Well, they had to get there eventually, didn't they? The Houston Texans, with Bill O'Brien as the head coach and Deshaun Watson as the franchise quarterback, had been too close too many times to getting a big road win over a good team, a good quarterback, or a great coach (or some combination of all three).
Close losses in New England, Seattle, Philadelphia, and just a couple weeks ago in New Orleans, begat feelings of impending doom on Sunday, as Philip Rivers drove the Chargers into Texans territory for what would have been a game tying (or game winning, if the Chargers went for two) touchdown. However, this time Romeo Crennel's defense held up, on the strength of a relentless pass rush, and some timely tight coverage in the secondary.
Finally, as Texans head coach, Bill O'Brien has a road win, over a good team with a future Hall of Fame quarterback, and now, with two home games against Carolina and Atlanta the next two weeks, a 4-1 record heading to Kansas City in Week 6 is very much in play. Good times! Let's break down what happened in the City of Angels yesterday, with winners and losers...
4. Pass rush
Welcome back, J.J. Watt! Like last season, when he went sack-less for the first two games, before breaking out with three sacks in Week 3, Watt put up a some numbers on Sunday, headlined by two sacks and five QB hits. Whitney Mercilus forced a turnover for the third consecutive game, as he is on an early pace to be named to his first Pro Bowl, and perhaps the most encouraging thing about the front seven was the pressure generated by non-Watt and non-Mercilus players — D.J. Reader (1.5 sacks, 3 QB hits), Benardrick McKinney (0.5 sack, 3 QB hits), and rookie Charles Omenihu (drew a huge holding penalty on the Chargers' final drive). Meanwhile, on the other side of the football....
3. Pass protections
The Texans continued to progress in protecting Deshaun Watson. With Tytus Howard moving from left guard to right tackle, and fellow rookie Max Scharping being inserted into the starting lineup at left guard, Bill O'Brien is fast forwarding this position group to where the future is now, with both highly drafted rookies now part of the starting quintet. For the game, Watson was only sacked twice, and hit just six times (although he took some heavy hits within those half dozen pressures). It's clear the identity of this team is going to be built around the playmaking skills of number four, so if the offensive line is going to excel in one area, they picked the right one on Sunday.
2. Tight ends
Sharing the wealth was the theme in the passing game, with DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, and Kenny Stills sharing the load at wide receiver, but it was the involvement of the two tight ends that really took the offense to the next level on Sunday. Collectively, Jordan Akins and Darren Fells combined for eight catches, 122 yards, and all three touchdowns in the passing game. Basically, the two of them were a statistical Gronkowski. It was nice to see, especially, Akins' 53-yard catch-and-run to put the Texans up 27-17 early in the fourth quarter.
1. Deshaun Watson
In the first quarter, it sure didn't look like Watson would end up on this side of the "Winners and Losers" ledger, with a panic play early on, an inadvertent backward spiking of an aborted screen play, that was recovered by the Chargers, and turned into seven points by Rivers three plays later. However, Watson weathered that storm, and was a maestro in the second half of this game, protecting the football, and leading the Texans to a 20-3 point differential after halftime. The Texans will go as far as Watson takes them, and the good news is that (a) he bounces back from in-game adversity as well as any athlete I've ever covered, and (b) he always has at least two or three "WOW" plays in him, plays in which his greatness singlehandedly cancels out whatever multiple mistakes his teammates might have made on that particular play. Deshaun Watson is awesome.
4. Antonio Brown
No, Antonio Brown didn't play in this game, nor will he be playing in any NFL games anytime soon. However, I feel compelled to mention him, because he finally pushed the envelope far enough for the ultra-tolerant New England Patriots to say "See ya later." Apparently, the slew of new, dysfunctional anecdotes in Robert Klemko's MMQB piece, along with the string of harassing text messages sent to a female artist whose AB story was chronicled in Klemko's piece, were enough for the Patriots to bail on this ill-advised experiment. The most interesting thing about this whole AB saga is that we finally got an answer to "How much chicanery and trouble can a truly great player get into before the entire league ultimately backs away?" The answer? A TON. It took Antonio Brown multiple lawsuits, sexual assault and rape allegations, a list of unpaid debts a mile long, frostbitten feet, helmet drama, and calling his GM a "cracker" for three teams to eventually unload him in a six month period. Incredible. Adios, scumbag.
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3. Johnathan Joseph
Back to the Texans, among the few rough spots for the Texans on the day was the play of Joseph, who was repeatedly sought out by Rivers in the passing game, and was covering Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen for a vast majority of his 13 catches for 183 yards. Hopefully, it's just one bad day, as Joseph isn't anywhere close to "Aaron Colvin territory," just in case that needs to be clarified for the handful of callers to our postgame radio show that seem to think the Texans should be cutting Joseph this week.
2. Kicking operation
The other rough patch for the Texans was in the kicking game, where Ka'imi Fairbairn missed a 56 yard field goal badly right before the half (which is not an easy kick, but still) and missed a PAT that would have given the Texans an 11 point lead. Earlier in the game, he almost missed another PAT. Some of the wonkiness of the kicking operation may have been because Fairbairn has a new holder, with brand new punter Bryan Anger taking over holding duties from the departed Trevor Daniel, but it would not shock me to see Bill O'Brien bring in a couple kickers this week just to take a look and apply some heat on Fairbairn, who's had the luxury of no training camp competition the last two years.
1. Chargers going Chargers
I gave out the Texans +3.5 as one of my best bets for this past weekend, in large part because, as dangerous as Philip Rivers is at quarterback, you can count on the Chargers making just enough mistakes to keep a good team hanging around in a game. Even when the Texans trailed by 10 points heading into the second half, I figured there would be a turning point or two when Rivers would make a crucial error. As it turned out, it was a fumble on 3rd and 4, with the Texans trailing 17-14 in the third quarter, that set the Texans up to take the lead for good. The bottom line is that the Chargers are a really talented team (even with the slew of injuries they were dealing with on Sunday) that you have to wait out, and if you're patient, eventually they will commit some self-inflicted wounds that open the door for victory. The Texans waited them out perfectly on Sunday, and now they head into Week 4 with a 2-1 record, a far cry from 2018, when they started 0-3.