Game-by-Game Predictions for Houston Texans 2013 Schedule
At this point, we know the actors, but when they will actually appear onstage remains to set.
As far as the Houston Texans are concerned, they have their usual assortment of AFC South rivals in Jacksonville, Tennessee and Indianapolis. For the other 10 games of the season, they play the Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots at home. Their road schedule is comprised of the San Diego Chargers, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens.
The Texans re-signed their big three free agents during the 2012 regular season when they inked RB Arian Foster, QB Matt Schaub and LT Duane Brown to new deals. Their offseason losses might consist of former starters WR Kevin Walter, NT Shaun Cody, RG Antoine Caldwell and OLB Connor Barwin.
At least one significant addition to the roster is expected in the form of a game-breaking wide receiver, as Andre Johnson, lacking a dangerous option lined up opposite him, will be headed into his 11th NFL season. It could be an underutilized backup like the New York Jet’s Chaz Schilens who, at 6’4, 225 lbs, has the size head coach Gary Kubiak covets.
My money is on a veteran like unrestricted free agent Devery Henderson of the New Orleans Saints. He will be 31 when the season starts, but still possesses the breakaway speed the Texans offense has been lacking.
So here is one view on how the next season might unfold for the defending AFC South Champions.
Indianapolis Colts at Reliant Stadium
The loss of of UFA RT Winston Justice curtails the development of Andrew Luck in his sophomore season. WR Donnie Avery also signs elsewhere, with the emergence of T.Y Hilton as the perfect complement to Reggie Wayne. But in today's NFL, three good receivers are a necessity.
Aging defensive starters Dwight Freeney, Cory Redding and Robert Mathis still have something left this early in the season. They just cannot bring the rush like they used to and the secondary is left to fend for itself.
The Texans made a deep enough run into the playoffs to know that it might just take a few tweaks here and there to take the next step. They suffered no significant personnel losses and added the No. 2 receiver needed to maximize their passing potential.
The return of OT Rashad Butler has firmed up the right side of the offensive line, and Brandon Brooks has shown he can handle the right guard position in training camp.
As a result, teams can no longer stack the box on the left anticipating Arian Foster going that direction most of the time. He has over 150 rushing yards and leaves the short zones open for tight ends Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham. Matt Schaub throws for two TDs, one of which goes to Foster on a wheel route for big yardage.
J.J. Watt runs multiple stunts over RT Joe Reitz, who has experience, but not the strength to hold back the 2012 Defensive MVP. Andrew Luck also throws for two TDs, but is sacked four times and hit twice that amount.
Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium
The Colts defense got away with a negative turnover margin of minus-12 in 2012. This year they are not able to get away with giving it up more than they get it back.
The lack of a running game has put too much of the load on the shoulders of Andrew Luck. He was sacked 41 times in 2012, and is on track this for over 50 this year.
The Texans' formula of winning with running and defense is still working most of the time. They are still vulnerable to quarterbacks that get rid of the ball quickly, but young DBs like Brandon Harris and Eddie Pleasant are starting to come around.
The Texans have their typical difficulties on the Colts' home turf, but have managed to keep the score close with ball control. This time, Matt Schaub manages to dominate time of possession, as he displays some new-found ability to pass from the pocket. He connects with Andre Johnson on a crossing pattern when No. 80 gets open on a double-move to set up the go-ahead score.
But Luck has also adjusted and notices Texans' DC Wade Phillips is rolling his safeties to each sideline. TE Dwayne Allen is roaming free and takes the ball inside the red zone. Two plays later, Reggie Wayne ties it up with a catch in the corner of the end zone.
The Texans remain winless in Indianapolis, but escape with the first tie in franchise history as neither team scores in OT.
Jacksonville Jaguars at Reliant Stadium
Jacksonville had a new owner in 2012, and this season the other faces at the top of the organization have changed. New coach, new GM and new QB as the Blaine Gabbert Experiment is over and the Geno Smith Era begins.
Maurice Jones-Drew is back from his foot injury, but long-time C Brad Meester was not resigned. UFA LB Daryl Smith also decided to skip town rather than endure another year of the rebuilding project.
The Texans have won five straight over the Jaguars and feel confident against a divisional foe in serious transition mode. They are dealing with their first serious injury of the season with Pro Bowl C Chris Myers nursing a broken ankle. Ben Jones is expected to fill in since the rotating at the right guard position is no longer his concern.
