HOUSTON — Yes, the Houston Texans earned the right to celebrate after a 29-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts Sunday at Reliant Stadium that nailed down a second consecutive AFC South championship. And the fact they did it with a 12-2 record makes it significant on several levels at a time when there’s so much parity in the NFL.
For openers, no team in Houston’s NFL history has ever been 12-2. The best the Oilers ever did in a season was 12-4 under Jack Pardee in 1993. High water mark for Bum Phillips’ Luv Ya Blue Oilers was 11-5 in both 1979 and 1980. Beyond that, you look around the NFL in 2012 and only the Atlanta Falcons can boast of being 12-2.
So this is a big deal and it’s been authored by a pretty darn good football team. The Texans have played through injuries to key players on their defense and twice bounced back from embarrassing defeats to win the following week. Matter of fact, after a 42-14 pounding by Green Bay, Houston rebounded with six consecutive victories, with three of those on the road.
Unfortunately, the lingering memory of the Texans is how they got manhandled by Green Bay and New England in prime-time games. Covering the point spread against a Colts team lead by a rookie quarterback won’t change that. The only thing that will is getting into the playoffs and beating either Denver and Payton Manning or the Patriots and Tom Brady.
Is Houston capable of doing that? Based on Sunday’s win against the Colts, probably not. Mostly this was a win the Texans desperately needed to rebuild their confidence after what happened Monday night in New England. It really didn’t prove much. But it was a must victory from the standpoint of keeping alive the chance to have home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
For that to happen, Houston most likely is going to have to defeat the suddenly surging Minnesota Vikings, and a human freight train named Adrian Peterson. Then it must go Indy and score another victory over a Colts team that had to be encouraged by how long it was able to hang around in a hostile environment at Reliant Stadium.
As comfortable as the final score looks, and as tidy as the numbers for Matt Schaub (23-of-31 for 261 yards, 1TD) Arian Foster (27 for 165) and Andre Johnson (11-for-151, 1TD) appear, the Texans didn’t look much like a team with a Super Bowl pedigree. A late drive to a field goal, fueled by 26 and 25 yards runs from Foster, skewed the final numbers considerably. But they don’t hide the fact this was a one- possession game into the fourth quarter.
At the risk of sounding like the Grinch who stole Christmas, there are some sobering points to be made about a game that shouldn’t have been in doubt as long as it was. Bear in mind those points must be made because Houston is a team with goals that stretch beyond AFC South champions. This is a team which can only look at a win like this as a stepping stone to better days which will require improved and more efficient play.
First of the points to be made is that despite rolling up 417 yards and having a 33:06-26:54 edge in time of possession, the Texans offense scored just one touchdown. After a three-yard TD pass from Schaub to Johnson with 4:51 left in the opening period, it was all field goals from Shayne Graham and a six-point blocked punt from Bryan Braman.
No way do you beat Denver or New England settling for field goals.
The next point to be made is that Houston probably doesn’t defeat the Colts without another monster defensive effort from J.J. Watt. In what was probably his greatest game at a pro, the relentless Watt had three sacks, 10 tackles, with six of them for losses, five quarterback pressures and a momentum changing forced fumble on the Texans’ one-yard-line in the second quarter.
For good measure, the too-good-to-be true stud from Wisconsin devoted a portion of his on-field post-game interview to remembering the victims of the Newtown, Conn. massacre.
Watt, however, showed no mercy toward Luck or the Colts defense in a display of defensive brilliance that brought him within three of the all-time NFL sack record and should have nailed down Defensive Player of the Year honors.
His most important play, without question, was forcing a first-and-goal fumble that Houston recovered when the score was 10-0. But he was a constant thorn nearly every time the Colts had the ball, was the catalyst in forcing Luck into a sub-par 13-of-27 afternoon that netted only 128 yards and was a major factor in the Colts converting only 1-of-8 third downs.
Houston’s overall defense, meanwhile, was pretty good from start to finish, except for a occasionally getting gashed between the tackles and a blown coverage that’s becoming all too familiar. Less than a minute after Braman’s blocked punt TD that seemingly put the Texans in control at 20-3, the Colts T.Y. Hilton looked like the first guy out to practice on a 61-yard touchdown pass with 1:07 left in the half.
It was an inexcusable blunder and the kind that would be crushing against the Broncos or Patriots, and it breathed life into a Colts team about to be broken. It was also the kind of breakdown Wade Phillips is going to have to get fixed, if Houston is going to play deep into January.
For now, however, the Texans are AFC South Champions and share the NFL’s best record with Atlanta. It’s a feat worth celebrating and deserves to be flaunted. But, as 15-1 Green Bay learned not so long ago, it guarantees nothing.
Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at rdwest@ usa.net.