On Sunday afternoon, just minutes after the Houston Texans had finished off an inspired 24-21 victory over the red hot Tennessee Titans in Nashville, my Texans postgame cohost Clint Stoerner and I were trying to figure out this Texans team, a squad that can beat the New England Patriots fairly soundly one week and turn around to lose to the Denver Broncos at home the next.
Finally, we arrived at this conclusion — the Houston Texans' are consistent in their inconsistency. In other words, their range of performance has a gigantic variance, but generally speaking, you know when the clunkers are coming, and you know what comes the following week. The pattern that has developed with the Texans, beginning with Week 1 of this season is loss-win-win. That pattern has occurred four times, and is a win next week away from happening a fifth time.
It's the main reason that, on Friday, I picked the Texans to win this game. While the matchups dictated that there were perhaps more reasons to take the Titans, the Texans predictable emotional barometer coming off of a loss was powerful enough for me to ride that to predicting a Texans' win. So let's start there. With the Texans now 9-5 on the season and alone in first place in the AFC South, here are the winners and losers from Sunday's game....
Again, the most consistent, predictable thing about the Houston Texans this season has been when to expect the inconsistent performances. That's also made it easy to predict the week after games like Week 14's debacle against the Broncos. The Texans are now 8-0 following a loss going back to Week 4 of the 2018 season. They are also now 11-1 under Bill O'Brien following double digit losses the week before (in games where they are still mathematically alive for the postseason). What made this win so impressive was that this is the first win coming off a loss where the Texans had to go on the road. They were a three point underdog on Sunday and never trailed in this win. When the Titans fought back from a 14-0 deficit to tie the game in the fourth quarter, the Texans responded with two outstanding drives to take a 24-14 lead and eventually close out the game.
3. Justin Reid, red zone problem solver
The biggest play of the game, and quite frankly, what might end up being the biggest play of the season was this hit at the goal line by Justin Reid to jar a likely touchdown catch loose, and deflect into the arms of Whitney Mercilus who took the ball 86 yards the other way:
Whitney Mercilus (@Merci380) on his 86-yard pick set up by Justin Reid (@jreid_viii): “JReid made a great play as far as punching the ball out..I was trying to turn it into points but my hamstring snapped out on me..if Zach (@ZCunningham_LB) just gets a block I’m there (scores).” pic.twitter.com/TFaYljVgqq— Mark Berman (@MarkBermanFox26) December 16, 2019
Justin Reid has now made four huge, game altering plays around the goal line in the last two seasons. In addition to yesterday's pass break up, there was the tackle on the two point conversion to save the Week 2 win against the Jags, the forced fumble of Antonio Callaway on a long pass play last season versus Cleveland, and the 101 yard pick six that represented a 14 point swing against the Redskins in a 23-21 win in 2018. Justin Reid is doing all of this with a shoulder that is clearly banged up. Total stud.
2. Carlos Hyde
This was one of those Carlos Hyde games that Bill O'Brien, Establisher of the Run, sees in his dreams, in which Hyde gains 104 yards on 26 carries with a long run of just 11 yards. To Hyde's credit, while there no truly explosive plays in terms of yardage, he did run hard all afternoon, and generally kept the Texans in favorable down and distance situations. In the process, Hyde went over 1,000 yards in a season for the first time in his six year, journeyman career.
1. DeAndre Hopkins
The one area where the Texans had a big advantage on the matchup sheet was with their receivers against a depleted Titans secondary that was missing CB Malcolm Butler and CB Adoree Jackson. IT definitely helped having Will Fuller healthy and back in the lineup. Fuller himself had five catches for 64 yards (including a 31 yard shot downfield), Kenny Stills took advantage of being matched up with the Titans' third cornerback to the tune of two touchdown catches, but it was Hopkins making vintage Hopkins plays that swung the last two Texan scoring drives of the game, each drive inlacing a 35 yard, field position swinging catch by the All-Pro. Hopkins had four catches for 98 yards in the fourth quarter alone.
4. Texans' early game blues
Things were looking VERY positive for the Texans in trying to score their first touchdown on an opening drive since Week 9 of 2018, and then this happened....
Kenny Vaccaro out of nowhere with the Red Zone INTpic.twitter.com/b0zl9DmGDq— Safest Betting Sites (@SBS_Authority) December 15, 2019
So, now, here are the highly depressing opening drive numbers for the Houston Texans....
Houston Texans first drive blues update, Week 15 —— Sean Pendergast (@SeanTPendergast) December 15, 2019
14 opening drives
87 plays, 244 yards
And on and on....
They will try again next week, and maybe we get a Festivus Miracle!
3. Texans' late game management
First, let's credit the Texans once again for putting themselves in position to where this can be a point of criticism. When the Titans tied the game at 14-14 early in the fourth quarter, there would have been plenty of past Texans iterations that would have withered on the road. The Texans responded with a 75-yard drive for a touchdown, a four play-and-out defensive stand, and a 5:20 drive for a field goal to nab a two score lead. The problem was the 5:20 drive could have been a six minute drive at a time when the Texans dual goal should have been at least a field goal (CHECK) and burning as much clock as possible (NO CHECK). Specifically, on third and goal on that drive, with the Titans out of timeouts, Deshaun Watson rolled to his right and, instead of going down inbounds and keeping the clock churning, he threw the ball away out of the back of the end zone, stopping the clock with 3:26 to go. That mistake almost proved crucial, as it allowed the Titans to put together a quick touchdown drive on the front side of the two minute warning, and keeping their window of hope open unnecessarily longer. It's a small thing, but so preventable with a little game management focus.
2. Paul Kuharsky
Eventually, the Texans recovered the onside kick and burned the clock down to where they punted the ball to the Titans with under 30 seconds to go in the game. Return guy LeShaun Sims had what was probably an ill-advised return to the 11 yard line (when he could have let the ball bounce into the end zone for a touchback), and Nashville media member Paul Kuharsky decided to lead off with a question about this sequence to Titans head coach Mike Vrabel. It didn't go well...
Vrabel was asked about that last punt return for his first question and got a little bit feisty pic.twitter.com/XdJwDjNWeZ— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) December 15, 2019
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What a presser. Magnificent. pic.twitter.com/Sn06AcWBuD— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) December 15, 2019
Probably the most subtle way I've ever seen one man call another man an "idiot."
1. Tampa Bay in Week 16
So now, it's onto Tampa Bay for a short week, Saturday afternoon game for the Texans. If they win that game, they clinch the AFC South. If the Bucs happen to win, but the Titans lose on Sunday to the Saints, the Texans clinch the division. If the Bucs and Titans both win, then it's winner take all for the AFC South in Week 17. The good news for the Texans is that Bucs WR Chris Godwin left Sunday's game in Detroit with a hamstring injury, and it looks like he will miss next weekend's game. The Bucs are already without Mike Evans, their other 1,000 yard wide receiver, so for a somewhat shaky Texans secondary, this is great news.