Houston comes in overconfident and is bedeviled by QB Smith's ability to scramble out of trouble. WR Justin Blackmon plays his partner-in-crime as he catches FS Danieal Manning napping for a 60-yard TD.
The Texans trying running their way into the lead, but keep on stumbling in third-and-long. Jones is effective run blocking from the center position, but his pass protection is problematic. Schaub then relies on his old standby, the naked bootleg and answers with his own deep strike to Devery Henderson to even the score.
From then on, the Jaguars keep guessing wrong on the play calls and Arian Foster hits his groove in the second half. Foster only rushes for 95 yards, but most of it comes in the fourth quarter, as Houston plays keep away and runs out the clock.
Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field
QB Geno Smith is finding life in the NFL a difficult adjustment. Having to take the snap from under center, as opposed to the shotgun he used in college, has led to some muffed exchanges. He leads NFL quarterbacks in fumbles and is still learning to throw to a spot instead of leading his receivers.
Houston has problems of its own with DE Antonio Smith dealing with the first serious injury of his career. His MCL tear responded well to surgery, but he will be out 4-6 games. Without his line mate, J.J. Watt will get more double teams while Jared Crick learns how to handle 50 snaps per game instead of his usual 20.
Muarice Jones-Drew looks like he is finally getting back to form as the Jaguars decide to run right at Crick and OLB Whitney Mercilus. The holes are just big enough for the 5'7" running back as he leaves the Houston defense grabbing for air.
But Texans ILB Brian Cushing is also getting back to his old self. He eventually stops over-pursuing and maintains lane discipline. Cushing loves to get after quarterbacks, so much that it sometimes puts him out of position to stop the run.
To reduce Arian Foster's workload, which may once again average over 20 carries per game, RBs Ben Tate and Justin Forsett have been getting more work. Jacksonville has been trying out 3-4 looks with Andre Branch and George Selvie playing as standup defensive ends. Naturally, they are better at rushing the passer than containing the run.
The three Houston running backs combine for nearly 200 yards and three scores and Matt Schaub uses intermediate passes only when the opportunity is there.
Smith throws for more yardage than Schaub, but puts two interceptions in the hands of CB Johnathan Joseph and SS Glover Quin.
Tennessee Titans at Reliant Stadium
The Titans are also working under a new general manager, so Mike Munchak's seat is not just hot but molten after the dismissal of former GM Mike Reinfeldt. If Jacksonville was willing to ditch Blaine Gabbert, how long a leash does Jake Locker have?
Locker also has a new center in Kevin Matthews because Fernando Velasco took the train out of town. RB Chris Johnson was wildly inconsistent in 2012, going for 141 yards one week and 24 the next, with runs of 94, 83 and 80 yards and stretches in which it took him two or three weeks to reach the yardage of one of thos breakaways. The whole organization is hoping WR Kenny Britt can stay out of trouble so he can fulfill the promise of his first two seasons.
Arian Foster has also been on-again then off-again when it comes to the playing the Titans. This happens to be one of his off days, and his fellow running backs are not playing much better. Matt Schaub is not taking care of the ball as a strip sack by Kamerion Wimbley sets up the Titans in point-blank range.
CB Kareem Jackson has improved every year as a Texan, and 2013 is more of the same. He steps in front of a Locker pass to Nate Washington and returns the ball to the Titans 15-yard line. Schaub finds Owen Daniels as he drags SS Jordan Babineaux into the end zone.
Instead of passing their way back into the lead, they use Chris Johnson to regain the lead on a 75-yard drive. Schaub answers with a drive of his own that ends with one of Andre Johnson's infrequent red-zone TDs.
K Rob Bironas has been a thorn in Houston's side for years, and his fourth field goal of the day puts the Titans in front 19-17. There is plenty of time for the Texans to answer with a three-pointer of their own.
But Danieal Manning makes that a moot point by returning the kickoff 102 yards with less than a minute to go. It is the first return for a TD since the departure of Jacoby Jones.
Tennessee Titans at LP Field
Head coach Mike Munchak is fighting to save his job as this season appears to be going nowhere for the Titans. QB Jake Locker cannot seem to put two good games together and the defense ranks near the bottom in points and yardage allowed.
