The Houston Texans (8-3) kept their distance from the AFC South pack on Monday evening, running through the Tennessee Titans (5-6) en route to a 34-17 victory, Houston’s eighth consecutive win. Here’s what we learned:
1. What a bizarre career for Lamar Miller. The eighth-year running back became the first player in NFL history with two rushes of at least 97 yards when he took a second-quarter handoff from the shadow of his end zone to the opposite end of NRG Stadium. Miller was quiet after that game-changing tote, finishing with 162 yards on 12 carries for 13.5 yards per carry. After a slow start to the season, Miller has averaged over four yards per carry and tallied over 100 scrimmage yards in four of his last five games. Miller spearheaded a Texans rushing attack that racked up 281 yards on Tennessee’s top-10 rushing defense and helped extend Houston’s six scoring drives. Missing from Houston’s game plan for the past year-and-a-half has been a consistent ground game. With five games left in the season, the Texans are paving holes for their running game and a path toward an AFC South title.
2. Another fateful goal-line decision from Mike Vrabel set Tennessee back early. Down four early in the second quarter, the Titans were facing a fourth-and-1 on Houston’s 3-yard line. Tennessee could have run Marcus Mariota on a read or a sweep or a dive into the line; Mariota was perfect in his career on 1-yard conversion rushing attempts. But the Titans instead called a fullback dive to a blocking tight end in Luke Stocker. Houston read it from a mile, er, yard away and stuffed the stocky tight end. On the very next play, Miller burned Tennessee for a 97-yard TD run. A 10- to 14-point swing in two plays. The decision to go for it on fourth in the red zone reminded me of the end of Tennessee’s loss to the Los Angeles Chargers in London when the rookie head coach attempted a failed two-point conversion to win when an extra point would have extended the game. Sometimes fortune doesn’t favor the bold, especially when your play calls are unfortunate.
3. Houston’s pass rush was stymied early by the Titans, who utilized read options, quick strikes and deception to nullify edge rushers J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. But the Texans got home eventually and kept on making house calls. Watt was responsible for 1.5 of Houston’s six sacks, but also helped spring Christian Covington, who had a career-high 2.5 QB takedowns. The Texans allowed two touchdowns on big plays and blown coverages, but other those 109 yards, Houston held Tennessee in check and it started up front.
4. Marcus Mariota was special in his return from an elbow stinger. One day after Philip Rivers completed a record 25 straight passes to open a game, Mariota (303 yards) completed 19 straight, a streak that took the Titanssignal-caller 14 minutes deep into the fourth quarter. But such marks are deceiving. Of those 19 straight completions, just three went beyond 10 yards through the air. Mariota also took six sacks behind a crumbling offensive line and led just three scoring drives. Aside from Corey Davis, Tennessee just doesn’t have enough talent on offense to scare playoff-bound defenses like Houston’s.
5. Deshaun Watson was arguably the more impressive quarterback on the evening. In addition to 210 yards and two touchdowns through the air, Watson contributed a career-high 70 rushing yards and a score on the ground. Perhaps Houston caught the Lamar Jackson bug. Watson’s chemistry with Demaryius Thomas is growing. The Broncos ex-pat caught four balls on five targets for two scores on Monday after seeing just three targets in his first two games combined with Houston.
6. Of Houston’s record eight straight wins after starting 0-3, this was probably the Texans’ most impressive: A 17-point victory over a division rival after falling behind 10 points within the first five minutes. Before Monday evening, Houston’s streak appeared to be smoke, mirrors and circumstance. The Texans were bailed out by questionable coaching decisions against Indy and Dallas; Nathan Peterman handed them a win against Buffalo; they played Cody Kessler in Jacksonville and Brock Osweiler on a short week; and their wins in Denver and D.C. came by a combined four points against questionable contenders. In retrospect, those arguments were made to avoid or discourage what is now an obvious conclusion. With just one game remaining against a .500-or-better opponent, the eight-and-three Texans are legitimate contenders in the AFC and favorites to win the South. Deal with it.
7. The Titans, meanwhile, have fallen back in the wild-card race and very likely out of the AFC South race. They are deservedly in the company of non-contenders Miami, Cincinnati and Denver at 5-6 and are one game behind the surging Colts, who they will play in the regular-season finale. Tennessee also benefits from a limp schedule down the stretch, but unlike Houston, the Titans are in an identity-less rut. Their blowout of New England two weeks ago feels like two months ago.