For every obvious narrative about the 2011 NFL season — defenses no longer win championships, this is a passing league first and foremost, you need an elite quarterback to get things done, and the run game is now an afterthought — the Houston Texans have provided a contrary answer. They are one of three division winners this season who have run more than they have passed — the Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers are the others — and in their 31-10 wild-card win over the Cincinnati Bengals to open the playoffs, Gary Kubiak's team stuck to their modus operandi.
Led by running back Arian Foster, the Texans ran the ball 35 times to just 20 passing attempts by rookie stand-in T.J. Yates, and Cincinnati's offense had no answer. On the second of Foster's two rushing touchdowns, he stiff-armed Bengals safety Chris Crocker twice in a five-yard span on the way to a 42-yard trip to the end zone.
"I'm just elated," Foster said after the first playoff win in franchise history. "I'm just excited, happy to bring this city a playoff win. [This city has] been thirsty for a playoff win for years. To be a part of that, it feels so good. You can feel energy and buzz throughout the city."
It wasn't just Foster's 153 rushing yards on 24 attempts that defined this win for the Texans, though the physical approach they've shown all year on offense was majestic to behold — especially after Foster put up just 41 yards on 15 carries when these two teams last met in Week 14. The Texans won that game as well, but it was a 20-19 squeaker as Yates led the team on a last-minute touchdown drive. In this case, from start to finish, the Texans were in control.
Just as impressive was the defense called by Wade Phillips, who may have done the most impressive job of any assistant coach in the NFL this season. The former Dallas Cowboys head coach came to Houston before the 2011 campaign and totally redefined a defense that had been one of the NFL's most porous. Bum Phillips, Wade's father and the former coach of the Houston Oilers, greeted the screaming throng at Reliant Stadium before the game started. Then, Ol' Bum was able to sit back and watch his son go at it.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, who has shown uncommon poise for a rookie, was harassed all game long — he was sacked four times, suffered five quarterback hits, and was hurried throughout the contest. As a result, Dalton didn't find the end zone once, and he threw three interceptions. The killer among those picks was the interception caught by lineman J.J. Watt with 52 seconds left in the first half. Watt returned the ball for a 29-yard touchdown that broke the last tie the Bengals had, and started the Texans on a run of 21 unanswered points.
"I was really just trying to put my hands up and get in the way of the passing lane," Watt said of his key play. "It happened to kind of stick. I realized I had the ball, so I was running to the end zone, just trying not to fall down. That was it -- I scored and I got mobbed by my teammates. The stadium went absolutely nuts, so thank you to our fans for really changing momentum. That was really unbelievable."
Well, the Texans had something to say about the momentum from then on, as well. Dalton went 13 of 18 for 120 yards in the first half; we was looking pretty good before the Watt pick. But in the second half, forced more and more to press, he fell apart. He was 14 of 24 for 137 yards in the second half, and the Texans' defense allowed very little in the way of rushing relief. In fact, Dalton was Cincinnati's second-most productive runner behind fullback Brian Leonard — the only difference was, Leonard wasn't trying to make the best of broken plays. Receiver A.J. Green had just one catch in the second half after grabbing four in the first 30 minutes, and that had everything to do with Phillips' adjustments from press coverage to Cover-2 and high-low concepts.
"They got out of man [coverage] after I got a few touches," Green said. "They went zone and rolled it to my side. They bracketed me when I was in the slot."
Perhaps the most encouraging sign for the Texans, who will now travel to Baltimore for the divisional round, was how the game played out just like several players discussed on Friday. "So many years, we've tried to find ways to win, tried to go out and not lose," left tackle Duane Brown said. "We felt like we had a certain talent level and confidence in us."
Linebacker DeMeco Ryans said that the attitude definitely changed in 2011. "It was the attitude of the guys who have gone through this in the past," he said. "You're fed up with it for a while, a lot of talk in the past about it being our year and still falling short a couple of years. But this year, we were fed up and made it happen regardless."
And that's been the difference, Once surface-talented but mentally weak, this year's Texans fought through injuries to key players, Phillips' late-season surgical procedure, and Yates' growing pains in replacing hurt starter Matt Schaub to finally live up to their potential.