Houston has had problems of its own, primarily with injuries. TE Owen Daniels has missed time with a concussion, SS Glover Quin has been hobbled with a variety of ailments, and C Chris Myers and DE Antonio Smith are still out.
The Texans start out on the wrong foot as Arian Foster fumbles in Houston territory and the Titans return it for a first-and-goal the the four-yard line. RB Chris Johnson immediately puts Houston behind by seven.
Nothing seems to be working today as Houston goes three-and-out on four straight series. In the meantime, Jake Locker is using play fakes to Chris Johnson to free up TE Jared Cook and WR Kendall Wright. Houston finds itself down 17-3 at the half. Quin is sorely missed as 5'10" Eddie Pleasant cannot handle the 6'4 Cook.
Matt Schaub comes out in the second half throwing, using every weapon at his disposal. But after evening the score at 17 with TDs to TE James Casey and WR Keshawn Martin, he throws a pick-six to FS Michael Griffin.
The Titans add two more field goals to hand the Texans their first division loss of the year.
Denver Broncos at Reliant Stadium
Pro Bowl LT Ryan Clady breaks the bank as a UFA signee, but the team remains largely intact except for the loss of WR Brandon Stokley. RB Willis McGahee splits time with Knowshon Moreno to avoid recurrence of his MCL injury. Even at 37, Peyton Manning is not merely a system QB, he is a completely self-contained system that can adapt at will.
The Texans hope their pass rush is up to the task because the secondary will need all the help it can get. Manning has four excellent receivers in Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreesen and he uses them to their utmost.
The Texans are not only facing the best QB they have seen this season, but also the best defense. Last season they put the Broncos so far behind at Sports Authority Field they did not have time to catch up. But Peyton Manning made the game uncomfortably close.
Luckily for Houston, Manning picks today to have his worst game of the year. J.J. Watt, who has not been swatting down passes with the record-setting frequency of 2012, bats one into the hands of the recently returned Antonio Smith. He returns it for the first touchdown off an interception in his career.
The Texans pour it on with their trio of running backs, who shred the shell-shocked Broncos for nearly 160 yards. They also put up two TDs on a defense that only surrendered five in all of 2012.
Manning tries to summon his comeback magic, the kind that has brought him 49 game-winning drives in his career. But the Houston defense remembers what transpired last season and keeps sending six pass rushers, even in four receiver sets.
The Broncos fall short for only their second loss of the season.
Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium
Another team in the process of tying to reinvent the wheel, with new faces in each significant position. Head coach Andy Reid, along with a new GM and quarterback are all first timers in the organization.
The Chiefs have two offensive stars in the prime of their careers with RB Jamaal Charles and WR Dwayne Bowe. Now that they have the coach, they must acquire a quarterback to lead them on the field. Reid trades down and packages the first overall pick for additional second and third round choices and selects Tyler Wilson from Arkansas.
The defense has talent in LBs Tamba Hali, Justin Houston and Derrick Johnson. But a makeshift defensive line puts too much pressure on the secondary to lock down receivers.
The Texans have very little history with the Chiefs, having only played them once in the last six seasons. Houston won the last meeting 35-31 in 2010.
So far this season, no running back has gashed the Texans’ defense for over 100 yards. That is, until today.
Jamaal Charles challenges the edges of the Houston defense, where OLBs Whitney Mercilus and Brooks Reed can get caught up in the traffic. Once that gets those pass rushers back on their heels, rookie QB Tyler Wilson starts looking for WRs Dwayne Bowe and Jonathan Baldwin.
He has some success until Texans FS Danieal Manning notices Wilson is going to his second read a little late. Manning grabs a pass intended for TE Tony Moeaki and returns it to the Chiefs 30-yard line.
From there, the Texans run Arian Foster and Ben Tate around the ends as OLBs Hali and Houston bite on the misdirection of the zone blocking OL. Tate scores from the eight-yard line, and it’s off to the races for the Texans.
Houston runs the ball just well enough to tempt Schaub into more play-action than normal. TEs Owen Daniels and James Casey are open on simple slant routes and down-and-in moves away from Chiefs SS Eric Berry. Berry has to roll over to double Andre Johnson and that leaves his side of the field uncovered.
