It was a day of firsts for the Texans.
Sunday’s 31-25 win in Denver on Sunday wasn’t just another victory. It was a game that exorcised some ghosts and stamped the Texans as a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
The Texans had never started a season 3-0. They had beaten only one playoff team on the road in the Gary Kubiak era. They had never beaten Peyton Manning on the road. They had choked away several games like this under Kubiak when things got tight late.
Check off at least three of those, and likely all four, as the Broncos will probably be a playoff team when all was said and done.
The Texans held on for a big win that left them as the only unbeaten team in the AFC. And yes, they are for real.
When great teams play big games, their stars come out to play. On Sunday, all of the big names did something.
J.J. Watt was his usual dominant self on defense, pressuring Manning, making beastly plays in the run game and simply looking like one of the best defensive players in the NFL.
Johnson caught the touchdown pass that got it started on a terrific route and a breakdown by the Broncos defense. Then, when the Broncos had fought back, he made the catch that all but sealed the deal late in the fourth quarter.
Arian Foster grinded out 105 yards and scored on a TD reception. Owen Daniels caught a touchdown pass as well.
And Matt Schaub threw four TD passes and finished with a passer rating of 115.3.
Most importantly, when the game was on the line, it was Johnson – with just his second catch of the game — who slammed the door shut on Manning and the Broncos. His catch gave them a first down that allowed them to run the clock down to almost nothing, giving Manning no shot at the kind of miracle Texans fans had seen too many times when Manning was a horse of a different color as an Indianapolis Colt.
After easy wins against inferior teams in Miami and Jacksonville, the Texans finally won the kind of game that makes them look like a legitimate Super Bowl contender. They weren’t as dominant against the Broncos – a team that had beaten Pittsburgh and hung in there against Atlanta even after turning the ball over four times in five possessions — as they were against the Dolphins and Jags. But they found a way to win when it counted.
That’s what great teams do. For the first time in franchise history, the Texans might have a truly great team.
Oh, there were some negatives. The obligatory really bad Matt Schaub pass that caused a six-point swing at the end of the half. Derek Newton getting abused and taking too many penalties. A few head-scratching play calls on offense in key situations. They drew a couple stupid penalties in the secondary to let Denver extend drives. The offense sputtered badly at times in the second half, looking out of synch and not even coming close on several third down plays. Brice McCain did his best Kareem Jackson impression, getting burned on play after play and getting a brutal holding call on fourth down when the Texans would have wrapped up the game. Jackson was then called for interference on the same drive on a questionable call, but it set up the Broncos for a fluke touchdown that closed it to 31-25.
And, of course, there was that awful Ben Tate fumble that gave the Broncos life in the fourth quarter in the first place when the game should have been over. It caused some scary moments and the biggest negative of all – nearly blowing a 20-point fourth quarter lead.
But they didn’t. Great teams overcome those things and win. That’s what the Texans did.
The other frightening negative was the potentially season-ending moment when Schaub was blasted on a blitz and had to leave the game for a play. No one should question his toughness after that. It was a brutal hit that drew a well-deserved flag and would have been a serious injury for a lot of players. Without Schaub, the Texans are barely a playoff team. Losing him would have been devastating.
Choking away a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter would have been as well.
But as it got tight, the Texans did what great teams do. They pulled it out.
They were in that position by getting off to a fast start. Early on, they took advantage of the Broncos’ poor safety play to hit some big plays over the middle. It was a flaw in the Denver defense that the Texans clearly spotted and went after. That’s good coaching.
OK, so it wasn’t a first, but under Kubiak’s tenure, they have one win over a playoff team on the road. ONE. That was the division clincher against the Bengals last season, a team that is hardly the Patriots, Ravens or Steelers.
The Broncos aren’t that either. But they are a very good football team despite their 1-2 record. They have had a brutal early schedule, and will only get better as Manning gets more comfortable. This game might mean a lot for playoff seeding later in the year. If the Texans had lost this one, they might have had to go to Denver in January, a much tougher task.
The Texans of old would have lost this game. But this isn’t that team. This team didn’t lose.
In fact, they did things they have never done before.
Beat a good team on the road.
Beat Manning on the road for the first time in franchise history.
Start 3-0 for the first time in Texans history.
Hang on after nearly blowing a big lead in the fourth quarter.
There’s a long way to go, and some serious tests ahead. But the Texans are looking like a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
For the first time in franchise history.