Driving into NRG Stadium on Sunday morning, I tried to visualize what the starting lineups would be for the Texans against the Chargers. Then, I started a conversation with myself out loud because my brain started to hurt with all the machinations that were flowing in my head.
"Okay, so Morrissey will be at center. Max at one guard. Will Toner be the other one? Will McCray get back? Does Dwumfour start at defensive tackle? He's never played in an NFL game. No Cooks, so who's at WR? How does the secondary get pulled together?"
The conversation I was having with myself just kept coming up with more questions than answers and it turned my brain into mush by the time I pulled into the Teal Lot to walk into the building. Then, the game started and everything seemingly fell right into place as the Texans played their most complete game of the season. Not just in the 2021 season, in YEARS. My favorite holiday game occurred five years ago when the Texans clinched the AFC South in a win over the Bengals. That was almost more of a sigh of relief. Today? That W over the Chargers was sheer joy. When Texans DB Tavierre Thomas ran into the end zone with the first pick six of his career to essentially salt this one away, I felt more joy in NRG Stadium than I'd felt in a long, long time. Shoot, I ran around losing my mind, letting all the pain of a tough season leave my body, as I know many fans did as well. I heard "No one saw this coming" about a thousand times on the way home so here's how it happened, my Harris Hits from a 41-29 win over the potentially playoff bound Chargers (maybe not now).
Where to begin, where to begin…well, let's start here. The run game. Throughout the season, Texans head coach David Culley was asked about the run game, or lack thereof, at every single press conference and every single press availability. It just seemed as if this was just going to be a run game that could pick up two to three yards a pop on first and second down to set up manageable third down situations for Texans QB Davis Mills. That's why the Texans had so much success on 18 third downs in Jacksonville last week. They ended up converting on ten of them, in large part because the run game had done just enough to set up third and seven or less throughout the game. I flew home from Jacksonville thinking that it's not the prettiest thing in the world, but it was effective enough. Then, during the week, Tytus Howard and Justin Britt joined Lane Taylor and Justin McCray on the COVID list and I wasn't even sure who was going to start where on the offensive line on Sunday. But, when the game started Geron Christian Sr., Cole Toner, Jimmy Morrissey, Max Scharping and Charlie Heck truly imposed their will on the Chargers and RB Rex Burkhead made their work even easier with his north/south running style. The first play of the game was a Burkhead nine yard run that was just a sign of things to come in this win.
On 2nd and six later in the drive, fellow RB Royce Freeman had the most impressive run any Texans RB has had in the 2021 season. He burst through the first level, broke a tackle or three and sprinted into the end zone. Unfortunately, around the time he was celebrating in the end zone, I looked back and saw a flag that negated the beautiful 18-yard touchdown run. The ball was backed up to the 25-yard line for 2nd and 13. I didn't even have time to start worrying about how the Texans' offense could overcome that flag before Burkhead hit the gas on the left side, got to the sideline and outraced the defense for a 25-yard touchdown. It's the longest TD run of the season, one play after what was the longest TD run of the season was called back. Either way, it set the tone for the entire day as Burkhead put up a number many thought was completely unreachable in 2021 - 22 carries for 149 yards, 6.8 ypc and two rushing touchdowns. It had been nearly a year, in fact one day short of a full calendar year, since a Texan ran for 100 yards in a game - David Johnson's 128 yards against the Cincinnati Bengals. Burkhead's 149 rushing yards were the most for any Texans RB in more than two years - Carlos Hyde ran for 160 yards against Jacksonville in London in week 9 of the 2019 season. Freeman tacked on 34 yards and how can we forget Tremon Smith's seven yard run on a toss sweep in the red zone? I LOVED seeing #24 get the rock on the toss sweep. That triumvirate combined for 190 yards on 35 carries, averaging 5.4 yards per carry. With an offensive line combination NO ONE saw coming, handling business in front of them, the running backs made sweet music all day long. It was SO fun to watch.
It was a day of firsts, I hope that I don't forget one.
DB Jonathan Owens had the first interception of his career. He also had the first fumble recovery of his career in his first start at NRG Stadium.
DB Tavierre Thomas had the first pick six of his career
RB Rex Burkhead had the first 100-yard rushing performance of the 2021 season
WR Nico Collins caught the first touchdown of his career
QB Davis Mills had his first win as a starting QB at NRG Stadium
DT Michael Dwumfour had the first sack of his career…AND the first start of his career…AND wore a uni in an NFL regular season game (and showed he more than belonged on that field)
DE Demone Harris started for the first time in his career.
