Texans take control of AFC South
Just when another Texans season seemed to be cracking, Houston put together one of its best performances under Gary Kubiak to take command of the AFC South.
The Texans (4-3) rediscovered their running game and dominated Tennessee's offense in a 41-7 victory, the most lopsided in team history.
Houston had dropped two in a row, and top playmakers Andre Johnson and Mario Williams were sidelined with injuries as the team headed to Nashville. Safety Danieal Manning broke his left leg early in Sunday's game, and the Texans still won handily, easing the sense that another season was on the verge of collapse.
Manning underwent surgery Monday and will miss a minimum of four weeks. But Kubiak is confident Johnson will return for this week's game against Jacksonville after sitting out the previous three with a right hamstring injury. Fullback James Casey is also expected to play after missing two games with a strained chest muscle.
Houston sits in first place at the latest stage of any year, with two AFC South victories already in hand. The Texans can take another huge step toward their first division title - and playoff berth - with a win on Sunday.
Kubiak says he hasn't yet started looking at the big picture.
''We've got so far to go,'' he said. ''I think it's way too early to start thinking that way. We just need to worry about how we play.''
But it's hard not to envision the tantalizing possibilities, if the Texans can play this well without some of their star players.
With Johnson watching from the sideline, Matt Schaub completed passes to seven receivers, went 18 for 23 overall and recorded a career-high rating (147.7). Arian Foster and Ben Tate both topped 100 yards rushing, and the Texans controlled the ball for nearly 38 minutes thanks to the strong play of the offensive front. Protecting Schaub was a priority at practice last week, and the line did not allow a sack.
The defense, meanwhile, turned in its best performance of 2011, holding Tennessee to 148 yards and generating two sacks and two turnovers. Rookie Brooks Reed, Williams' replacement at outside linebacker, had one of the sacks and had four tackles overall.
''You're always searching for perfection, that's why you practice, that's why you work,'' Kubiak said. ''Hopefully, you find it a couple of times along the way during the season. We found some good stuff in all three phases (Sunday).''
There have been flashes of good over the years for a franchise that's only had one winning season.
Houston was 5-3 midway through 2009, then lost four division games in a row. In 2010, the Texans opened 4-2, lost middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans to a season-ending Achilles tendon injury and finished 6-10.
Last week, before anyone got too down or started to panic, Kubiak said the coaches struck a reassuring tone.
''We've seen some very good stuff from our players,'' Kubiak said. ''Have we been finishing a few games, and did we need to make a few more plays in the past few weeks? Yes, we did. But we've also seen some great effort from them, and detail in what they're doing.
''We stayed positive last week, let them know that, `Hey, stay focused, keep working,''' Kubiak said. ''We'll make those 2-3 plays that will be the difference. They've been very good, playing with a lot of energy.''
After the running game sputtered in losses to Oakland and Baltimore, Houston's offense produced 518 total yards and 222 on the ground in Nashville, both season highs. Foster and Tate have become accurate barometers for the team's success; at least one of them has rushed for 100 yards in Houston's victories, and neither has reached the mark in three losses.
Kubiak said the difference Sunday was receivers helping the offensive line create holes for the running backs.
''We had a big pow-wow last week as a group,'' Kubiak said. ''I don't think we were doing some of the little extra effort things, some of the little finishing things that turn 3- and 4-yard runs into 6- and 7-yard runs. So we challenged our guys and we played very well up front.
''Our receivers were very unselfish in the game,'' he said. ''It was a group effort. Usually, those type of things happen because you're having special effort on the football field from a lot of people, not just one group and that's kind of what took place.''