It was the season's most improbable catch, breaking the back of the NFL's biggest pretender.
This was exactly the kind of thing we've come to expect from the Houston Texans: the inevitable collapse, leaving players shaking their heads and sharing the shrug of the rest of NFL fans. We know the Texans. We know the allure. And of course, we know the disappointment. Now we know it in a whole new way: a 50-yard Hail Mary with no time left, spiked out of the air and into the stunned grasp of Jacksonville Jaguars wideout Mike Thomas(notes).
Indeed, we've seen the Texans deflate their season in many ways, but nothing like this.
The Texans had fought from behind three times to tie the score against Jacksonville, pulling even again late and leaving the Jaguars with one last desperation bomb before overtime. Jaguars quarterback David Garrard(notes) stepped through traffic, heaved the ball toward the end zone, and set off the stunning chain of events: cornerback Glover Quin(notes) slapping the ball down with two hands rather than attempting an interception … the ball hitting Thomas in the chest … Thomas juggling the ball before getting it into his grasp … then the hurried stutter into the end zone … game over, 31-24. If you watch the replay closely, you can see Houston cornerback Brice McCain(notes) reaching in vain for Thomas at the last moment, then holding his arms up in frustration, as if to say "Can you believe this?"
I can believe it. After all, it's the Texans. Most of us have spent the last three offseasons looking at this team and thinking "OK, this is the year they put it together. There's just too much talent." And that's true. There is just too much talent for this team to go from 3-1 to 4-2 and now 4-5 after Sunday's loss. There's too much talent for Houston to continually be this mediocre.
And this is what makes them this week's biggest loser. Because they have arguably the best wideout in football (Andre Johnson(notes)), the league's leading rusher (Arian Foster(notes)), a quarterback who led the NFL in passing yardage last season (Matt Schaub(notes)) and a solid offensive line and cast of surrounding pieces. If it sounds like that all tilts in one direction, it's because it does. The other side of the ball is less than mediocre. Aside from defensive end Mario Williams(notes), who has struggled through constant scheming against him this season, there is little more with which to be concerned.
Of course, Houston fans will tell you their best linebacker, DeMeco Ryans(notes), has been lost for the season with injuries. They'll point to Brian Cushing(notes), who hasn't been the same since his banned substance suspension. They'll say that injuries and circumstance have hurt them. And they are right … save for the fact that this is the NFL, where injuries and circumstance weigh on everyone.
The facts of life for Houston are that the defensive talent is overrated. Antonio Smith was a case of overpaying a guy in 2009 because there just weren't any other good free agent defensive ends to pair with Williams. Defensive tackle Amobi Okoye(notes), for all his youth and promise, is just an average player. Cushing … well … who knows at this point. And first-round cornerback Kareem Jackson(notes)? He's fallen down three times since you started reading this column.
In reality, the Texans started fast, made us all think they were ready to live up to all that offensive talent, then reverted back to that same middle of the road 8-8 team that sometimes masquerades as something special. Maybe owner Bob McNair truly believes this is a well-coached team by Gary Kubiak. Maybe he believes it is filled with great talent evaluators. But history shows us they are most skilled at teasing and deceiving.
It's appropriate that Jacksonville's final play on Sunday was called "Rebound." The Jaguars are 5-4 and in the playoff race. They pulled off the improbable. But the Texans are the same 4-5 team that we've always known. So don't hold your breath. No rebound is coming.
On to the rest of this week's other winners and losers …
• San Francisco 49ers quarterback Troy Smith(notes)
There was a time when the Baltimore Ravens liked the former Heisman Trophy winner and believed they might have been able to move him for a draft pick when Joe Flacco(notes) was ready. Unfortunately, Smith got sick, lost a lot of weight and strength, and Flacco never looked back. After Sunday's impressive 356-passing yards in an overtime win over the St. Louis Rams (which included three touchdowns called back), Smith has put up impressive back-to-back games for the 49ers. Now he's earned a sustained run as the 49ers' starter. Kick your feet up, Alex Smith.
• Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett
You hear all the time how things become tougher when a player's coach like Wade Phillips is shown the door and a new, strict savior takes over. I rolled my eyes when I heard it about Garrett. Then the Cowboys plastered the Giants in what is easily their most impressive game of the season. We'll see if the players truly do rally the rest of the season under Garrett. One huge win is a relief, but Garrett still has plenty to prove. If discipline was all this team needed, then Phillips should have never been hired in the first place.
• Buffalo Bills
Welcome back, Fred Jackson(notes). C.J. Spiller's(notes) hamstring issue put Jackson back into the driver's seat in the backfield, and he showed why the Bills once thought he might be a centerpiece running back, with 170 yards from scrimmage and a pair of touchdowns in a win over the Lions. It's still a bad team, but at least there won't be an 0-16 buildup.
