The Houston Texans inched closer to clinching a playoff spot Saturday night with a 29-22 win over the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
After New York took the lead with five minutes, nine seconds remaining in regulation, quarterback Deshaun Watson and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins hooked up from 14 yards out for their second touchdown connection of the day with 2:15 left to give Houston the win:
Houston improved to 10-4 and can clinch the AFC South if both the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans lose on Sunday.
The Texans were inconsistent offensively, but Watson and Hopkins did the bulk of the damage, especially in the first half.
Watson went 22-of-28 for 294 yards with two touchdowns and 26 rushing yards, while Hopkins caught 10 passes for 170 yards and two scores. The Jets made life difficult for Watson in the second half and kept him under constant pressure, though, finishing with six sacks.
Although New York fell short, rookie quarterback Sam Darnold looked good again, as he completed 24 of his 38 attempts for 253 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for 35 yards.
The Jets fell to 4-10, which means the focus is shifting toward the players they will target early in the first round of the 2019 NFL draft.
New York was without a pair of key offensive contributors Saturday in leading rusher Isaiah Crowell (toe) and leading pass-catcher Quincy Enunwa (ankle).
Despite that, the Jets outgained the Texans 318-286 and won the time-of-possession battle 35:04 to 24:45.
Houston scored on each of its first four opening-half possessions, but it had to settle for field goals on three of those occasions. The touchdown was pretty, though, as Watson and Hopkins connected on a 45-yard bomb to help make it 13-3:
After Houston extended the lead to 16-3, Darnold led the Jets on an impressive drive late in the second quarter. He orchestrated a nine-play, 83-yard drive that culminated in a five-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Robby Anderson after Darnold escaped the pass rush:
Kicker Jason Myers missed the extra point after the touchdown with 30 seconds left in the half, but New York still seized the momentum and trailed by just seven.
New York continued to outplay Houston early in the third, and it drew closer when Darnold hit wideout Andre Roberts for a 13-yard touchdown:
Myers missed another extra point, though, which allowed the Texans to cling to a one-point lead.
The Texans pushed the margin to four with another field goal early in the fourth quarter, but the Jets seized their first lead of the game seven minutes later.
To conclude a 15-play, 73-yard drive that took 7:33 off the clock, the Jets offensive line pushed running back Elijah McGuire into the end zone from two yards out:
Things looked bleak for Houston, given its lack of offensive success in the second half, but Watson took over and marched the Texans down the field on a 75-yard drive that took less than three minutes.
The 14-yard touchdown pass to Hopkins with 2:15 left put Houston back on top, and the Texans defense then stopped Darnold twice to preserve the win.
Texans Secondary Must Improve for Houston to Become AFC Playoff Contenders
The Texans seemingly have everything needed to be a threat in the AFC come playoff time, but their pass defense has left plenty to be desired in recent weeks.
Houston entered Saturday's game ranked a pedestrian 24th against the pass, and Darnold looked like a seasoned veteran at times in picking apart the Texans secondary.
His performance came after Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield threw for 397 yards against Houston two weeks ago and Colts quarterback Andrew Luck threw for 399 yards against the Texans last week.
Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle noted the Texans won't make a deep playoff run if something doesn't change:
Houston has a talented front seven that includes J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, but against mobile quarterbacks such as Darnold, Luck and Mayfield, the pass rush hasn't been consistent. That's left the secondary in precarious situations, and the Houston defensive backs have not been up to the challenge.
John McClain of the Houston Chronicle pointed out that Saturday's performance was especially disconcerting, since Darnold was missing some key players from his already suspect supporting cast:
The Jets are among the NFL's worst teams, and the Texans' the level of competition will be significantly higher come playoff time.
Jason Bristol of KHOU wondered what some of the AFC's elite quarterbacks might do against Houston:
In addition to a quality front seven, the Texans have a talented offense headed by a do-everything quarterback in Watson and one of the NFL's top receivers in Hopkins. They also have a decent running game when Miller is healthy, although it was barely present without him Saturday.
The offense struggled to finish drives, and if the Texans make the playoffs, the offense won't be able to settle for field goals given how much the secondary may struggle.
Saturday's game may have been a wake-up call for the Texans in some respects, since their struggles against the Jets made it clear they aren't on the same level as the Los Angeles Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots.
Jets Have Winning Foundation With Improving Darnold Under Center
This season has been a struggle for the Jets, and it may result in the dismissal of head coach Todd Bowles, but there is cause for optimism among fans.
The biggest reason for that is Darnold's continued growth despite the fact that New York's front office has put little talent around him.
Connor Hughes of The Athletic alluded to the lack of help Darnold tends to receive:
Even though the former USC standout was playing with a makeshift group of running backs and wide receivers, he was a handful for the Texans defense and kept the chains moving with his arm and legs throughout the game.
ESPN's Damien Woody and Dan Orlovsky marveled at Darnold's ability to will the Jets to positive plays:
That was apparent multiple times, including on this third-down conversion as New York attempted a fourth-quarter comeback:
Watson is considered one of the NFL's best dual-threat quarterbacks, but Darnold outperformed him at his own game.
Houston's recent defensive struggles could be partly to blame for Darnold's strong showing, but he deserves credit as well.
NFL Network's Rich Eisen noted Darnold's multifaceted skill set put the Texans in difficult situations:
Darnold has often looked like a rookie this season, and he's made his share of mistakes, with 15 interceptions in 10 games entering Saturday's contest.
The No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft is a playmaker with a ton of confidence, though, and he only figures to get better once New York's roster receives a face-lift.
The Texans will face the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles on the road next week in a game Houston may need to win to clinch the division.
New York will have a tough test at home when it hosts quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.