At the end of last season, the Houston Texans were about as low as an NFL team can get.
They fired Lovie Smith, a bad hire to begin with, after one season. That was their second straight one-and-done head coach, following David Culley, another questionable hire. You can't blame the Texans for making bad hires. It's not like a candidate with any other options wanted to go there.
There was nothing good about the Texans. The Deshaun Watson debacle. The shockingly awful DeAndre Hopkins trade. Horrendous draft picks. The entire Jack Easterby saga that made the Texans a laughingstock. All the losses. The Texans were the worst franchise in the NFL.
DeMeco Ryans liked Houston from his time as a linebacker there. The feeling was mutual. Ryans was one of the more popular players in Texans history, and a top candidate after some good years as San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator. Had he been drafted by another team many years ago, it's likely that Ryans wouldn't have looked at the Texans. Why would he have? He had a bright future and the Texans did not.
Just keep in mind, if your NFL team is at the bottom this season, that it can change fast. The Texans got lucky that Ryans had good feelings about Houston and that outweighed all of the pitfalls of the organization. Houston also got lucky that the Carolina Panthers took Bryce Young over C.J. Stroud. The Texans took an immediate star at quarterback with the second overall draft pick. Though, you also have to credit the coaching staff for his historic development.
And now the Texans might be going to the playoffs. Houston got a huge 22-17 win over the Denver Broncos, which will age very well in the AFC wild-card race. Houston held off Denver's final drive, picking off Russell Wilson in the end zone with less than 10 seconds remaining to seal the win. Houston had a lead slipping away, but got the play it needed to win. That's a headstrong win by a young team with a very good coach. The Texans are 7-5 this season. That's probably more than twice as many wins as most people predicted for them.
— Yahoo Sports NFL (@YahooSportsNFL) December 3, 2023
Even if the Texans don't make it to the playoffs this season, the future is bright. Ryans was a great candidate, a former player who related to his players tremendously well and was a great football mind from a strong Kyle Shanahan tree. He made a great hire at offensive coordinator in Bobby Slowik, also from the Shanahan tree.
The Texans had a lot of holes on the roster, but some young players have emerged, Stroud has covered up plenty of those issues and Ryans and his staff have done the rest. Young building blocks like receiver Nico Collins, defensive end Will Anderson Jr. and cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. had big games in the win over Denver. Houston is a well-prepared team that is putting its players in the best positions to succeed every week. That's coaching.
It's almost too good to be true, a popular linebacker from the team's past returning to completely turn around a franchise that had sunk to the bottom of the NFL. Sounds like a good NFL Coach of the Year candidate.
Here are the rest of the winners and losers from Week 13 of the NFL season:
The Cowboys play the Eagles next week in Dallas, and Philadelphia looks a lot more vulnerable after a 42-19 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers were outgained 124 yards to -6 in the first quarter and still ended up destroying the Eagles. Part of that is the 49ers looking like the best team in football when healthy. Brock Purdy was great with 314 yards and four touchdowns, all of the 49ers’ skill-position stars made big plays and the defense did a great job containing Jalen Hurts and the Eagles' offense.
But part of it is the Eagles too. It was a team that was getting by on desperate comebacks and close wins. That can’t last forever. The Cowboys are just a game back and they get the Eagles at home in Week 14. The NFC East race is back on.
Puka Nacua: When you trade away all your high draft picks, you have to hit on the ones you still have.
The Rams got perhaps the steal of the entire draft with Nacua in the fifth round. He was a hot story early in the season and was the key player in another win Sunday, as the Los Angeles Rams got back to .500 with a 36-19 win over the Cleveland Browns. Nacua had 105 yards receiving and another 34 rushing (and had a 45-yard run taken off the board due to a holding penalty). His 70-yard touchdown in the first quarter set the tone for the Rams.
The Rams are a big surprise this season. They couldn’t have expected to get such a contribution from Nacua, but he is a big part of the Rams being in the playoff race.
Week to week, Hill affects every Miami Dolphins game. He had two huge touchdowns in an easy 45-15 win on Sunday against the Washington Commanders. He had 152 yards and two touchdowns ... before halftime. He was the second player in Dolphins history to score on two 60-yard touchdown receptions in the same game, joining Hall of Famer Paul Warfield, and he did it in a half.
