Texans With a Step Forward

Two weeks ago the Houston Texans’ franchise had a watershed moment as they finally earned a victory against their nemesis (well, one of their nemeses) in New England.  It was one of those games that you look back on even years later as one of the significant turning points in franchise history.

And then in Week 14, at home against a downtrodden Denver team, they undid almost all of the good of the New England win.  They were simply slapped around at home by a 5-win Bronco team.  The 38-24 final doesn’t do justice to the domination, as Denver led at one point by the improbable score of 38-3.

That game, coming in a crucial part of the season, makes the Texans a hard team to trust.  Now, as they travelled to Nashville to play a Tennessee team that had won four in a row and looked like they were putting all their pieces together, it was easy to see the division slipping from their hands and falling to the Titans.

And, so, of course, last Sunday they reminded us again of how good they can be with a mostly crisp, 24-21 road victory over their nearest division rival (gamebook) (summary).  Make no mistake about it, this does give Houston a sizeable edge in the division – all the more important as it is unlikely that a wildcard team will come from the AFC South.

But nothing for this team is ever as simple as it seems.  Even in victory, there is a nagging sense that this team isn’t quite home free.

They had taken a 14-0 lead into the half, and seemed to rattle Ryan Tannehill with unexpected pressure.  Tannehill, who had led the Titan resurgence, came into the event with the NFL’s top passer rating (118.5) and leading the league in yards per attempted pass (9.82) and yards per completion (13.4).  He was also second in completion percentage (73.4) and touchdown percentage (7.4).  But he went frustrated into the locker room, having completed just 7 of 16 passes with one interception tossed on a first-and-goal play from the five (although in fairness to Ryan, that pass did ricochet off of intended receiver Anthony Firkser).  His first-half rating was just 45.6.

In the second half, while outscoring Houston 21-10, Ryan played as he had in his previous seven starts, completing 15 of 20 passes (75%), two of them for touchdowns and no interceptions.  In the third and fourth quarters, his rating was a more expected 129.6.  After a very nervous first half, the Titans of the second half looked like they were the better team.

The scenario that now allows Tennessee to win the division is fairly unlikely, and includes Houston losing in Tampa Bay while the Titans knock off New Orleans before they re-convene this rivalry in Houston in Week 17 (where the Titans must also prevail).  Even with their division title all but assured, though, this is a team that hasn’t yet earned my trust.

Bills Back in the Playoffs

Buffalo is another team that I have difficulty trusting.  Nothing about Josh Allen suggests to me yet that he can carry a team deep into the playoffs.  The Bills ride a surprising defense that I have finally bought into.  Through 15 weeks, they rank third in all of football (and second in points allowed), so the defense here is formidable.  But if they find themselves in a position where they have to come from behind late against a playoff caliber team, I still don’t believe they can do it.

In their 17-10 Sunday night conquest of Pittsburgh (gamebook) (summary), they were not put in that position.  A running game that ground out 130 tough yards and a defense that created 5 turnovers saw to that.  With his running game being inhaled by the Bill defense, Pittsburgh’s undrafted rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges was savaged by the cunning Buffalo defense to the tune of 4 interceptions – all on deep throws.  In winning his first three starts, Hodges had been exceptional at taking the short throws that defenses were giving him.  On Sunday night, he did hit on a couple of deep throws, but mostly got in trouble when trying to go up the field.

As to Pittsburgh’s running attack, the final numbers were bad (51 yards on 15 rushes – 3.4 per carry), but deceptive.  In actuality, the running game performed even worse than the numbers suggest.  The 15 rushes include two carries from James Conner that totaled 32 yards.  Remove those runs, and Pittsburgh’s other 13 carries netted just 19 yards.

The win not only put Buffalo into the playoffs, it guaranteed that they will finish as no worse than the fifth seed.  If the playoff standings hold where they are, then the Wildcard round will feature Buffalo going into Houston.

Speaking of Turnovers

In Week 14, the Los Angeles Chargers put everything together and played probably their second best game of the season as they thrashed Jacksonville 45-10.  (Their best game of the year was their Week Nine, 26-11 domination of Green Bay).

Against the Jags, LA rolled up 525 yards and committed no turnovers for the first time in four games.  On Sunday, against Minnesota, they reverted to form, coughing the ball up seven times.  It was the fifth time this season that the Chargers have given the ball away at least three times.  Needless to say, they have lost all five – most recently, now, to Minnesota by a 39-10 count (gamebook) (summary).  Twenty-three of the Vikings points came off the turnovers, and another field goal was set up by a blocked punt.  Self-inflicted wounds continue to be the theme in LA.

12-4 last year, with a win in the wildcard round, the Chargers are now 5-9.

For the Vikings, on the other hand, the game was a convincing warmup for their Monday Night contest against Green Bay.  Although the two teams go into the contest separated by just one game, the Packers currently hold a double-tie-breaker on the Vikings.  They currently hold a head-to-head advantage, having beaten Minnesota the first time these two teams met.  Even if the Vikings even the season series at home on Monday, they will still trail in the second tie-breaker – division record.  The Packers have yet to lose inside the division (4-0), while the Vikings are just 2-2 in the division (two wins over Detroit and losses to Green Bay and Chicago).

For the Vikings to switch playoff positions with the Packers, they will have to win both of their last two games (they finish at home against the Bears) while Green Bay loses both of their last two (they finish in Detroit).

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