AFC. South. Champs.
Say that out loud a few 100 times. I have a few thousand times and it still doesn't seem real. It doesn't even seem real to me and I was one of a few, VERY few, that felt it was even possible to turn 2-5 into something, anything, positive. Winning the AFC South? That was going to take some WORK.
And, that's what it took to get the first hat of the year. On Sunday, the Texans finished the deal. Here are my observations from the division-winning day.
- This week in practice, there was a glaring omission on Friday, but we weren't sure whether it would make an appearance on Sunday or not. That dadgum black bulb cast on J.J. Watt's left hand was gone. On Sunday, it took all of 51 seconds to realize how much the cast did in fact hold Watt back. On 3rd-and-seven, he blew past Sam Young, the replacement for injured Jeremy Parnell, for his first of three sacks on the day. Then, he showed the hand to the crowd as if to say he and his five fingers were going to be here all day long.
- And, Watt didn't even lead the team in sacks on the day, believe it or not. That honor went to Whitney Mercilus. He finished with 3.5 sacks which gave him 12 on the season. He spun, used his windshield wiper move and then powered through Sam Young with one of the best bull rushes I can ever remember him using. He and Watt partied at the quarterback all day long.
- Watching Whitney rush the quarterback in comparison to earlier in his career is the difference in a kid riding a bike and an adult on a race bike. He's improved his technique so much and has added multiple tools (i.e pass rush moves) to get free to the quarterback. Just watch his first sack vs. Jaguars LT Luke Joeckel and how he used his hands seamlessly and violently to get free. Then, he hunted down Bortles for the sack. Impressive.
- The Jaguars decided to go one-on-one for the most part with the Texans rushers throughout the day and paid an enormous price. If there's anything teams learned throughout this year facing this team, it's pretty simple...you want time to throw. You better max protect or protect with six, at a minimum, and double one of the pass rushers. Just one. The Jaguars didn't do that at all.
- How good was the Texans defense? Consider this stat...the Texans generated 56 yards in losses on eight sacks. The Jaguars rushed for 32 yards on the day. That's how good the Texans were rushing the quarterback and stopping the run on Sunday.
- The first offensive play of the game was a long gain waiting to happen. OC George Godsey isolated DE Andre Branch in man coverage on RB Akeem Hunt and sent the rookie from Purdue up the sideline on a wheel route. Not surprisingly, Hunt had three steps on Branch but Hunt couldn't find the pass from his quarterback in the air. QB Brian Hoyer dropped a dime in the vicinity but Hunt couldn't see it. Had he caught that, Jaguars S Josh Evans was the only guy between Hunt and the end zone. I'd have bet on Hunt vs. Evans in open space.
- That, eventually, set up a third down on the first drive. Ughhhh, that's one I don't ever want to see again. The OL didn't find the blitzers. One OL got knocked on his keister. I only mention it because I haven't seen that much from them in a while. They definitely got it right after that drive and that sort of play didn't happen again.
- Over the past three weeks, three AFC South division foes ran for 50 (Indianapolis), 30 (Tenn) and 32 yards (Jacksonville). When Bill O'Brien talked about stopping the run and that being the first thing this defense needs to do, this was why.
- No one has talked about him lately, but I will. None of the last three teams have found a way to block Vince Wilfork effectively. I'm not sure that the Jaguars ever truly moved him in the run game. He's been a rarely talked about asset in this defense but that man is instrumental to this team's success stopping the run for certain.
- Speaking of Wilfork, I don't think I've seen this happen but the Jaguars screwed up a pass protection and left Denard Robinson on Wilfork. One-on-one. I can't imagine that was the plan and it turned out exactly like you expected. #RobinsonFlattened
- Then, two plays later the Jaguars slid their protection AWAY from Watt and gave him a full-on, wide open, dead sprint to the Blake Bortles. Luckily for Bortles, he knew to get rid of the ball on time or else he was going to be a bug on a windshield.
I love watching the dynamic between Brian Cushing and Benardrick McKinney, the team's starting inside linebackers. Early in the second quarter, as soon as the Jaguars came to the line of scrimmage, Cushing got everyone aligned. Then, based on what he saw, he got McKinney's attention and then pointed at the exact spot where the ball was headed. On the snap, both linebackers sprinted to the spot and lo and behold, Cushing was 100% correct. The Jaguars ran a zone play to the McKinney's side and the former Mississippi State star made the tackle for no gain. What's interesting was that the Jaguars lined up with three tight ends to Cushing's side but Cushing pointed the opposite direction and he was dead on.
- Jags CB Davon House should've been flagged for a hold in the first quarter. That was a blatant miss by the ref, in fact, it was right in front of the ref. Bad miss.
- Okay, speaking of refs, here's what happened when Bill O'Brien lost his collective you know what. Apparently, OB asked the ref how many timeouts the Texans had at that time. The ref allegedly responded "you have two timeouts." So, after the catch and the first down late in the half, O'Brien called what was his last timeout. What threw everyone off was the fact that the Texans were charged an injury team timeout earlier in the half. That was why O'Brien asked the ref to make sure he only had one timeout left. But, the ref told him he had two. Shortly after O'Brien called the timeout, he was made alert to the fact that it was his last timeout. He flipped. Luckily, the Texans were still able to put three up on the board before the end of the half.