Charles gains 128 yards on the day, but Schaub throws for two touchdowns and Houston records over 500 yards of total offense. The Texans defense gets three picks off Wilson, one of which goes for a touchdown that is nullified by a blocking below the waist penalty.
Oakland Raiders at Reliant Stadium
Will the ghost of Al Davis become a vengeful poltergeist if Oakland endures another losing season? If he were still calling the shots, Dennis Allen would probably be angling for a DC position in another city. Carson Palmer is running out of time to prove he can pull this team out of the cellar. Their only noteworthy free agent loss might be Shane Lechler, the greatest Raider punter since Ray Guy.
Houston owns a 5-2 record all-time against the Raiders, but gave away a game to them in 2011 due to four turnovers. The Texans have clearly improved since then, while Oakland's "Commitment to Excellence" has been a hollow slogan for a decade.
The Raiders start the game off as if they have nothing to lose, with Palmer slinging the ball all over the field. That is about all they can do since their running game is nonexistent. All they can manage is a pair of Sebastian Janikowski field goals in the first half.
The Texans take advantage of their youthful front seven by running the ball right at the only veteran upfront, NT Tommy Kelly. He is unable to handle the double teams from C Ben Jones and OGs Wade Smith and Brandon Brooks. Arian Foster is set for another 100 yard day.
Then Matt Schaub goes to work on a secondary that gave up 28 TD passes in 2012. Working Andre Johnson and Devery Henderson underneath, then over the top, he gets them isolated on CBs Michael Huff and Ronald Bartell. The Oakland pass rush is ineffective as Schaub gets at least three seconds every time he drops back.
By the final gun, Schaub has passed for over 300 yards and three TDs, while Foster scores his 10th touchdown in 2013.
San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium
San Diego is another team starting from scratch, having dismissed their GM and coaching staff. But unlike the organizations under construction, there is a decent quarterback in place in Phillip Rivers. Albeit one that has disappointed more often than not.
There are a lot of players on the roster who are a bit long in the tooth, including leading receiver Malcolm Floyd, TE Antonio Gates, LBs Takeo Spikes and Shaun Phillips, CB Quentin Jammer, and so on. On the other hand, RB Ryan Matthews, FS Eric Weddle, DE Cory Liguet, and RG Luis Vasquez have their best days ahead of them.
There are three teams Houston has never beaten, and one is the Chargers. They would love to get off the field with their 0-4 record against the Bolts.
The Chargers lost the turnover battle in all but one of their nine losses. QB Phillip Rivers was the worst offender, with his seven lost fumbles tying him for second in the league.
But their offensive line could not protect Rivers (49 sacks) or open any holes for the run. This game is just a rerun.
Unable to get Ryan Mathews untracked, Rivers takes to the air. TE Antonio Gates and WR Malcolm Floyd may be on the wrong side of 30, but they still know how to get open. This is demonstrated when Gates made the final catch on a 12-play drive that puts the Chargers up 7-0.
Houston goes three-and-out, giving San Diego good field position on a short Donnie Jones punt. But Rivers is sacked on consecutive plays by J.J. Watt and Glover Quin, forcing them to kick from their own 15.
Texans special teams captain Shiloh Keo breaks through to block the punt, which is recovered by Jesse Nading on the Charger’s three-yard line. Matt Schaub finds James Casey wide-open in the end zone.
But the Chargers take the lead 14-7 in the second half when Schaub throws an interception to CB Antoine Cason that is returned to the Houston 42. Rivers leads WR Danario Alexander perfectly, as CB Brandon Harris trips over his own feet trying to cover the deep threat.
Houston ties the score at 14 late in the third quarter on a drive that combines passes to four receivers, including an end-around by Justin Forsett.
After San Diego turns the ball over on downs, Gary Kubiak decides the Chargers cannot stop the Texans’ running game. He leaves the game in the hands of Arian Foster. The Pro Bowl RB does not gain yardage in big chunks, but keeps it out of the hands of the San Diego offense.
Foster leads Houston on drives of eight and 14 plays, with each resulting in Shayne Graham field goals. Ryan Mathews helps the Texans’ cause by fumbling the ball in Houston territory after a bad exchange by Rivers.
The visiting team ends up with their first win ever against San Diego.