G Cole Toner started for the first time as a Texan
DB/RET/RB Tremon Smith had never taken an offensive snap, so he took the first offensive snap of his career and had the first rushing attempt of his career. Smith also became the first Texans player I can remember to take snaps on offense, defense and special teams in the same game.
K Dominic Eberle nailed the first field goal in his career from 51-yards, mind you, on the first field goal attempt of his career in the second quarter.
The Texans scored 40+ points for the first time in the 2021 season. It was the most points the Texans have scored since Thanksgiving Day 2020 in Detroit when the Texans beat the Lions 41-25. The last time the Texans scored more points in a game was Founder's Day October 6th, 2019 in a 53-32 win over the Atlanta Falcons. In fact, over the last FIVE seasons, the Texans scored more than the 41 points they scored today just three times (2019 - Atlanta, 2018 - Miami, 2017 - Tennessee - all took place at NRG Stadium).
I want to hit a few of those firsts. I'll start with Owens. He started for the first time last week against Jacksonville and was in complete and total control. Knowing that he hadn't started at all and that there was no Justin Reid in the back end as a safety net, no pun, well, yes, pun intended, I watched him throughout the game to make sure the communication stayed solid against the Jaguars. It certainly did and he played an excellent game. Deepi Sidhu and I had a chance to do the weekly Players' Show with the man affectionately known as JO and we had a blast. Then, with more players going on the COVID list in the secondary, it looked as if Owens would start again, this time, though, next to Reid. He was outstanding again and it was his interception before the end of the half that potentially turned the tide of the game. Chargers QB Justin Herbert faked a zone run to his left and booted on a half roll back to his right. He had a wheel route up the far sideline, but wanted to hit WR Josh Palmer on the seam route. However, Herbert either never saw Owens or thought he could drive it into his rookie receiver for the touchdown. That was bad…for Herbert. Owens darted in front of Palmer and stole the pass away from the Chargers to keep them off the board at the end of the half.
Following Owens' pick, the Texans offense couldn't really get out of neutral from the shadow of their own goal line. However, on a 2nd and 14 play from their own two yard line, the Texans got the best Holiday gift of the day when the Chargers were called for defensive holding, which resulted in an automatic first down. It only moved the ball to the Texans' nine yard line but QB Davis Mills and WR Phillip Dorsett saw to it that they didn't stay backed up too long. Mills dropped a dime DEEP down the sideline and Dorsett made a wonderful grab to move the ball out to the Texans' 45-yard line. Three plays later, Mills had 1st and ten on the Chargers 41-yard line with just 33 seconds remaining. He would need only six seconds to drop another dime on WR Chris Conley who roasted a Chargers DB for a momentum changing bomb TD just before halftime. Those two throws were matched by the receivers' brilliant catches and the game changed.
When the Texans signed DT Michael Dwumfour to the practice squad a few months ago, I made sure to do some due diligence on him, but given the depth on the defensive line, I didn't think at the time that he would be able to crack the eight or nine man rotation on the 53-man roster. Then, COVID and Omicron hit like a Tommy Hearns overhand right and the rookie from Rutgers/Michigan stepped into the starting lineup. Imagine that. He's never played in an NFL regular season game and now he's asked, and tasked, with starting against one of the most potent offenses in the NFL. He more than held his own in the middle, but on one drive, he really made an impact, which included his first half sack. He shared it with DL Chris Smith, who has shown some serious pass rush skills. Either way, back to Dwumfour…I focused on him on that particular play. Well, I was more so watching the interior when I saw Dwumfour completely destroy a Chargers guard with a club/rip move to get clear to Herbert. He wrapped up Herbert low while Smith finished up high for a sack at a key time in the game. He wasn't going to turn into Aaron Donald or Cameon Heyward on day one, but man, I really liked the potential I saw from Dwumfour.
