DENVER — Everyone is going to remember the ear. Matt Schaub's mangled, bloody ear is the stuff of football legends, one of those images that defines a season no matter how much it makes this new-age, violence-phobic NFL cringe.
"Seriously?" defensive end Antonio Smith says in the visiting locker room at Mile High when told that Schaub lost a piece of his ear. "That's some Mike Tyson stuff."
It is — though J.J. Watt, the young defensive end whose known for creating a fair dose of mayhem on the field himself, sees it another way. For Watt, it's not about the ear. It's about a bloody Schaub scraping himself off the ground and demanding to get back into the game. It's about a quarterback — a quarterback, one of those pretty boys who Watt loves to drive batty — treating a missing ear with less worry than most of us would show toward a hangnail.
"That's a captain's move right there," Watt beams, breaking into his biggest grin of the postgame. "That's a big-time captain's move. That's what that is."
The Texans are the power playing without ego. Gary Kubiak's team seems to understand it's not about numbers.
A little chunk of missing ear is the symbol of the Texans' 31-25 statement win over the Denver Broncos. But it only begins to tell the story of how these Texans — not so long ago mocked by opponents who pushed them aside in the clutch — have emerged as the toughest team in the NFL.
Houston's now the only undefeated team in the AFC, 3-0 for the first time in franchise history, already two games up on the fellow expected AFC power New England Patriots (1-2) and Broncos (1-2) in the race for homefield advantage throughout the playoffs (and no, it's not too early to track that). But those numbers aren't why teams now fear facing the Texans.
With Patriots coach Bill Belichick absolutely losing it in Baltimore Sunday night, chasing down and grabbing an official after the Ravens' controversial last-second 31-30 win for all of America to see, the Texans suddenly look like the most steely team in the the league. It's not just that Belichick — who's arguably benefited from more big last-minute field goal wins than any coach in NFL history — couldn't handle being on the other side for once at all.
It is also how he seemingly childishly punished Wes Welker for daring not to agree to a contract on the Patriots terms in the first two games of the season. That ego play is as big a reason as any that New England only has one win at this point.
If the emperor hasn't lost all his clothes in Foxboro, he's certainly down to one tattered hoodie.
Now, the Texans are the power playing without ego. Gary Kubiak's team seems to understand it's not about numbers. Not even when Schaub is throwing for four touchdowns and three game-shifting completions of more than 45 yards. Not even when Watt is racking up two and half sacks against Peyton Manning, the quarterback who used to be impossible to sack.
"That's a captain's move right there," Watt says of Schaub shrugging off a missing piece of ear. "That's a big-time captain's move."
Instead, it's about moments. The type of moments that win big games.
It's about Andre Johnson going up to Schaub before the Texans' final drive and apologizing for "playing like shit." The Greatest Texan Ever is pleading with Schaub to not give up him as the quarterback looks back at him, almost not quite sure if he should believe his ears (hey, he is missing part of one).
But even if you're not 100 percent sure why he's upset, when one of the best receivers in football begs you for a chance with the game on the line, you get him the damn ball.
So moments later, with the Texans clinging to that 31-25 lead, facing a third-and-5 and the prospect of giving the football back to a Manning who's already dropped two fourth-quarter touchdown passes on the Texans heads, Schaub only looks one way. To No. 80.
Johnson beats all-pro Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey with a quick in-and-out move and he's sprinting down the edge for a 12-yard gain.
Later, going over the sequence in the locker room, the most stoic of Texans cracks a smile. "Matt gave me a chance," Johnson says.
Manning never gets another legitimate one. No. 18's left to take over for the final time with only 20 seconds left thanks to Johnson's all-guts-out first down.
That's a winning moment.
A Bad Man's League
And what about Arian Foster running for 105 yards against one of the NFL's better run defenses and caring less — almost seeming delighted really — when he's asked about everyone but himself in the postgame? Or Brian Cushing absolutely refusing to let the Broncos jump out to more than a 5-0 lead when everything seems to be falling apart around the defense in the first quarter and then stalking out of the locker room after it's over, a man in an all-black suit (tie included) likely annoyed that the Texans didn't win by 20?
That's how you become the toughest team in the NFL. Moment by moment by moment.
Or Lestar Jean, the young receiver, breaking free for a 46-yard catch to set up Houston's essential last touchdown?
The Texans now have a roster full of moment makers. That's how you become the toughest team in the NFL. Moment by moment by moment.
And yeah . . . well, it doesn't hurt to lose a piece of ear either.
"To come back from that, from all those hits he took, without even really blinking — that's why Matt Schaub is our quarterback," left tackle Duane Brown says. "That's why he's elite.
"Best quarterback in the league in my opinion."
Best is always debatable. But it's awfully hard to argue Matt Schaub's not the toughest quarterback in the NFL on this Monday morning. And you almost get the feeling that one would mean even more to No. 8.
"It's funny because just the other week, I was kidding (Schaub) about how quarterbacks don't ever get hit," Foster laughs. "I was on him about quarterbacks never having to take really hard hits. Then this game . . . unsportsmanlike penalties, getting hit all over the place.
"I went up to him after the game and told him, 'You've got all my respect, brother.' "
The toughest team in the NFL pushes each other, even as they have each other's backs. It's not easy being the baddest crew on the block. It's certainly often not even close to pretty.
But you're probably going to like where it brings you.