The windows for a team to win in the NFL are small. It takes a quarterback, the right coaching staff and a strong supporting cast of veteran leaders and youthful talent coming together at the right time to have a chance at winning the ultimate prize. On Monday night the window opened for the Texans and closed on the Titans, at least for this season, in a 34-17 runaway.
Houston was decimated by injuries a year ago, missing the playoffs for the first time in three years. Now healthy, they are back as evidenced by their 27-point avalanche after falling behind 10-0 early against Tennessee.
Deshaun Watson is a star quarterback in this league, throwing for 210 yards, two touchdowns and running for another Monday. And he got plenty of help as the Texans took a two game lead over the Colts in the AFC South with five games left to play.
Lamar Miller ran for 148 yards in the first half, including a 97-yard touchdown that was the longest run in Texans history. DeAndre Hopkins had five receptions and Demaryius Thomas made his presence felt in his third game with Houston by catching a pair of touchdowns. On defense J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney are all healthy and wrecking havoc on opposing teams’ offensive lines.
And that’s why Bill O’Brien’s Texans have now run off eight straight wins after an 0-3 start. Everything is coming together as they play the type of complimentary football that makes them the class of the division and a team to be reckoned with come playoff time.
The Titans almost certainly will be at home come the postseason following a second straight loss. At 5-6 on the season, they are now three games back of the Texans in the AFC South race with five games left and sit 11th in the overall AFC standings.
The Titans won a playoff game last year, but looked like a team that was a step out of position or a step slow all night in Houston. Marcus Mariota completed his first 19 passes, but unlike Watson, Tennessee’s franchise quarterback got little help. The running game couldn’t get going once again and the offensive line broke down as the night wore on, giving up six sacks and getting flagged for several penalties.
A year ago general manager Jon Robinson decided a coaching change was needed to juice up the offense and replaced Mike Mularkey with Mike Vrabel and an offensive staff charged with getting the most out of Mariota. As much as some fans want to pick on him, Mariota is not the problem. He finished 22-23 for 302 yards and two scores Monday, and, when healthy, has proven to be clutch with 10 game-winning drives over the past season and a half.
But what Robinson did not do in the offseason was make any changes to an offensive line that struggled on the interior last season. They’ve been worse this year. When you throw in injuries to tackles Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin you have a unit that has underperformed with the running game dropping to near the bottom of the NFL rankings and Mariota running for his life behind them.
And the Tennessee defense was exposed again by a divisional opponent. They went to Indianapolis last week leading the NFL in scoring defense, allowing just 17 points per game, but have now given up 72 points in back to back losses. Like the offense, the defense is getting pushed around in the trenches. Once one of the league’s stoutest fronts against the run, the Titans gave up a whopping 281 yards on the ground to the Texans.
Besides Jurrell Casey, they’re getting pushed around at the line of scrimmage and a linebacking corps that was once a strength now looks slow with aging veterans Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan dropping off in production.
The window is closing fast on this season and a hard evaluation will need to be done when it ends. Mariota’s going nowhere and the coaching change has already been made. But it was clear Monday night that the supporting cast just isn’t good enough right now.
And pretty soon we’ll all be looking to next year and if the Titans can add enough pieces to open that window back up.