Titans pass on long FG, Texans collect huge win

December, 14, 2008
12/14/08
9:40
PM ET
 
 Brett Davis/US Presswire
 Texans receiver Andre Johnson had 207 yards and a touchdown in perhaps the biggest win in franchise history, 13-12, over the Titans.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

HOUSTON -- Jeff Fisher didn't let his team's 12-1 record morph him into something that he's not. That is, if you believe the stoic lines he delivered shortly after the Titans lost to the Texans, 13-12, in a tense AFC South clash Sunday.

His dependable and strong kicker, Rob Bironas, was simply out of his range when the Titans faced a fourth-and-3 from the Houston 32-yard line with two minutes remaining.

And so the Titans called a pass play and Kerry Collins looked to Justin McCareins, a receiver whose biggest contributions in a huge year for the team have come in the form of run blocks, not crucial catches. Collins' pass to the left side sailed beyond McCareins' reach, and the Titans were left to swallow a loss on a day when they might have been able to clinch the AFC's No. 1 seed.

A week ago the Texans overcame four turnovers to win in Green Bay. Against the Titans they overcame 11 penalties for 127 yards and rode a nearly unfathomably good day from receiver Andre Johnson to what probably ranks as the biggest win in the seven-year history of the franchise.

I'll get there soon, I promise.

But first, a complete look at Fisher's curious decision to pass on a 50-yard field goal attempt.

Bironas had been true on all four of his attempts, from 26, 23, 51 and 34 yards, with the 51-yarder benefitting from the breeze -- remember, the roof's open here after Hurricane Ike damaged it.

Including the 51-yarder, he's 15-of-18 this year from over 40 yards, and 1-for-1 from 50 or longer, never being called on to make an attempt over over 50-yards before today. He's 8-of-12 from 50 or longer in his career, including a 60-yarder.

None of which mattered to Fisher, at least after the fact when he did the sort of advanced disarming work he's so good at in anticipation of a tough line of questioning. And so he finished his brief opening comments with this:

"I told the players I'll take this one. I should have taken the wind in the fourth and not the third and that's exactly why I decided not to let Rob kick. It was not within his range. I knew exactly what his range was and I just felt that we would get things going into the fourth quarter that it wouldn't be a factor. So that's why we went for it on fourth down. It was not a good coaching decision."

Follow-up No. 1: What was Bironas' range? "I know he was about 5 yards outside his range. He made attempts before the game and couldn't get them close and we were outside his range with wind a factor and wind was clearly a factor in here."

Follow up No. 2: Did Bironas lobby to try it? "No he didn't. He said, 'I'll give it a shot.'"

It seems incredibly unnatural for a team that's lived by the field goal for its coach's entire career to have died by a fourth-down pass.

Whatever else Fisher covered in his postgame talk with the team, he clearly couldn't have hit any harder on the idea that players shouldn't second-guess.

Bironas and anyone else who was asked said it was a coach's decision and that the team rides with what the coach decides. (Unsaid: We'd be fools to challenge his thought process, we're 12-2. Also unsaid: Still, it was weird.)

"I thought we were going to kick it, but it is a coaching decision," Bironas said. "There was a decent breeze out there."

The Titans lost the game and offered credit, but they weren't going over a cliff over a bad result, not when the defense still held the Texans to 13 points.

My theory on the ending is that there is more here than a discouraging breeze. The Texans were stacking up to stop the run and the Titans' counter, by plan and in practice, was to take a lot of shots downfield in the passing game. They often had people open, but Collins was very inaccurate and often late, long or both.

Fisher and offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger kept thinking things would click in and were a little stubborn about it, to the detriment of a field goal laced with adrenaline that could have won them the game. I say Bironas had a 65 percent chance of making it. Knock 10 or 15 points off that if you like, it's still better odds than Collins was providing on an afternoon with a .454 completion percentage, don't you think? And that's not even calculating the likelihood of McCareins actually making a big play, though Collins had the option of looking to Justin Gage on the other side.

