TAMPA, Fla. -- Is it time?
For a couple weeks we’ve felt comfortable saying the Houston Texans should win the AFC South. Now that they stand at 7-3, is it time to start considering whether they will contend for something bigger, like a week off at the start of the playoffs? Like a bid to host the championship game if they can get there?
Only Pittsburgh’s got an equivalent record in the conference after Week 10, and the Texans knocked off the Steelers in Houston back in October. No one else has three division wins.
Sunday’s dominant showing at Raymond James Stadium makes the Texans’ threat level in the AFC a possibility people should start pondering. Houston’s 37-9 handling of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could have been even bigger if the Texans hadn’t politely eased up.
“It feels good to be this good,” said defensive end Antonio Smith, a banged up shoulder wrapped in ice. “… We can beat any team in the AFC. We don’t look at it like a team is above us or that we can’t stand toe to toe with any team. We’ve got just as much chance as anybody in the conference.”
That may be true. No, the Texans have not beaten up premier teams during a four-game winning streak. The four teams they toppled are a collective 15-21 right now. But in building the big record, Houston’s now got a believable swagger. It’s not the sort of false bravado it’s carried in some recent years, when it was chasing people rather than qualifying as a target.
The Texans are 4-2 in games without their best offensive player, and receiver Andre Johnson (hamstring) will return after the bye. They are 4-1 without their best defensive player, and outside linebacker Mario Williams (pectoral) won’t be back until next season.
They’ve evolved into a team that finds a way -- with the run game taking on more of the offensive load and with a rookie like Brooks Reed helping offset the loss of Williams.
There are kinks still, for sure, but they are less obvious than in past seasons. There is better coaching with Wade Phillips and his defensive staff. There is better talent with Johnathan Joseph out of free agency and J.J. Watt and Reed from the top of the draft class. There is great depth at running back and great continuity on the offensive line.
What is Houston not good at right now?
The Texans had two bad snaps on special teams, the first of which led to a missed extra point. Coach Gary Kubiak threw a challenge flag on a scoring play that’s automatically reviewed, drawing a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct flag.
“That was not very smart,” he said in the self-deprecating way that’s a core piece of his personality.
Against the Bucs, the Texans ran it for 185 yards and a 4.2-yard average and they threw it for an efficient 235 yards. They took the ball away with three interceptions and a fumble recovery and protected it, allowing no takeaways while limiting Tampa Bay to 231 yards.
They jumped to a 16-0 lead that felt completely insurmountable and proved to be just that.
“We came out and did what we are supposed to do against a team we’re supposed to handle,” inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. “Everybody was focused on what we had to do to get No. 7.”
This is a team that can run and throw, that can rush and cover. Ratcheting up the quality of the competition will alter things some. But the people drawing up and executing the plans are not going away. Neither is the confidence that’s been built.
And while a playoff opponent, any playoff opponent, will be tough, the six games remaining are mostly not: at Jacksonville, Atlanta, at Cincinnati, Carolina, at Indianapolis, Tennessee. Three losses are possible. So is one.
“We’re in a little bit of a zone, I would say, we’re feeling it,” right tackle Eric Winston said. “We’re like a shooter, I think, who’s found his stroke and coach is telling us to keep shooting.”
Winston isn’t concerned with power rankings and the like. Everyone will get their opportunity to make a run at the conference title, to win a trip to Indianapolis for the Super Bowl, he said.
Phillips said his group is playing solidly, not making many mistakes and not giving up big plays. Meanwhile, the offense got an 80-yard scoring pass from Matt Schaub to Jacoby Jones on the first play from scrimmage and tacked on a 78-yard catch-and-run touchdown by Arian Foster before halftime.
“Everybody is feeding off of each other,” Winston said. “The defense is feeding off the offense. The offense is feeding off the defense. They make a hit or a pick and all of a sudden, we’ve got to go out there and we’ve got to match it. It’s almost like a friendly competition. And there are competitions going on in position groups.
“I know as offensive linemen, we’re scrounging around for cuts, we’re scrounging around for knockdowns because we want to be the one with the highest grade when we go in on Monday. Everyone is pushing each other and everyone is rallying around each other. Every good team I’ve ever been on has been like this.”
Of course, one terrible Sunday afternoon upset can rattle it all for those of us watching and making declarations, creating questions and turning a day like this one into a blurry memory.
Don’t expect it, the Texans are saying. Don’t expect anything to happen that’s going to alter the fundamentals of what’s going on here, something that will get a jolt from the return of Johnson when their season resumes.
“I think if you look at what we’ve done so far, I think you could say we have somewhat of a complete team,” Joseph said. “… Saying it is not going to get it done. You’ve got to go out each week and perform.
“We’re sitting in the best position possible we could be sitting in going into the bye week. Realistically, it’s wide open right now. There is no clear-cut favorite … It’s not for us to determine [if we should be one]. We have to go out and play each week and come out 1-0.”
That mantra about going 1-0 each week is certainly cliché. The Texans know it and don’t pretend otherwise. It’s working for them and they’ll stick to it.
But is there anyone better than them in the AFC right now?
“Are you trying to stir something up, man,” Foster asked, smiling from under his hat, over his bow tie and behind his Clark Kent glasses. “Look, we’re playing well. I hope we continue to play well.”