St. Louis Rams at Reliant Stadium
Rams' WR Danny Amendola resembles Wes Welker in more ways than one: both are sticky-fingered WRs, Texas Tech alums and UFA's looking for a big payday. Amendola was QB Sam Bradford's favorite target in 2012 and continues to be the team's most reliable offensive weapon next to 30-year old RB Steven Jackson.
Their defense boasts a brace of tough DEs in veteran Chris Long and rookie Robert Quinn. They were great in passing situations but a bust against the run.
St. Louis is one of three NFC West teams Houston has played on just two occasions in the history of the franchise. Coincidentally, the Texans have a 1-1 record in each case. Then again, Rams' head coach Jeff Fisher is 14-6 when he held the same position with the Tennessee Titans.
Houston elects to receive and Danieal Manning takes the opening kickoff to the Houston 45. After a surprise opening handoff to FB James Casey from a pistol formation, Matt Schaub pump fakes to look off Andre Johnson. He finds TE Garrett Graham has two steps on LB James Laurinaitis and takes the ball inside the red zone.
One the next play, Arian Foster gallops 16 yards to the Rams’ two-yard line. Casey is allowed to finish off the drive with the first rushing TD of his pro career.
The Rams respond with their own five-play drive that shows how a quarterback with a quick release can befuddle the Texans defense. QB Sam Bradford uses Amendola and WR Chris Givens on short passes they turn into big gains.
The drive stalls at the Houston 22, and K Greg Zuerlein makes a 39-yard field goal.
Andre Johnson is begging Coach Gary Kubiak to let him get after Johnson’s old nemesis, Rams’ CB Cortland Finnegan. Schaub buys into the plan by hitting Devery Henderson for a first down, then Arian Foster to set up a third-and-short.
Johnson and Finnegan go stride-for-stride down the sideline as the ball bounces off the cornerback’s helmet. The sideline judge throws the flag and Finnegan goes nuts over the call.
Schuab then sends Johnson over the middle to clear things out, and runs WR Lestar Jean down the same sideline. Jean snatches the ball out of the air takes it all the way for a 55-yard TD.
Bradford uses three and four receiver sets to keep the Texans defense off balance. But when they abandon that approach, it tips off their intention to run. Steven Jackson is still a load, but Brian Cushing and Glover Quin are spying on him most every play.
The rest of the game plays out along the same lines. Each team rushes for over 100 yards, but the quarterback are the stars. Bradford throws for 320 and two TDs, while Schaub has one of his best games as a Texan. He goes 30-36 for 412 yards and four scores.
Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium
If the strength of the Texans schedule were measured by the stability of their opponent's front offices, it would be deemed as incredibly weak. The Arizona Cardinals are another "new head coach and GM" curiosity, with uncertainty at the starting quarterback job.
Kevin Kolb may be the only choice unless someone like Matt Barkley of USC falls into their hands on draft day. He would joining a team with no running game, a disgruntled WR Larry Fitzgerald waiting to get his touches or a trade, and the worst offensive line in the NFL.
The Cards were outscored by 100 points, but were almost break-even on turnovers. This can be attributed to the presence of ILB Daryl Washington, DE Calais Campbell and CB Patrick Peterson. So there is a defensive foundation to build upon.
Arizona is another of those rare matchups against NFC West members. They have a 1-1 record in their two games versus the Texans.
Matt Schaub has taken a lot of criticism over his seven-year career with Houston. A weak arm, poor decision-making, and lack of leadership are just a few of the complaints that have been lodged against him. Today, Texans fans get to see just how an inexperienced quarterback can turn a bad offense into something truly awful.
Matt Barkley is thrown into the meat grinder as he faces the Texans fearsome pass rush. Cardinals RB Chris “Beanie” Wells is still trying to prove he belongs in the starting lineup, but he is no help to his fledgling QB.
Barkley is repeatedly put in must-pass situations, but cannot find the time to hit his open receivers. With a rotation of DEs Jared Crick, Tim Jamison, J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith, the Texans deny him any sort of pocket to throw from. He is sacked three times in the first quarter alone.
Schaub is having his problems with the pass rush of the Cardinals’ Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett. He eventually finds his rhythm with short passes to his tights ends Owen Daniels and James Casey. Arian Foster is looking tentative as he searches for holes to exploit in the stout Arizona run defense led by ILBs Washington and Paris Lenon.
