Events have conspired against the Houston Texans at the worst possible time.
Just when you thought it was safe to write Gary Kubiak's squad in as the de facto AFC South champions, things have unraveled in ways that make you wonder if somebody up there doesn't like this team. The franchise was able to overcome the loss of sackmaster Mario Williams for the season in early October because new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has been dialing things up so well, but the more recent foot injury that put quarterback Matt Schaub on the shelf for the rest of the year was more problematic.
Especially when replacement Matt Leinart, who was supposed to finish out the season under center, couldn't even make it through a full game before breaking his collarbone last Sunday. That brought the Texans to throw rookie quarterback T.J. Yates into the fire, and that's where he'll be for the foreseeable future.
While the 8-3 Texans are in a state of flux, there's been a new challenger in the division — the formerly moribund Tennessee Titans have risen up with help from an improved Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback and the return of running back Chris Johnson form whatever milk carton he was on. The Titans are 6-5, Johnson put up 190 yards against a very aggressive Tampa Bay defense last week, and Hasselbeck is slinging it around to multiple targets in a way the Texans might not see from their own passing offense for the rest of the season.
Today, the Titans face a depleted Buffalo Bills team looking to rebound from their own injury issues. That's a solid recipe for a possible win, though one never knows what kinds of creative game plans you'll see from Buffalo head coach Chan Gailey. The real secret to the Titans' success will be to continue the offensive consistency find a way to improve on defense, and continue to unleash a special teams unit that has become one of the NFL's best.
"That's what we're going to have to do if we're going to make a run at the playoffs and hopefully make a run to the Super Bowl," Johnson said earlier this week. "Those [elite] teams have a running game, and we're going to have to have it to complement the passing game that we've got going in order for us to make it a long way."
Hasselbeck, who hadn't had a solid running game during his time in Seattle since about 2005, certainly agreed. "Forever, this team has been great at running the ball, so if we can get that going like we did last week and like we did three weeks ago, it'd be a huge help," he said. "It would make everybody's job easier."
Guard Jake Scott, a key part of an offensive line that has greatly improved over the last few weeks to go along with Johnson's revival, spoke to the hope of a longer season. "You get into this time of year and you start playing outdoor games, it can be really hard to throw the ball at times, and sometimes you're going to have to be able to get that going, so it's a good time to get that started."
No better time than now. Tennessee and Houston are set to face off in Week 17, and by that time, we may be talking about it as a plus-one for all the marbles in the AFC South.