After starting weeks three through eight, QB Davis Mills stepped back into the starting lineup against the Seattle Seahawks two weeks ago. Since then, he's gone 2-1 as a starting QB, completed 63.3% (or better) of his passes in each game, threw five touchdowns with just one interception and registered a 93.2, 92.2 and 130.6 rating in each of those three games. For the second time in the 2021 season at NRG Stadium, Mills registered a 130+ rating (141 against the Patriots in week five). The progress is clearly seen quantitatively, but it's even more so evident in the control he has of the offense and the throws he's made the past three weeks. Sunday was a perfect example. He made at least five throws that he wouldn't have made in his first run of starts back in September/October. The throw he made to WR Chris Moore on the over route was bold and on point and Moore made a BRILLIANT catch to make Mills' decision pay off. He threw a couple of times to receivers well before they made the cut on a route. He hit one to fellow rookie TE Brevin Jordan on the absolute money on third down. He drilled the glance route (on a run play?) to Nico Collins for the rookie WR's first touchdown. The two throws before the end of the half - one to Dorsett, TD to Conley?? As good as anything he's done this year. I'm going to say what I've said to a few people that messaged me after the game - not going to put him in Canton, but if you're not impressed with his PROGRESS, then you just don't WANT to see him making/taking strides.
Speaking of strides, here's what rookies did yesterday.
QB Davis Mills - 21 of 27 for 254 yards, two TD, 130.6 rating
WR Nico Collins - three receptions for 60 yards and his first career touchdown
TE Brevin Jordan - leading receiver with four receptions for 56 yards, all four went for first downs
LB Garret Wallow - four tackles, started next to Neville Hewitt
DT Michael Dwumfour - first NFL game action, three tackles, one QB hit, ½ QB sack
C Jimmy Morrissey - helped lead the run game to 190 rushing yards, OL yielded just one sack.
A few quick notes on the way out.
Having S Justin Reid on the field did my heart some good on Sunday. He had at least two strikes that I can remember that left a mark. He also had seven tackles.
DL DeMarcus Walker has always been an intriguing guy in my eyes, given his inside/outside abilities. He's even more intriguing when he strips the ball away from running backs as he did to Chargers RB Justin Jackson in the fourth quarter.
TE Brevin Jordan is playing with even more confidence and juice. He had four catches as I noted above, three of them came on third down, and all went for first downs.
DL Chris Smith just sacks quarterbacks. That's it. Last week a sack, this week he shared a sack with Dwumfour.
DB Tavierre Thomas may not be the defense's MVP this year, but he's pretty darn close over the last half of the season. I've heard coaches refer to guys as "football players." It means a coach doesn't have the time to mention all the great things about a player, so he/she encapsulates a player's impact with one phrase "he's just a football player." I know when I hear that, dude is a baller and Thomas is that and then some.
The four possessions for the Texans in the fourth quarter
13 plays, 70 yards, Rex Burkhead one yard TD
Eight plays, 40 yards, 30-yard Eberle field goal
Seven plays, 72 yards, Mills to Collins 13-yard touchdown
One play - VICTORY formation.
That's how to close out a game.
By the way, had Nico Collins' knee hit the ground before he scored, the game would've ended 27-23. But, that one counted and so did two others to make it 41-29. The game total went from 50 to 70 in 2:32, if that mattered to anyone.
I thought about this on the way home - check the starting lineup for the Texans yesterday. Of the 22 starters, six were rookies (four offense, two defense). Four players started for the Texans for the first time (Cole Toner, DeMarcus Walker, Michael Dwumour and Demone Harris). Four more players were starting for just the second time in their career (Ross Blacklock, Garret Wallow, Jonathan Owens and Tremon Smith). The Texans starting defensive line had a combined seven starts in their careers prior to yesterday, five of which belonged to Walker during his days in Denver. What a tremendous effort from an unlikely bunch.
That's going to do it for an outstanding day at NRG Stadium. When Tavierre Thomas jumped in front of a Justin Herbert pass and headed for the South end zone, I absolutely lost it. So did every single Texans fan in the building. After I finally got it back together, I looked around. I just listened. I watched. Fans were as excited as I've seen them in some time. Players went berserk on the sidelines. It was pure joy. It was a game very few wearing the bullhead logo will forget. COVID ravaged roster. Rookies and inexperience all over the gameday roster. And, the coaching staff and that roster painted an absolute masterpiece. It won't top 2016 against the Bengals, but as far as holiday memories go, it's up there for me for sure. Happy Holidays, everyone!!
Watch the Houston Texans take on the Tennessee Titans at NRG Stadium on January 9. Kickoff is at noon.Click here for tickets.