Houston racks up a touchdown and a field goal in the first half, while all Arizona can muster is a three-pointer from the 48 after a Patrick Peterson punt return of 42 yards.
The only difference in the second half comes when Houston’s QB finally starts playing like a Pro Bowl selection. The Texans start running three receiver sets, combining both wideouts and tight ends, for the first time this season.
The Cardinals are unable to react defensively as the visitors score four TDs in seven possessions over the final two quarters. The home team does manage a touchdown in garbage time when Barkley connects with WR Michael Floyd on a busted play.
Seattle Seahawks at Reliant Stadium
The most surprising team of the 2012 season was led by the most surprising signal caller to be seen in recent memory. QB Russell Wilson was the first QB listed under six-feet to lead his team to the playoffs since the Rams' Pat Haden in 1978.
This outfit was solid in every area but excelled at running the football, their quarterback included. The Seahawk’s defense allowed the fewest points in the league, even though they were not highly ranked in sacks, interceptions or fumble recoveries.
Coming into the 2013 season, the Seattle game was looked upon as a proving ground for Houston. There were some so many organizations in transition on the schedule, a true test of the Texans' ability was just what everyone was looking forward to.
The task for the beating Seattle could be reduced to this: force them to throw the ball rather than their preferred method of running it. The Seahawks rank near the bottom of the league in passing yardage and would rather keep it on the ground to minimize turnovers and move the chains.
So the Texans do not even bother to hide their intentions. They put seven men in the box, and show blitz with Glover Quin on almost every play.
Head coach Pete Carroll does not care, running the ball in every direction and forcing Houston to cover sideline to sideline. RB Marshawn Lynch has the power and speed to get yards either between the tackles or around them.
The Seahawks penetrate Houston territory on four of their first-half possessions, with Lynch totaling over 90 yards and Russell Wilson finding time to complete the odd pass here and there. They turn these opportunities into two touchdowns and a field goal.
The Texans have just as much success running, but more difficulty with their passing attempts. CB Richard Sherman is the one defensive back in the NFL who can physically cope with WR Andre Johnson. With that threat taken away, the balance of the aerial attack is limited to short and intermediate passes to whomever can get open.
After falling behind 17-3 at the half, Houston tries something different. On first downs they use both Arian Foster and Ben Tate in the same backfield. This causes the Seattle front seven to think twice about which back to follow.
Now that Houston’s running game is going, the coverage loosens up a bit. It also takes the bite out of the Seahawk’s pass rush and finally gives Matt Schaub some time to throw.
The Texans tie the score at 17 to start the fourth quarter, but they have only run 45 plays to over 60 for Seattle. Their defense is tiring and Lynch is still running like it’s the first quarter. The Houston pass rush gets penetration as Wilson drops back, but he sees a wide area of open field and darts toward the sideline and the end zone.
Johnathan Joseph runs him down inside the 10-yard line but the damage is done. On third-and-goal on the six-yard line, Wilson lofts a scoring pass to TE Zach Miller.
All the Texans can do with the little time remaining is try to tie the score. Most of the completions allowed by Seattle’s secondary stay in-bounds as the clock runs out on Houston.
San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park
San Francisco continues to astound as they use an old-school approach to winning by emphasizing defense and the running game. Conversely, flip-flopping their quarterbacks at the whim of head coach Jim Harbaugh is anything but standard procedure in this copycat league.
The 49ers still dominate with a defense that uses a powerful defensive line and the best ILBs in the league in Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman. Without having to worry about stopping the run, OLBs Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks are free to chase down quarterbacks at their discretion.
The Texans are making just their second trip in the history of the team to the City by the Bay in another test versus a top contender. Strategically speaking, facing the 49ers is similar to playing the Seattle Seahawks. Will the Texans try a new approach, or refine the one that came within a touchdown of going to OT?
Texans’ head coach Gary Kubiak wondered aloud after the Seattle game if they went to their passing game too quickly. Kubiak reiterates how they are a running team first and foremost.
If the 49ers defense is vulnerable anywhere, it is run support from the secondary. The zone-blocking scheme used by the Texans is great at creating misdirection. That is, when it is working properly.
So Houston chooses to alternate RBs Arian Foster and Ben Tate with more frequency. Foster is a one-cut runner, but Tate can cut back against the grain if the running lanes are there.