• Indianapolis Colts defense
This is just a different unit at home. This was arguably the best game of the season for the Colts defense, with five turnovers forced in the win over the Bengals. That included an interception returned for a touchdown, plus the Colts notched three sacks, too. Amazingly, it's the second time this season Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning(notes) has been held without a touchdown pass … and the team has still won. That hasn't happened since 2005.
• New York Jets wideout Santonio Holmes(notes)
For the second straight week, the Jets won on a game-winning drive in overtime, this time chopping down the Browns. For the second straight week, Holmes did his share of the dirty work, this time with an electrifying 37-yard touchdown catch and run for the win. He has been the game-changer at wide receiver in the past two victories, and that role should only grow with each passing week.
• Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz
He called a nice game plan against the Vikings – one that was shockingly balanced. Despite playing a Vikings team that is typically stout against the run, Martz doled out 32 carries to his running backs, and limited Jay Cutler(notes) to only 35 passes when he easily could have thrown 50. The result was an almost 10-minute edge in time of possession for the Bears, and a pace that allowed Chicago to control the game from the start.
• Miami Dolphins quarterback Tyler Thigpen(notes)
I will never, ever, understand why Thigpen hasn't been able to get a look as a starting quarterback since throwing 18 touchdowns (and running for three more) against only 12 interceptions as a starter for the Chiefs in 2008. Inserted by the Dolphins after both Chad Pennington(notes) and Chad Henne(notes) were hurt, Thigpen drove Miami to a backbreaking fourth-quarter touchdown in a win over the Titans. It was only one drive, but I'm mystified to see guys like Derek Anderson(notes) and Trent Edwards(notes) get sustained starting shots while Thigpen gets passed around as a backup.
• Tampa Bay Buccaneers' playoff hopes
After Sunday's win over the Carolina Panthers, you look at the schedule and start to see some wild-card potential for this team. Could they still win the NFC South? Absolutely. Do I think it will happen? No. Not with the Buccaneers' wins all coming at the hands of teams that have losing records. But when you look at the schedule, the road games against the Ravens and New Orleans Saints and the home tilt against the Atlanta Falcons look the toughest. Everything else is very soft. Sitting at 6-3, 10-6 is within reach, and so is the postseason.
• Denver Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton(notes)
He was essentially flawless in Denver's blowout win over the Chiefs, throwing four touchdowns. While Denver isn't a playoff caliber team right now, Orton is performing like a Pro Bowl quarterback. This is an intriguing situation. If Orton keeps this up, Tim Tebow(notes) has to stay on the bench. And yet, Denver is expanding his role as the season inches along. It was interesting to hear the cascading cheers for Tebow whenever he checked into the game, too. The end of this story is certain to be entertaining.
• Seattle Seahawks wideout Mike Williams
He has been hindered the past two games by a knee injury and some matchup issues, but he pounded everyone the Arizona Cardinals threw at him, en route to 11 catches and 145 yards. And while the running game wasn't great (31 carries, 110 yards), you can see how much better it functions when Williams is playing well enough to draw some attention. Keeping Williams healthy is a must. One interesting storyline developing: depending on the next collective bargaining agreement, Williams could be an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
• Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress
Hard to imagine the Vikings winning out and making it to the playoffs, so Sunday's extremely flat loss to Chicago pretty much sets the wheels in motion on the end of Childress' reign. Owner Zygi Wilf said he won't fire Chilly during the season, but that's no surprise. Quarterback Brett Favre(notes) and Childress will walk into the sunset together … likely muttering obscenities in each other's direction.
• NFL stadiums
Apparently, spending hundreds of millions (or even $1.6 billion) doesn't promise perfection when it comes to the infrastructure of an NFL team. We saw it firsthand on Sunday, when the Chiefs were told they couldn't challenge a first-quarter touchdown by the Broncos because … well … the review booth at Invesco Field was malfunctioning. Can you imagine what Chiefs coach Todd Haley would have done if it had been a game-deciding play? A Gatorade bucket would have been on the field. And not to be outdone, the $1.6 billion New Meadowlands Stadium blew a transformer, leaving part of Sunday's game against Dallas to be played on a dimly lit field. See what happens when you skimp?
• Detroit Lions
As if losing to winless Buffalo wasn't enough, Detroit broke its previous NFL record, notching its 25th straight road loss. The Lions haven't won a road game since Oct. 28, 2007. That's three years and 17 days without a road win. Think about that. We've had both a summer and winter Olympics since then. George W. Bush was still president, the economy was just starting to tank, LeBron James and Cleveland were still BFFs, and Brett Favre was still a Green Bay Packer. That is some serious futility.
