Texans win their second division title in a row
Running the ball well and playing good defense has been the Texans identity over the last couple seasons and those strengths carried them again on Sunday to a division clinching win. It was nowhere near a perfect game for the Texans but hopefully having things to work on will keep them motivated as they draw closer to clinching home field advantage. With two games remaining, the Texans need only one win to secure home field advantage and they will be favored in both of those remaining games.
Looking at the big picture, this weekend couldn't have worked out any better for the Texans. The only real threat to pass them for home field advantage, the New England Patriots, lost and have been virtually taken out of that race. The Ravens also lost, almost assuredly meaning they will be the 4th or 5th seed facing the Colts with the winner coming to Houston in round two of the playoffs. The Texans will be big favorites against both the Ravens and Colts but more importantly, it keeps the Broncos and Patriots on the other side of the bracket. Denver and New England are the only two teams in the AFC capable of coming into Houston and beating the Texans in the AFC title game, so not having to potentially face both of them is a huge plus to their Super Bowl chances.
Not only did the Texans run the ball well, but their best runs of the game came in the 4th quarter when the Colts knew exactly what was coming. More than helping ice away an important game, it had to give a confidence boost to a team that hasn't run the ball as effectively this season. The Texans rushed for 5.5 yards per carry as a team on Sunday led by Arian Foster who rushed for a season high 165 yards. Running the ball that efficiently should cure the inconsistency that they have shown recently.
However, Matt Schaub still isn't playing at a very high level. He's normally very accurate but has left several throws too high or behind his target in the last two games and still seems to have issues reading the defense. Last week he was ignoring wide open underneath routes in favor of forcing it deep into coverage and cost the Texans at least 10 points. This week, on the second play of the game Schaub completed a pass to Andre Johnson for 52 yards, but it should have been a touchdown. Every fan knows that Schaub doesn't have a cannon for a right arm, but had he thrown the ball on time, he wouldn't have had to throw it as far and maybe Johnson wouldn't have had to break stride and make a difficult catch in traffic. That drive stalled out and they settled for a field goal; Schaub's poor/late throw cost them four points. I still think the Texans can win with Schaub if the running game is effective and the defense plays well, but I've lost some confidence in him.
Can't forget to mention that Andre Johnson reached another milestone on Sunday, becoming the third fastest player in NFL history to pass 11,000 receiving yards behind Jerry Rice and Torry Holt. The health and production from Johnson was a slight concern coming into the season, but he's rebounded from the injuries that cut his last two seasons short and had one of the best seasons of his career. He's a class act, I'm glad he found his old form.
I'm not sure if I'm any more confident in this defense after this game, but I do know that J.J. Watt can cover up a lot of flaws. The MVP candidate had three sacks, four other tackles for no gain or a loss, and a forced fumble that took seven points off the board for the Colts who were on the one yard line. MVP voters favor offensive players because they put points up on the board and that's easier for them to evaluate than the impact of a defensive player, but ignoring Watt's "value" would be foolish. He's taking points off the board with forced fumbles and batted passes that turn into interceptions, he's putting opposing offenses in 3rd in long situations with sacks and by juking blockers to tackle runners in the backfield. Even when he doesn't get the sack, he's putting pressure on the quarterback, causing them to just throw the ball away instead of trying to complete a pass like Andrew Luck had to do several times on Sunday. I won't go so far as to say they're a one man defensive unit, but the dominance of Watt does cover up a lot of flaws.
One of those flaws was their run defense and more specifically sloppy tackling. I've said several times this season that the Texans rank in rushing yards allowed was inflated (now fifth) because they were blowing teams out early in the season and forcing them to abandon the run in the second half. Stats that point that out: the Texans rank 12th in yards per carry allowed, but 1st in fewest opponent rushing attempts.The Texans rank in yards per carry allowed is the more accurate rank of their rush defense in my opinion. They're an above average rush defense, but by no means great. Rookie Vick Ballad ran for 105 yards on 5.8 yards per carry on Sunday; what do you think Adrian Peterson will do this week?
Special Teams: B-
This would have been a letter lower, but the great play by Bryan Braman bailed the unit out. Braman has played really well this year and should get consideration for the Pro-Bowl as a special teams player. He's played so well that I wouldn't mind seeing him get some time in place of Bradie James who is simply too slow to cover anybody.
The Texans continue to get called for penalties on what feels like almost every return. Not only is Martin not doing much on most returns, but whatever he does get is being cancelled out by silly, avoidable penalties. Special teams mistakes are costing them field position, killer for an offense struggling with consistency. In the kicking game both Donnie Jones and Shayne Graham had a terrible kick during the game. Jones shanked a punt for only 29 yards in the second quarter, giving the Colts the ball at the Houston 38 yard line, but he got bailed out when Watt forced a fumble. Graham continues to struggle and missed one field goal attempt wide by a good 15 yards and barely squeezed in his last field goal from 33 yards out that put them up 12 points. I know, he did make four of his five kicks, but the last one would have bounced off the post had it been from two yards further out and I don't trust him at all past 45 yards. If I had to make a list of three things that could cost them in the playoffs, issues with the kicking game would definitely be on that list.