For this to work throughout the entire game, the Texans have to get the San Francisco secondary to respect the pass. Even though CBs Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown are well above average, neither has the size to keep up with Andre Johnson. Matt Schuab starts running clear outs with Devery Henderson, then looks for Johnson 10-15 yards upfield.
Houston gets an early lead when Ben Tate takes a delayed handoff 28 yards to the house. The Texans scored in just nine plays, but the 49ers are not about to panic.
They have their own pair of running threats in RBs Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter. But after a few handoffs, QB Colin Kaepernick runs a play-action with kind of athleticism that makes Matt Schaub look like he is standing in concrete.
Kaepernick locates WR Michael Crabtree between CB Johnathan Joseph and FS Danieal Manning, and Crabtree takes the pass 59 yards into the end zone.
Now the both offenses have shown their hands, the defenses stiffen in the second quarter. Texans’ SS Glover Quin is assigned to watching the 49ers’ QB while ILBs Brian Cushing and Tim Dobbins spy the running backs.
San Francisco does the same thing with its ILBs and SS Donte Whitner. Neither team gets the upper hand as they trade field goals for the next two quarters.
Late in the fourth quarter with the score tied at 10 apiece, Texans’ DC Wade Phillips decides to put DE J.J. Watt right over the nose of C Jonathan Goodwin. Instead of playing the A and B gaps, Watt starts pushing Goodwin right into the backfield.
This cuts down on Kaepernick’s options and forces Frank Gore to the outside lanes. When the 49ers QB drops back to sustain a drive on third down, Watt pitches Goodwin aside and knocks the ball loose. It is recovered by NT Earl Mitchell at the San Francisco 45-yard line.
Time is running out, but the Texans get a first down at the 33. But three running plays gain but two yards. Shayne Graham enters the game for a 48-yard field goal attempt, which just brushes the inside of the left upright.
New England Patriots at Reliant Stadium
New England could not franchise WR Wes Welker again, so they chose to part ways with their all-time reception leader. The Patriots instead decided to resign WR Julian Edelman, RT Sebastian Vollmer, and midseason pickup CB Aqib Talib.
The true centerpiece of their offense is QB Tom Brady, who still commands as much respect as any quarterback in the pros. His ability to rack up points keeps the pressure off the defense, which can afford to gamble with stunts and coverages.
This newly developing rivalry was enhanced by two meetings in 2012, including a memorable playoff tilt. As NFL royalty, the Patriots do not like the Texans nipping at their heels. Houston has tried to build the same kind of long-term success as New England, but lacks the rings to validate their efforts.
Unlike the last two contests, this one is in the friendly confines of Reliant Stadium. The last time they hosted New England in 2009, they knocked them out of the playoffs.
The Patriots symbolize the worst fears of the Texans brought to life. An offense with an ultra-confident quarterback who has the talent around him to score at will. An offense so good, the defense knows the game is never out of reach.
The best break Houston can hope for is a breakdown in pass protection by the New England OL. Like any other passer, Tom Brady cannot get it done if he does not have the time.
The Texans choose not to blitz with their usual abandon, but will rush at least five players. Brady starts off by treating these rushers as nothing more than flies at his picnic.
The Patriots’ receivers like to run patterns of 10 yards or less 80 percent of the time. This allows Brady to get rid of the ball in two seconds or less. He finds WR Julian Edelman and TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez lurking just beyond the line of scrimmage time and again.
It has just been a handful of plays, and Houston is already in a 7-0 hole after a 22-yard completion that Gronkowski catches over the outstretched arms of ILB Bradie James. Is this just another replay of the Texans’ previous losses to Belichick Inc.?
Matt Schaub thinks to himself, today is a new day. We were able to run on better defenses than this, and that will be the fundamental to keeping the Patriots offense off the field. It fails to work for the next two series, but eventually pays dividends.
Arian Foster answers the call and lets the Texans’ OL move the Patriots DL one way while he goes the other direction. Foster picks up 48 of the 76 yards Houston uses to match the Patriot’s score. He takes the ball the final eight yards on a bubble screen from Schaub.
To keep Brady off balance, Texans’ DC Wade Phillips also unbalances the defensive line. He puts ILB Brian Cushing over the center and sends two to three rushers from the weak side. This forces Brady to use what little mobility he has, and also means a tight end must stay home to help with the blocking.
