kept the opposition from moving, and there were no acknowledgment of the pesky little nuance of the ultimate outcome of drives, the Houston Texans would be in the conversation as one of the best teams in football.
After all, for yet another week, Deshaun Watson piled up yardage through the air on Sunday night, 375 yards in all, and the defense held Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott, one week removed from 240 yards of total offense against the Lions, to 84 yards rushing and receiving, combined. If you knew only those facts, you'd say the Texans beat the Cowboys by three touchdowns on Sunday night, not just by three points.
Alas, the Texans managed four trips inside the Dallas five yard line that netted 21, 20, and 19 yard field goals by Ka'imi Fairbairn, and somehow, in a game where they racked up 462 yards of offense and Watson averaged 8.5 yards per pass attempt, the Texans needed an overtime field goal and questionable decisions from the opposing head coach (for the second straight week) to escape with a 19-16 overtime win over the Cowboys on Sunday night.
Look, I feel almost whiny complaining about HOW the Texans won on a day after they closed the gap to one game on the Jaguars and the Titans in the division, but the inability to punch the ball in from in close on Sunday night was a little embarrassing, and if Bill O'Brien's postgame answer as to why it was that way is any indicator — when asked about it, he said "I don't know" — I'm not sure it gets fixed any time soon.
More on all that in a minute, because at the end of the day, the Texans did find a way to win. Sure, it was only by a field goal in overtime at home against a clearly inferior foe, but hey, they were actually LOSING games like this a couple weeks ago, so we will take the W, I suppose. Time for a few winners and losers.....
4. Ka'imi Fairbairn fantasy owners
They say, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So when the Texans run a dozen or so plays inside the opposition's five yard line that net just three short field goals, someone has to happy, right? Well, yes! That someone would be the fortunate folks, like ME, who picked up Ka'imi Fairbairn in fantasy football knowing that this team's offensive line cannot really move the opposing defensive front enough to gain one yard at the goal line. Enjoy those 13 points, people! It won my game for me!
3. Alfred Blue
Alfred Blue is in his fifth season as a Houston Texan, and I think I've tried to get him cut during each of the last four of those seasons. I feel kind of bad, as we interviewed Blue on the postgame show last night, and he couldn't be a nicer guy! However, his two-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust each carry has been a frustrating watch the last few years. However, I will issue this statement on Blue — as a backup who can step in in a pinch on short notice, like he did last night, and get you 119 total yards, I'm fine with Blue. In this offense, With Watson as the head of the snake, the running backs are always going to be relegated to second class citizenry, so just hold onto the ball and take the yards that are there (scarce as they may be with this offensive line). That's what Blue did last night.
2. Kareem Jackson
Before the season, the message seemed pretty clear that Kareem Jackson's time in Houston was on its last legs, based on the behavior of the front office. They gave Kevin Johnson his fifth year option, signed Aaron Colvin and Tyrann Mathieu, re-signed Johnathan Joseph, and drafted Justin Reid. Jackson looked like an odd man out. It's not an overstatement, though, to say that Jackson has been one of their three or four most valuable defenders, especially considering he's had to slide back and forth between cornerback and safety, with all of the injuries to other guys. Last night, Jackson had five tackles, one tackle for loss, and two passes defended, including a near pick six on the last play of regulation. .
1. DeAndre Hopkins
Great players make outcome-affecting plays, and for the second straight week, the Texans' game winning field goal was set up by a DeAndre Hopkins atcha and run in overtime. The play against the Colts last week was a basic slant pattern that Hopkins took for 24 yards. The play last night was a difficult catch (that Hopkins, of course, made look easy), and the run after catch was spectacular, with Hopkins spinning and twirling his way into field goal range. When you consider everything that comes with being a receiver, a football player, and a teammate, Hopkins (9 catches, 101 yards) is the best receiver in football and best player on this team.
4. Ezekiel Elliott
Good job, Romeo Crennel! Just one week after his defense allowed over 460 yards passing to a receiving corps that was led by a bunch of guys who will be working at Circle K next year, the Texans' defensive coordinator was the architect of a defense that held Ezekiel Elliott in check, as the Pro Bowl RB gained just 84 total yards on 27 touches. Aside from three big passing plays that set up each of the Cowboys' three field goals, and a touchdown allowed on a short field after a Hopkins fumble, the Cowboys gained next to nothing on the Texans defense, and it's fair to wonder if their shutting down Elliott impacted this next bullet point....
3. Jason Garrett
In Dallas today, the topic of conversation HAS to be Garrett's decision to punt the ball in overtime on 4th and 1 at the Texans' 42 yard line. If any team in the NFL was built to get 4th and 1 at the opposing 42 yard line, it's the Dallas Cowboys. I mean, THAT MOMENT is why you use multiple first round picks on offensive linemen and the fourth overall pick on a running back, is it not? In fact, I would argue that there's really no point in any NFL game, regardless of situation, where you DON'T go for it on 4th and 1 at the opposing 42 yard line. Garrett chose to do it last night, and he is still waiting to get the back back.
2. Whitney Mercilus
Yet another week where I must ask my readers —- if you've seen Whitney Mercilus, please contact the Texans! They need him! His name is not in this box score I'm looking at! (Oh, what's that? He played in 81 percent of the snaps? Oh dear...)
1. Red zone execution and play calling
Ok, aside from "Hey, the Texans beat the Cowboys! YAY US!", the biggest story coming out of last night's game was the Texans almost comical play calling and execution inside the Cowboys' five yard line. It started out okay, as the Texans built on last week's success on goal-to-go situations (they converted all three of those situations into TDs against the Colts last week) with a one-yard shovel pass for a touchdown to Keke Coutee. After that, it became a tragic comedy. Here were the drives:
1st and GOAL at DAL 6, 7:33 left in 2Q
1st-Goal at 6 - Alfred Blue -3 yard run
2nd-Goal at 9 - Dehsaun Watson 2 yard scramble (shotgun)
3rd-Goal at 7 - Deshaun Watson incomplete pass to Tyler Ervin (shotgun)
4th-Goal at 7 - Ka'imi Fairbairn 20 yard FG
1st and GOAL at DAL 9, 0:29 left in 2Q
1st-Goal at 9 - Deshaun Watson incomplete to Ryan Griffin (shotgun)
2nd-Goal at 9 - Deshaun Watson incomplete to DeAndre Hopkins (shotgun)
3rd-Goal at 9 - Deshaun Watson complete to Hopkins 8 yards (shotgun)
4th-Goal at 1 - Deshaun Watson scramble for -1 yard (shotgun)
1st and GOAL at DAL 4, 5:47 left in 3Q
1st-Goal at 4 - Deshaun Watson incomplete to DeAndre Hopkins (shotgun)
2nd-Goal at 4 - Deshaun Watson 1 yard designed run to left (shotgun)
3rd-Goal at 3 - Deshaun Watson incomplete to Ryan Griffin (shotgun)
4th-Goal at 3 - Ka'imi Fairbairn 21 yard FG
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1st and GOAL at DAL 1, 10:01 left in 4Q
1st-Goal at 1 - Alfred Blue rush, no gain (shotgun)
2nd-Goal at 1 - Deshaun Watson QB sneak, no gain
3rd-Goal at 1 - Deshaun Watson incomplete to Ryan Griffin (shotgun)
4th-Goal at 1 - Ka'imi Fairbairn 19 yard FG
If you're keeping track, that's thirteen non-FG plays, 11 of which were run out of shotgun, and at least three of which STILL almost got Deshaun Watson killed. It was so bad that, by the last drive where a pass interference of Hopkins set up 1st and goal at the 1, the reaction in the press box wasn't "YES! They're at the one yard line," but instead was "Oh crap, how can they possibly punch it in here??" FROM THE ONE YARD LINE. And sadly, we were right.
Happily, though, the Texans won, but the storm clouds of red zone inefficiency loom over this team as they try to creep back into the AFC South conversation.
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.