Texans players celebrated winning the AFC South Championship.
- I thought that was a massive storyline - getting a three-score lead and getting the ball to start the second half - but when I asked OB about putting three up on the board, I got THAT look. I've gotten it before and he looked like he was ready to wring my neck. But, I wasn't honestly asking about the refs. I thought it was huge to get a three-score lead heading into halftime. I think he may have thought I was stoking the fire a bit and he didn't have much to say about the field goal. I definitely wasn't poking the bear...not at that point for certain.
- Man, Max Bullough, Brian Peters and Akeem Dent all had big-time hits on special teams. These guys are fun to watch running down on kickoff and punt coverage. Bullough and Peters went high/low on Nick Marshall on the second kickoff of the game and Dent literally spun Marshall around on a kick return later in the game. I think he scared Marshall into not turning back around, honestly.
- The collision that cost Duane Brown the rest of his season was one of the most violent collisions I've seen on a football field. As soon as the play started, I noticed Duane was pulling to the opposite side, so I had my eyes affixed on him. I knew when Hayes Pullard and Brown collided that Duane was either woozy, out or got a stinger. Then, he attempted to get up and fell right back to the turf. My heart sank. I get to interview a player after the game if the Texans win and I made up my mind that I was going to interview Duane after the win on the field. Being the longest tenured Texan and a media darling, I knew he'd be perfect to talk about winning the AFC South after such a slow start in front of the home crowd. In the locker room, I went to tell him how much I loved watching him play but instead I got a little choked up talking to him and told him I loved him. I hope he didn't think it was weird.
- When asked about the team's running back situation over the past two months, I tried to not sugarcoat the situation saying that although there wasn't a true No. 1 guy, all four could make a significant impact on this offense before the end of the season. That was so true on Sunday. Jonathan Grimes scored two touchdowns. Alfred Blue ran for over 100 yards. Akeem Hunt had four touches for a combined 55 yards. Chris Polk didn't get a ton of touches today but he's had some good days in November and December. This quartet somehow found a way to give the offense value from the running back position.
- Grimes showed how valuable he is on third down on his touchdown. He aligned as a receiver and just ran to the flat. He beat Jonathan Cyprien to the flat, caught the rock and sprinted up the sideline for a touchdown. Simple, right? Well, his second touchdown was even simpler as he got a great block from Ben Jones that opened up a massive hole in the A gaps and Grimes walked in the end zone.
- The emergence of Jaelen Strong in the absence of Cecil Shorts (and yesterday for a while Nate Washington) has given the passing game a different and unique weapon from the slot. Many people have asked me as to whether Jaelen could play in the slot and I thought if given the chance, he might be a good fit at that spot. He's definite been lately for certain. He was targeted seven times and had six receptions for 56 yards including a key catch on the first scoring drive of the game.
- I rarely talk about kickers because I don't know their world. At all. But, I know when a kicker gives his team a pick-me-up and Nick Novak did that Sunday with his two 50+ yard field goals. He pushed another one just wide to the left. The two he did make were important but the one he made right before halftime was huge, in that it gave the Texans a three-score lead heading into the half.
Just quick thoughts to finish this up...
Kareem's pick six and Marc's call I'll remember for a long while.
Loved seeing Christian Covington getting the last sack of the game.
The 2015 rookie class has just continued to shine this year.
Brian Cushing has played as well as any MLB I've seen in Houston these past 10 weeks.
Quintin Demps might be the best in-season pickup this team made this year (and any other too).
I hate that Charles James can't/won't be a part of this playoff run.
I like the word "abyss" and that perfectly described the Texans start to the season. Thanks Marc.
The defense's sudden change stop after the Brian Hoyer interception was something this defense didn't do earlier in the season.
Alfred Blue's 65-yard run and Akeem Hunt's 58-yard screen catch and run were both called back for penalties. Add those numbers to the statsheet. Wow.
Oh man, my favorite moment on Sunday was when Blue flat ran over Jonathan Cyprien. The Jaguar safety is lucky there's no film session this week
During the second half, the receivers got set a whole lot quicker than in the first half.
The Playoffs start Saturday and your Texans are in them...which leads me to a final note.
- As I mentioned earlier, the Texans were in an abyss earlier in the season and it was a dark, dark place. But this coaching staff, this team and this organization were questioned for months. There were articles denoting the funeral for the 2015 season needed to happen in October. There were scribes that said it didn't matter when the Texans beat Tennessee in what some thought was a meaningless win for the team back in November. Talking heads called for everyone in the building to be fired. That's what happens when a team can't get right, for whatever reason.
But, a TEAM sticks together; it doesn't splinter. A TEAM finds answers. This team's funeral procession was canceled long ago as it gave way to a playoff life after Sunday's win over the Jaguars. No matter what happens on Saturday, the epitaph for this team when the season does end reads quite different than it did months ago. That's a credit to everyone in this organization. It's playoff time...and your Texans are still alive. Good feeling, huh?
Check out the snapshots from the Week 17 matchup between the Texans and Jaguars.