Rather than the high-scoring affair most has anticipated, both teams march up and down the field for a lot of yards but not many points. It is the kind of game the Texans had hoped for, even though the field goal contest that ensues does not please the home crowd.
Brady throws for almost 300 yards but just the one TD, while Matt Schaub takes the ball-control approach with only 168 yards passing. Arian Foster earns the game ball with a 133-yard rushing total, and the Texans’ Shayne Graham wins the field goal competition three to two over the Patriots’ Stephen Gostkowski.
Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium
Baltimore had little choice to franchise QB Joe Flacco because even slightly above-average quarterbacks are virtually irreplaceable. Ray Lewis was equally difficult to replace, but MLB Jameel McClain has done a reasonable impersonation.
RB Ray Rice is getting the ball on a more consistent basis and has made the most of his unique combination of running and receiving skills. But the defense has continued to slip as many former-stalwarts are showing the wear-and-tear of so many snaps. FS Ed Reed, DT Haloti Ngata and OLB Terrell Suggs are still productive but need more snaps off to maintain their stamina for a 16-game season.
Houston and Baltimore have met at least once each season for four years running. The Texans trail the series 1-6, but dominated the Ravens in their last confrontation 43-13.
The battle between Ray Rice and Arian Foster is delayed as each offense turns the ball over on their first series. Baltimore is unable to convert on the fumble by Matt Schaub.
Houston at least gets a field goal out of a Flacco interception that bounced off the helmet of former Texans Jacoby Jones.
The conditions are of benefits to the defenses as a light but steady rain has been falling since kickoff. The Ravens stick to hammering the ball with Rice following FB Vonta Leach through the line.
But head coach John Harbaugh gets antsy for a touchdown after Houston strings together a drive that culminates with a 28-yard TD to Devery Henderson early in the second quarter.
Flacco is looking for WR Anquan Boldin when a second-and-short brings the Texans’ safeties a little too close to the line. The 23-yard catch brings the ball to the Houston 32-yard line. Then TE Dennis Pitta is the next target as he gets open in the right flat in front of Brooks Reed to set the Ravens up on the Texans 16.
RB Bernard Pierce comes in as a change-of-pace replacement and puts the Ravens in a first-and-goal at the five. It takes three more plays before Pierce crosses the goal line behind a great block by RG Marshal Yanda over J.J. Watt.
The Ravens trail the Texans 10-7 coming out of the half, but the rain has stopped for now. Texans CB Kareem Jackson went to the locker room in the first half and has yet to return.
Flacco tests his substitute Brice McCain with a long pass to WR Torrey Smith. Smith outleaps the 5’9” McCain and is driven out at the one by Danieal Manning. Ray Rice gives the Baltimore the lead on the next play with a dive over LT Michael Oher to make the score 14-10.
The Houston offense remains stuck in neutral while the Ravens front seven refuses to give an inch. QB Matt Schaub assumes WR Andre Johnson can get open against CB Lardarius Webb.
But FS Ed Reed is always there to double the Texans’ top receiver. On this particular pass, a fierce collision between Reed and Johnson causes the ball to fly through the air and end up in the hands of LB Dannell Ellerbe.
A couple of first downs put the Ravens in position for a 42-yard field goal by Justin Tucker. But the rain has returned and kick sails wide left.
It is that kind of day for both teams. The Texans march between the twenties but cannot convert in the red zone, but do add another field goal to their tally.
Now behind by a single point, all Houston has to do is get the ball back. But hiring a new special teams coach has not solved their kick return troubles.
The kickoff does not make it to the end zone, and Jacoby Jones grabs it on the run. He eludes kickoff gunner Roc Carmichael and no one can catch him. 97 yards later, the Ravens extend their lead and put the game away.
The Regular Season Results
The Houston Texans find themselves at the end of the 2013 regular season with the best record in franchise history. Their 12-3-1 mark includes a 5-1 division record makes them AFC South Champions for the third straight year.
This year top seed goes to the Denver Broncos, who have a 14-2 record at season's end. With one of the easiest schedules of any contender in the AFC, the Broncos play just five playoff teams from 2012 and feast on the rest of the AFC West.
Now the playoffs await and, with them, another shot at the Lombardi Trophy. The Texans may not be the perfect team, but they do have what it takes to go all the way.