"Yeah we let one get away I mean, that team's not better than us," tight end Bo Scaife said. "They're not even going to the playoffs. We're a playoff team and we're the best team in the league. We just didn't play like that, plain and simple. We're still in control of our own destiny. If we go out there and take care of business, we'll be fine."

"That field goal may have won us the game, but I think we did a lot of things to lose it before that," linebacker Keith Bulluck said.

OK, on to the winners, a team very few outside team headquarters imagined could so much as sniff .500 after 0-4 and 3-7 records. Here they are at 7-7, riding a four-game win streak that's tied with Minnesota for second-longest in the league behind Indianapolis (seven).

Right tackle Eric Winston said he was thinking of the Texans' current streak as work that will have the Texans -- a 6-14 team in September -- ready to play well from the start next year.

"It's Week 1, let's go play ball and let's have all the parts in the right spot, and this is what this push has been about," he said.

The Texans took the win as redemption on multiple levels.

"That was shoved in our face about how much we got pushed around, and I don't want to say cheap-shotted, but towards-the-end-of-the-whistle hits in Tennessee and it was kind of embarrassing," Winston said of Tennessee's 31-12 Week 3 win in Nashville. "It was kind of like the big brother kind of just pushing us around in Tennessee and we weren't going to have it. It's one thing to get beat, but we were not going to go out there and get beat up."

Johnson caught only two balls for 29 yards in the first game, with two catchable balls bouncing off his hands and a third falling incomplete when he failed to angle to it aggressively in the end zone.

"We also didn't do a good job in the red zone against them when we were up there and that was on everybody's mind coming into this week," Johnson said. "We know if we
made those plays we would have beat them. And we were just determined that we were going to go out and make those plays."

Johnson's combination of power, speed and determination was more than the Titans could control, though limiting him to one end-zone visit meant they still could have won. After the game, he worked hard to spread the credit, but original Texan Chester Pitts, the left guard, would have none of it.

"We appreciate that but we all know that Andre, aka, Superman, is playing out of his mind," Pitts said. "Two-hundred-seven yards? I mean come on. What other receiver in the league is doing that?"

Just a few more things...

  • Cortland Finnegan is as sweet a guy as you'll meet in an NFL locker room, which makes his game-day persona all the more remarkable. He's beloved by his team and its fans for being feisty, but walks a line sometimes.

He crossed it with the helmet shot to Matt Schaub's chin or jaw and a spear into Owen Daniels' back two plays later -- giving Houston 28 of its 58 yards on a field-goal drive that made it 13-9.

In training camp Johnson called Finnegan "a little irritating," in a pretty complimentary way. Did he want to revise that description after this game?

"Same thing, he's still irritating," Johnson said. "He's a feisty player. If you watch the game, you'll see... all of us get into it with him. That's just the way he plays."

Said Finnegan: "When [Schaub] has his back to me and he throws the ball, he then opens up so it's just obvious. No beef with any of it. I accept all fines, they're all to charity."

Said Pitts of the hit on Schaub: "It was completely unabated, he was free. That play [Schaub] was hit, he has to get the ball gone before he gets there. That's part of the game. But we don't play like that, we don't coach our guys to play like that. If one of our corners came in free like that, none of them would lead with their helmet and try to hit him under his chin and take a shot like that."

  • On 23 carries, Texans rookie running back Steve Slaton had 66 yards. The Titans had no real problem with that. On his 24th carry, he got to 100.

"There have been two backs to go 100 yards on them all year," Winston said. "His name's Steve Slaton."

While Finnegan and defensive tackle Tony Brown were complimentary of Slaton, Bulluck wasn't.

"Slaton didn't do anything," he said. "Slaton busted that run at the end of the game and we pretty much had him in check. To tell you the truth, I don't' think their running game hurt us at all."

  • I don't have a breakdown, but I feel like most teams have the national anthem performed after the teams are on the field. The Texans do it about 15 minutes before kickoff with the teams in the locker rooms. It takes away from the pageantry of pregame.

Paul Kuharsky | email

ESPN Tennessee Titans reporter

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