Beyond the Boxscore
Beware Patriots, Ravens & Steelers: Texans suddenly poised to steal the AFC'sNo. 1 seed and inside Super Bowl track
If you think these Houston Texans have caught this city by surprise, imagine what it must be like for the rest of the NFL.
Suddenly, if you haven't been paying attention — and when have Bill Belichick, Rex Ryan, Mike Tomlin and the rest of the AFC's haughty leaders ever truly the felt the need to closely monitor what was going on in Houston — the Texans are beating teams by the type of margins you're only supposed to see in college football week after week after week. This is the NFL, parity's playground, where everyone has talent and that talent's supposed to be too closely matched to produce consistent blowouts.
By here are the Texans — yes, the Texans — winning by 34, 10, 18 and 28 points in four consecutive Sundays. Allowing an average of 11 points per game in the run. Not just winning, but absolutely dominating.
Suddenly, Gary Kubiak's team is tied for the best record in the entire AFC, matching Pittsburgh's 7-3 mark. And the Texans hold the tiebreaker, having battered and beaten Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers 17-10 in Week Four. The Texans aren't just chasing the No. 1 seed in the AFC and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, they are currently in the driver's seat.
"I see this team going 13-3, 12-4 easy," CBS studio analyst Shannon Sharpe said after the Texans big played Tampa Bay to death in a 37-9 win Sunday. He's talking about the Texans, yes the Texans.
This is what happens when you have an ultra-talented second receiving option who can sprint by two defensive backs when everyone is thinking run on the first play of the game and turn a long throw into an 80-yard touchdown. This is what happens when you have the most exciting running back in the league, one who is capable of turning the shortest and seemingly most harmless of throws into a 78-yard catch-and-run (and run) touchdown.
Gary Kubiak's team is tied for the best record in the entire AFC, matching Pittsburgh's 7-3 mark. And the Texans hold the tiebreaker, having battered and beaten the Steelers 17-10.
Mostly, this is what happens when you have a defense behind that offense that collects four sacks, three interceptions and a fumble recovery.
"We're just playing our system," Texans quarterback Matt Schaub said in a 610 AM radio interview after the game. "Just taking what they give us."
What the AFC may be giving the Texans is the No. 1 seed and a clear path to taking a legitimate run at the Super Bowl.
Last week, I wrote that this Houston team had shown itself to be among the NFL's elite teams this season, one capable of making a surprise Super Bowl run. Well, you might have to drop the surprise part.
Oh sure, the Ravens, who pretty much manhandled the Texans in a 29-14 game in Baltimore in October, will have something to say about the No. 1 seed and more. Jim Harbaugh's team is 6-3, only behind the Texans because it had its bye week earlier. Baltimore does hold the tiebreaker over Houston, but then again the Ravens cannot seem to stop losing to teams like the Seattle Seahawks. Forget just Joe Flacco, Ray Lewis' defense might not be consistent enough for Baltimore to be No. 1 — its two wins over Pittsburgh regardless.
The Cincinnati Bengals, also 6-3 and if anything gaining even more respect for how toughly they played Pittsburgh in a loss Sunday, will get a chance to take a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Texans with a game in Cincinnati on Dec. 11. And you only a fool would dismiss either the New England Patriots (6-3) or the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Still, look what the Texans have ahead of them. Their final six games of the regular season — after next week's perfectly-timed bye — are against opponents which are a combined 12 games under .500 (22-34). Of course, playing the 2-7 Carolina Panthers and the 0-10 Indianapolis Colts in that stretch skews those numbers.
There is not a dominant NFL team among the six though. In other words, no team that looks as good as the Texans. Yes, the Texans.
"Really, they came in as advertised," Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman said after a 15-for-33, 170-yard, three-interception struggle against Wade Phillips' Miracle Defense. "A really good defense."
Yes, teams now look at a game against Houston with trepidation. They get freaked when they see Texans on the schedule. Holy Houston.
Offense Steps Up
In truth, Phillips' defense had been largely carrying the Texans with Andre Johnson out. Schaub and Co. didn't look quite so explosive with No. 80 standing on the sidelines with a towel on his shoulders. Until this week. Until, everyone knew it would be only one more game until Johnson would be back (the lifeline wide receiver's expected to return against Jacksonville on Nov. 27 as CultureMap first reported on Nov. 6).
The Bucs saw every bit of that bang-bang offense. It's too bad that pirate ship cannon at Raymond James Stadium doesn't sound after opponent scores. Surely, the Florida fans who bothered to show would have welcomed the added entertainment.
For if ever a play deserved a series of cannon blasts, it was Jacoby Jones' 80-yard touchdown catch on the game's first play from scrimmage. Or Foster's no-he-didn't, make-five-Bucs-miss bit of 78-yard touchdown magic.
"In this league, you're paid to make plays," Foster said afterwards in a national on-field interview with CBS. You think Foster's looking forward to becoming a free agent next year?
Don't begrudge the $525,000-man any extra motivation. It's all working in the Texans favor.
It's too bad that pirate ship cannon at Raymond James Stadium doesn't sound after opponent scores. Surely, the Florida fans who bothered to show would have welcomed the added entertainment.
"I'm telling you, the Texans, they're the real deal," Boomer Esiason said on CBS.
Even Houston's injury woes seem to be coming up a little milder. When tight end Owen Daniels — the second most important target in the downfield passing game besides Johnson — hyperextended his left knee against the Bucs, he was able to return and play. At least briefly.
Daniels went as far as flashing a thumbs up at a sideline reporter. It's all good feelings and smiles for these Texans.
"Absolutely," Foster said when asked in jest by CBS if Johnson is going to be able to crack Houston's lineup when he returns Thanksgiving weekend. "He's the best player in the NFL right now.
"When he comes back it's going to be fun."
Watch Arian Foster turn a short pass into a long touchdown: