Many people have asked me over the season what's my most memorable or favorite moment of 2016. I often answer either one the Indianapolis games or the Cincinnati win on Christmas Eve, but in the back of my mind, I kept thinking we haven't seen it yet. Saturday afternoon though, in NRG Stadium, may have been exactly what I envisioned. A dominant performance by the No. 1 defense in the NFL. A classic show put on by one of the best receivers in the league. A redemptive performance by a quarterback that felt the pressure of the entire city on his shoulders all year long. A coaching effort by a head coach and his staff that deserves major kudos. Transcendent, memorable plays. What a day it was. Here are my observations from the Texans 27-14 win over the Raiders.
- It hit me at times during the past few weeks, but really struck me in the locker room after the game, how much the players on defense enjoy playing alongside one another. Young guys. Veterans. Stars. Role players. The thing about that unit is how it's handled adversity and injuries all season long. It was a gut punch and a half when J.J. Watt was lost for the season, but the front seven seemed to never miss a beat. When Kevin Johnson played his guts out against Indianapolis, the future looked so bright. Then, he was lost to an injury, but the secondary adjusted and picked up its play across the board. Each player on this defense has missed a game or more at some point in the season, except for Benardrick McKinney, yet this group is as cohesive and dominant as ever.
- It was interesting to see the reaction nationally to the performance of Jadeveon Clowney on Saturday. Having the national stage to themselves, the Texans earned kudos from many, and national writers fawned all over Clowney, especially for his three tip, juggling interception. However, if they'd been watching closely this season, they'd have seen plenty of physically impressive, game-changing plays. I can't tell you how many times I saw a headline heralding his "coming out party", but he's been doing it all year.
- To my initial point, though, when Clowney went on NFL Network to chat with Deion Sanders after the game, he had Johnathan Joseph and Whitney Mercilus join him too. He's happy he's playing well, no doubt, but he, like his defensive mates, know it's not all about him and he truly enjoys playing next to his defensive dudes.
- To wit, take what Mercilus said to me after the game. I asked him what was key to him getting to Raiders quarterback Connor Cook as often as he did. He responded, "the guys in the back", meaning the secondary. He took over against Raiders tackles Austin Howard and Menelik Watson, but he gave all the credit to the secondary.
- Speaking of Mercilus, with five sacks in his last two playoff performances, he tied for the most sacks in Texans' playoff history. Brooks Reed, Watt and now Mercilus. He had three tackles for a loss, two sacks and seven tackles and completely took over at times during the game.
- I loved how Romeo Crennel continued to move all of his chess pieces all over the board to maximize his defensive front's efficiency. Watching the Raiders outstanding offensive line throughout the game, there was some frustration for certain in that huddle at times, confusion at others.
- The offensive play of the game had to be Brock Osweiler's brilliant toss to DeAndre Hopkins down the sideline for a 38-yard gain. That's the throw that we've been looking for all year long and it's was a beauty.
- I was standing just a few feet away from Hopkins when he made that catch, but the Raiders didn't think he caught it, including cornerback David Amerson. He immediately signaled to his sideline to throw the challenge flag. But, they couldn't because it was within two minutes of the end of the half. A review had to come from the booth. So, Raiders coach Jack Del Rio called a timeout to allow for more review time for the booth. During the timeout, Hopkins looked at me to ask if he caught it. I saw him drag his right foot to make the catch so I told him that he got the right foot down with the toe drag. He gave the thumbs up and was ready to make another play shortly thereafter.
- Right after the catch before the timeout, he lined right back up on the line of scrimmage and waited for his teammates to get down the field to run another play. He signaled over to the sideline that he wanted the rock again. He knew that Amerson was going to be frustrated but, mostly, he just knew that he could beat him on a fade route.
- Two plays later, Osweiler threw a 100 mph fastball on the slant after play action to Hopkins for the touchdown. I mean, that was a bullet. That one was juiced. But, that's what you have to do when the field is condensed like it is when you have the ball inside the 10-yard line.
- When Osweiler scrambled on the naked boot in the fourth quarter, he made the right decision to not throw it and run it in for a touchdown. Ryan Griffin was open for a split second, but Khalil Mack was making his way into Griffin's lap, so Osweiler did the right thing and ran. He made a subtle move on linebacker Cory James and walked into the end zone. It must have felt like a 1,000 pounds off his shoulders and it was evident when he celebrated with his teammates in the end zone.
- My wife, my daughter and my daughter's friend were sitting on the front row right where Osweiler scored (thanks Trey and John). My daughter was amazed at how tall Osweiler was and how he ran that fast. It was a cool memory for them to have been sitting there and for all those fans that have seen so few touchdowns in that corner of the end zone this year, it was a treat.
- Linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Brian Cushing combined for 11 tackles and a tackle for a loss. They did a tremendous job corralling Raiders running back/Swiss Army knife Jalen Richard after the catch, something that worried me a bit heading into this matchup. In Mexico City, Richard was a major key in the passing game. But, those two played nearly every single rep together and it showed in the performance.
- How good was Houston against the run vs. the Raiders in 2016? In two games, the Raiders ran for 94 yards on 33 carries. Against the Broncos back in Week 9, the Raiders ran for 218 yards on 43 carries.
- Cornerback A.J. Bouye didn't allow a completion against him all day. In fact, in the second half, the Raiders completely avoided Bouye altogether. He added another game-closing interception, as he did in Indianapolis in 2015. The best part, though, was sliding down and celebrating with his teammates right afterward. Of course, the celebration was a bit muted because Mercilus was injured briefly (he was okay and sprinted off the field). Either way, it was a national stage for Bouye, like Clowney, to show what the hype's been all about.
- After the game in Mexico City, I talked to right tackle Chris Clark, who was pretty disappointed with the loss to the Raiders. I remember telling him that they were going to see the Raiders again (it was more wishful thinking on my part) and they'd get them that time. The thing about it was that Clark and the offensive line did a great job on Mack and the Raiders defensive front the first time. Clark and company did an even better job on them this time. No sacks, no quarterback hits, 123 rushing yards. Mission accomplished.
- Running back Lamar Miller was pumped to play in his first playoff game and he had his legs under him after three weeks of rest. He didn't have a typical Miller game, but he controlled the ball, and the clock, with his 31 tough-sledding carries.
- The story in the backfield, though, may have been Jonathan Grimes, who ran four times for 30 yards. He picked up a couple of first downs on draws on third down that were huge for ball control and eating up the clock in the second half. But, the play of the game, okay, the most underrated play of the game, was just after a Nick Novak field goal on the ensuing kickoff. Raiders return man Jalen Richard bobbled the kickoff and it ended up in the hands of Taiwan Jones. The Raiders speedy cornerback then turned on the jets and started up the field. It appeared he had a lot of room to run but Grimes snatched his ankles and got him down before he could do any more damage. The defense then stopped the Raiders on a three-and-out. Some way, somehow, Grimes consistently makes plays on offense or in special teams to help this team win.
- When the Texans play the Patriots on Saturday night, it's clear they'll see a different offense from the first matchup due in large part to tight ends C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin. In that game, Fiedorowicz was targeted one time. He has been targeted five times or more in every game since. Against Oakland, he and Griffin combined for five catches and all of those came in the first half. The Texans didn't throw it much in the second half but when they have thrown it this season, Fiedorowicz and Griffin have been key targets.
- I hated seeing Tyler Ervin's punt-return touchdown get called back because of the running into the punter flag on Mercilus. Imagine if Ervin and the punt return group can get rolling and provide a boost for the offense and the entire team.
- That said, the fumbles have got to be eliminated. Ervin had one yesterday and Eddie Pleasant saved the day by picking it up and racing for 12 yards. Ervin had a muff on kickoff return against the Raiders and one against the Patriots. Ervin is a dynamo with the ball in his hands but he's got to secure it first and then make something happen.
- Furthermore, the coverage on kicks and punts must improve. Jalen Richard singlehandedly set up the first touchdown for the Raiders when he broke through the tackle attempt of Brennan Scarlett and squirted down the sideline for a 37-yard gain. The defense fell prey to the Raiders running game for the only time all day as Murray then carried it three times for 29 yards and a touchdown.
But, the good thing is that these things can be worked on this week because there's more practice time and another game. Another playoff game. Another shot to silence the critics. Another 60 minutes with one another. Another chance to fight. Twenty four teams will be at home watching and your Texans will be teeing it up once again. It's not where they want to be, but it's the next step to get there. See y'all next week from the road!
Check out shots from the locker room after the Texans defeated the Raiders in the AFC Wild Card game.