HOUSTON -- The patch is small.
Saturday night in front of his entire team, Texans coach Gary Kubiak put a big spotlight and magnifying lens over it.
The guys with that small rectangular “C” on the right breast of their jerseys needed to elevate their game and lead, he said, issuing a challenge at the team meeting. On the eve of a game pitting the AFC’s two best teams, Kubiak called on his captains to show why their teammates voted them the title.
In a 43-13 thrashing of the Ravens, Houston’s captains did just that. Matt Schaub played efficient and effective at quarterback (a 100.7 passer rating) with Andre Johnson dictating coverage as he moved around to pull in nine passes for a game-high 86 yards. On the other side of the ball, Antonio Smith put fourth-quarter exclamation marks on a stifling defensive effort with sacks of Joe Flacco on consecutive plays.
In the franchise’s first win over Baltimore, Houston set a new team record for points in a game.
A week after the Texans let down against the Packers and got shelled in their first game without injured defensive leader Brian Cushing, the Ravens endured the same sort of trouble adjusting to life without two players lost last week to injury -- their top cornerback, Lardarius Webb, and their longtime leader, Ray Lewis.
The Ravens looked nothing like the best team in the AFC, or even the second best.
Meanwhile, Houston heads into its bye feeling awfully confident.
“I knew we were going to bounce back,” Schaub said.
“Last week was a hiccup, but we’re just fine,” defensive end J.J. Watt said.
They are hardly perfect, but six of the nine teams left on their schedule are currently .500 or worse.
There isn't a team in the conference with as good a balance between its offense and defense or between its rush offense and pass offense. Barring another big injury, it should not be difficult for the Texans to win 11 games. I can’t be sold on the idea that they’ll lose more than one -- if one -- of their remaining four at home, against Buffalo, Jacksonville, Indianapolis and Minnesota.
In getting to 5-0 they proved they were awfully good. In rebounding from their first loss and lone dud of the season, they showed there is quite a bit of distance between themselves and the teams they will likely be fighting with come the playoffs, which should run through Reliant Stadium.
“We didn’t lose to a team still searching for their identity,” said Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs, who made his season debut to the surprise of many and had a sack and a pass knockdown. “They know who they are.”
Cushing might qualify as the Texans’ best leader, which is part of why Kubiak singled out his other captains in the team’s second game without the inside linebacker since he suffered a torn ACL.
“It’s human nature to say, 'OK, how are we going to be?'" Kubiak said, referring to the Texans' first time on the field without Cushing. “... What we found out today is we can still play great defense and expect to do that the rest of the year.”
It was great offense, too, after a slow start.
Outside linebacker Connor Barwin provided a spark with his first sack of the season and a safety, and cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who’s been struggling with a groin injury, grabbed a pass tipped by Watt and returned it for a 52-yard touchdown. The defensive scoring was nice, but by the end, the offense had more than found its bearings with 420 total net yards and 27 first downs in 38:16 of possession time.
Schaub spread his passes around, with 10 aimed for Johnson, 10 for tight end Owen Daniels and six for Kevin Walter. Typically, when the Texans are able to feature Johnson, things go well for Houston. When Schaub can target him, the coverage reacts and that creates space for Daniels and other pass-catchers as well as Arian Foster and the rushing offense.
“What weren’t they able to do?” Ravens coach John Harbaugh asked. “They ran the ball, they threw the ball, protected it. It was about as complete a performance as you can have on both sides of the ball."
Kubiak has another captain vote midway through the season because he knows a team is always evolving and new, emerging leaders may be deserving of joining the captains already in place.
It’s unlikely the coach will call on them again in such a setting for a boost -- it’s a hand you can probably only play once.
“Coach doesn’t do it often, but he looked to those guys to step up and represent that C on their chest that all the players voted on them for,” Daniels said. “Not that they hadn’t been doing a great job this season. But today was one of those games where we needed to bounce back from last week and we needed to make a statement.”
It’s one I’m not sure anyone in the conference is going to be able to answer.