HOUSTON - In a homecoming bloated with rancor and disdain, Bills defensive end Mario Williams enjoyed his one moment in the spotlight with a second-quarter sack of Texans quarterback Matt Schaub and a taunting finger wag at the Texans' bench.
That was the most memorable impression former Texans player Williams left on Sunday at Reliant Stadium, a development Texans fans surely found equally gratifying and fitting.
The Texans churned out a 21-9 victory over the Bills by persevering through a sloppy and uneven performance on both sides of the ball. The efficiency they displayed with their dismantling of the Ravens two weeks ago was absent, but the final result was sufficient to keep the Texans (7-1) atop the AFC standings midway through their schedule.
"We hurt ourselves in the first half," Schaub said. "I think we had three 1st-and-20 situations with penalties and some false starts. When you do that it's hard to make up for, no matter who you are or who you're playing. Those are tough situations, especially on some of those we had some big plays and then they were called back.
"But in the second half we made some plays. We got back to who we are: running the football, our play-action game, and guys made some plays for us."
Given the uneven matchup on paper, Williams was the focal point entering the game. He was selected by the Texans first overall in 2006 and earned two Pro Bowl berths while setting franchise standards for sacks (53) and forced fumbles (11) before signing a $100 million contract with the Bills (3-5) during the offseason. Williams was booed lustily on those occasions his name was announced Sunday, but, excluding his lone sack, Williams was held in relative check by second-year tackle Derek Newton.
Williams posted a team-leading seven tackles, including two for losses.
"Like I said, I was looking to get one. I couldn't just come in here and not," Williams said of his sack. "I had to at least somehow, someway get that. I wish it had been more."
Despite ranking 31st in total defense, the Bills mustered an inspired performance. The Texans didn't settle the outcome until Schaub found Garrett Graham for a five-yard touchdown pass with 11:25 remaining in the fourth quarter, capping a methodical 11-play, 68-yard drive that chewed 6:30 off the clock. That march was the only drive of significant time consumption for the erratic Texans, whose running game sputtered just enough to keep the Bills in contention.
However, as has become their custom under defensive coordinator (and former Bills coach) Wade Phillips, the Texans' defense proved to be up to the challenge by stifling a surprisingly resilient Bills offense. The Texans sacked Ryan Fitzpatrick only three times and forced just one turnover, but when the Bills threatened in the red zone, the Texans stiffened, allowing three relatively short field goals (22, 38 and 39 yards), excluding a 37-yard errant attempt by Rian Lindell.
"The story for us was just our inability to score touchdowns," Fitzpatrick said. "Something this team over the last few years has been good at is converting those drives into seven points, not three. To me that's where our issue was today: not being able to get the seven points, driving it down the field and doing different things and not being able to convert."
Said Phillips: "Those are big plays in the red zone that can change the course of the game. We get 21 (points) and they get nine. Both teams were down there three times."
Despite their struggles, the Texans managed some individual offensive benchmarks, with running back Arian Foster rushing for 111 yards and a touchdown and receiver Andre Johnson posting his 40th career 100-yard receiving game (eight receptions for 118 yards).
Notes: The Texans entered play on Sunday leading the NFL in time of possession at 35:23, having won the possession battle in all seven games. Against the Bills the Texans possessed the ball for 34:03. ... With his 22-yard run in the final minute of the second quarter, Bills running back C.J. Spiller became the first Texans opponent to record a run of 20-plus yards this season. ... Texans defensive end J.J. Watt became the 11th player in NFL history to produce double-digit totals in sacks and passes defensed in the same season. Watt sacked Fitzpatrick with nine seconds left in the second quarter to bump his total to 10.5 this season. He has 10 passes defensed this season.