• Cincinnati Bengals offense
The five turnovers in the loss to Indianapolis (one returned for a touchdown) negated a very good defensive performance. If rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham(notes) hadn't fumbled at the Indianapolis 31-yard line, Sunday might have been a pivotal win instead of a likely season-breaking loss. Quarterback Carson Palmer(notes) required an injection into his throwing shoulder to alleviate pain prior to the game. That's ominous.
• Cleveland Browns wideout Chansi Stuckey(notes)
Stuckey likely cost the Browns what would have been a stunning win over the Jets, fighting for extra yardage in overtime and losing a fumble at New York's 36-yard line. It's hard to be too disappointed, since Stuckey was just trying to make a play. But the mistake scuttled the shot at a winning field goal. Still doesn't take away from the fact that Cleveland seems to be turning a corner.
• Tennessee Titans quarterbacks
Vince Young(notes) and Kerry Collins(notes) combined to go 18-for-38 in the loss to Miami, and looked as mediocre as ever in the process. Randy Moss(notes) had one catch for 26 yards. The Titans are 5-4 and there is still plenty of time to get into a groove for a playoff push. But how long before patience runs out on this situation? Lest anyone overlook it, Young is in his fifth season. At 27 years old, he should have locked the starting position down by now and be into his peak years as an NFL quarterback.
• Kansas City Chiefs defense
Yikes. That 35-0 deficit to Denver in the second quarter was a stunner, particularly for a defense that has been so superb all season long. I think you can chalk it up to pressure, and the fact that Kansas City got almost none on the quarterback. No doubt, the pass defense is the weak link of this unit, particularly when the pass rush isn't creating mistakes. The Chiefs still need one more offseason of investment in the secondary. A top end corner and some depth will make a world of difference.
• New York Giants defense
The offense dominated time of possession, so there's no excusing for how lethargic this unit looked at times. Sacking Jon Kitna(notes) one time, against a line that has been plagued with issues, was a major disappointment. Too many big plays allowed, not enough pressure, and a secondary that still lacks even one elite level playmaker.
(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)
Loved: Chad Ochocinco's(notes) flawless 5-yard touchdown catch late in the second quarter against Indianapolis. In the span of a half-second, he slowed his body, concentrated on catching the pass and kept both of his toes maybe an inch inside the end zone. It was spectacular.
Loathed: Peyton Hillis'(notes) first-quarter fumble against the Jets. Ball security has been one of the few concerns about Hillis' games this season, with four lost fumbles in nine games. His running style – carrying multiple defenders with him for extra yardage – leaves him open to someone reaching in and ripping the ball away.
Loved: C.J. Spiller's 16-yard first-quarter run against Detroit. Not only did Spiller have a brilliant spin out of an arm tackle by defensive end Turk McBride(notes) in the backfield, Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick(notes) leveled safety Louis Delmas(notes), opening up another 10 yards for Spiller.
Loathed: Watching Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington start … and then hurt himself after only two passes by inadvertently hitting his hand on the helmet of offensive tackle Jake Long(notes). Of all the things Pennington will be remembered for, his inability to stay healthy will be high on the list.
Loved: Watching Buccaneers running back LeGarrette Blount(notes) pound out yardage against Carolina. His flying, twisting stretching 17-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was both dangerous and amazing.
Loathed: Josh Cribbs' penchant for trying to jump or dive through tackles at the end of plays. He did it twice against the Jets, putting himself at risk on both plays (and getting hurt on the second leap). The Browns are finally figuring out how to use him on offense. Now Cribbs needs to realize his health is more important than an extra yard or two.
Loved: The clock-cleaning and totally legal second-quarter hit that Chris Clemons put on Tennessee's Randy Moss, dislodging the ball on a route in the middle of the field. When you watch the play, Clemons adjusted to lead with his shoulder. Makes you wonder if maybe the NFL's emphasis on hits might be working.
Loathed: Seeing Al Harris(notes) making plays for the Dolphins and still not understanding why the Green Bay Packers would cut a player who could still help them down the stretch. He may not be a starting-caliber player anymore, but with the Packers' injury issues this season, he should have been kept for quality depth.
Loved: Cincinnati's gutsy decision to go for it on fourth-and-inches at is own 24 late in the second quarter while trailing Indianapolis 17-3. Brian Leonard(notes) gained 42 yards on an unconventional direct snap play, at a moment the Bengals needed some kind of spark to avoid a blowout. The gamble eventually led to a touchdown pass to Ochocinco.
Loathed: Watching Braylon Edwards'(notes) constant jawing against his former Cleveland team. If you want to see a guy who is too jacked-up in a game, get tape of this one. Edwards looked like he was constantly on the verge of picking a fight. Really, is showing up Cleveland worth it? He finished with four catches for 59 yards.
- the Texans