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) December 3, 2023
Hill made a goal before the season to get 2,000 yards. He might get there — he's on pace for well over 2,000 after a his 157-yard day Sunday — even if the MVP probably isn't coming his way. A receiver has never won the award. Hill deserves it, though.
Sam LaPorta: Rookie tight ends are not supposed to make an immediate impact. LaPorta is a big exception.
What a draft steal LaPorta has been. The team's second-round pick had 140 yards, a Lions tight end record for a single game, and was a big factor in Detroit holding off the New Orleans Saints 33-28. The Lions took a 21-0 lead in the first quarter and while it's not ideal they had to hold on for dear life at the end, they did. LaPorta kept making big plays as the Saints were charging.
The Lions didn't look good in back-to-back games, losing one of them on Thanksgiving to the Green Bay Packers. They needed a win Sunday and got it. And it's not the last time their new star tight end will be a huge factor in a win.
Atlanta Falcons, by default: The New York Jets aren't a competitive NFL team anymore. Their defense is still very good, but the offense has gotten to a point in which touchdowns are just about impossible.
The Falcons don't care. They'll take the win and maintain their lead in the NFC South with an ugly 13-8 win. Atlanta's offense couldn't move the ball but the defense didn’t allow much to Tim Boyle and Trevor Siemian.
Atlanta won’t have many highlights from the ugly win but it counts the same. They’re 6-6 and with the New Orleans Saints’ issues they’re looking like a better bet to win a division title. An easy schedule that included an inept Jets offense has certainly helped.
Carolina Panthers again: Firing Frank Reich wasn’t going to magically fix the Panthers. There’s a lot to work on this offseason.
Sunday was another reminder of how far the Panthers have to go. They lost 21-18 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They were mostly competitive in the game, which is good, but it’s still a loss. The Panthers are 1-11 after the defeat and, of course, the Chicago Bears have their first-round draft pick next year.
Bryce Young continued to struggle, completing just 15 of 31 passes for 178 yards, no touchdowns and one interception on Sunday. It has been a lost season for Carolina, to say the least. Changing coaches isn’t going to lead to a late-season surge, either.
The Patriots were awful on offense. They had chances but couldn't take advantage. Late in the game it seemed Zappe completed a long pass to DeVante Parker, but Parker's foot was out of bounds. That summed up the day.
Nothing is going to improve for the Patriots this season. Their hope is that horrendous quarterback play leads to drafting a much better quarterback in April.
Tennessee Titans' punt team: You don't often see a punt blocked in the NFL. The Titans gave up two in less than two minutes of game action.
One blocked punt was returned by the Indianapolis Colts for a touchdown. The other was recovered inside the 10-yard line and set up a field goal. That turned a game the Colts looked like they were going to lose into a sudden 25-19 lead. That was a huge difference in the Colts' 31-28 overtime win, which they won on Michael Pittman Jr.'s walk-off touchdown.
The punt blocks affected the rest of the game. Titans punter Ryan Stonehouse was injured on the second block, which meant Ryan Tannehill had to be the holder on an extra point after the Titans tied the game, and the extra point was missed. That might have helped Tennessee avoid overtime. Kicker Nick Folk had to punt after the Titans threw incomplete on third-and-12 late in the fourth quarter.
It has been a rough season for Tennessee. Losing on back-to-back punt blocks is a new way for the Titans to drop a game.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Maybe it wasn’t all Matt Canada’s fault.
The Steelers' offense was supposed to improve after replacing Canada as offensive coordinator, but you wouldn’t have known it Sunday. Against a terrible Arizona Cardinals defense, the Steelers didn’t score a touchdown until less than five minutes remained and the Cardinals were already blowing them out.
The Steelers had a damaging, weather-delayed 24-10 loss at home to the Cardinals. It’s hard to blame the weather delays for all of Pittsburgh’s problems. Kenny Pickett left the game with a leg injury, but Pittsburgh’s offense wasn’t moving it before he got injured either. Mitchell Trubisky didn’t save the Steelers.
Pittsburgh is still in decent shape at 7-5. But there are questions about how good the Steelers really are, especially after a no-show against the Cardinals.