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Sunday, December 2, 2012
As they expected, Texans are in playoffs

By Paul Kuharsky

Jake Locker
Jared Crick and Houston's defense knocked Jake Locker around on their way to a playoff berth.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- No champagne. No confetti. No cartwheels.

The Houston Texans left Tennessee happy, for sure. They weren’t about to pretend that clinching a playoff berth didn’t mean something.

But after a 24-10 victory over the Tennessee Titans, the Texans talked about it as a first step.

A year ago they were a breakthrough team, earning a surprising division title thanks to the combination of solid play and the Indianapolis Colts' collapse as Peyton Manning missed the season.

This year, the Texans were big favorites to win the division and make some noise in the playoffs a year after making the franchise's first appearance and winning its postseason first game.

“We expected it,” said defensive lineman J.J. Watt, the first player in league history to record 15 sacks and 15 pass break-ups. “We’re happy about it. But we’re not satisfied by it by any means.”

Qualifying for the postseason is a big deal, and doing it in Week 13 is especially good.

“We know we’re a good team, it wasn’t just a fluke year and we can make a run at the whole thing, I think,” defensive tackle Shaun Cody said. “Our next goal is clinch [the division], then to get home field. We’ll knock down one at a time.”

A few developments of note for both teams out of the Texans’ semi-suffocating win:

Depth remains a primary feature: Outside linebacker Brooks Reed missed the first of what’s likely to be at least three games with a groin injury, which prompted a shuffle that put rookie Whitney Mercilus at weakside linebacker in the base defense.

He accounted for two of Houston’s six sacks. That pass pressure was a necessity considering the Texans started off without starting corner Johnathan Joseph and backup corner Alan Ball. They also lost Brice McCain, the guy who started on the right side, to a foot injury.

With Brandon Harris and Roc Carmichael seeing the first significant and meaningful playing time of their careers, the coverage was softer in the second half. That disruptive front batted four of Jake Locker's passes, two of which turned into interceptions.

Linebackers and defensive backs stayed tight on receivers and tight ends when the game was in any doubt, and came away with an additional 12 passes defensed -- including two by Harris and one by Carmichael.

"Everybody’s in the same room, same meetings and we raise them a certain way,” safety Glover Quin said of the ability of young guys to step in. “That’s just what we do."

Rookie receiver DeVier Posey is not in that meeting room, and coach Gary Kubiak said he would have been next in line to play as a corner if the team needed someone extra.

A turn for the Texans' defense: In overtime wins in Week 11 and 12, the Texans were very reliant on the offense. A versatile team that’s capable of winning in multiple ways didn’t have a problem with that. But the defense was anxious to return to the form it has shown earlier in the year.

Houston took the ball away six times, thanks to three interceptions and three fumbles. Following two of those turnovers, the offense had to move all of 7 yards to collect 10 points. A fumble recovery by Antonio Smith was ridiculously blown dead or there would have been another 7, as he wasn’t going to have much trouble with a big return for a score. A 45-yard punt return set up a 20-yard touchdown drive.

“The defense played great,” Watt said. “It’s what we’ve been looking for the last couple weeks and obviously we had some struggles. But today is what we’re used to, the way we’re used to playing: turnovers, momentum swings, big plays. That was our defense.”

Said Kubiak: “You come in here missing some key defensive players and you think you have got to play really well offensively. And we turn around and may have played as good a defensive game as we have played this year.”

Locker was rattled: It’s great that Titans second-year quarterback Locker shows great resolve and toughness and that he doesn’t give up. And I completely understand why the Titans tout those qualities in a player who still deserves plenty of time to grow and mature as well as more help in terms of protection and guys making catches for him.

But he wouldn’t need as much resolve if he threw more accurately, ran more freely and did more well early on. Yes, there will be ups and downs in every game and you want your guy to survive the downs. You also need fewer downs.

Titans coach Mike Munchak said Locker was rattled early.

Locker was just 8-for-22 in the first half for 96 yards, with the two tipped-ball picks and a passer rating of 12.7.

“I think he was pressing,” said Dowell Loggains, who took over as offensive coordinator early in the week. “I think he wanted to play perfect. I think this game meant a lot to him, he was really invested in what we were doing and he tried to play too perfect.”

Killer mistakes: Tennessee obviously made far too many mistakes to have a chance to win this one. All week the Titans talked about how they couldn’t afford to let the Texans march to a touchdown right out of the gate, and head off to build a lead.

But on the sixth play, Titans safety Michael Griffin did what he does so often -- took a bad angle and tried to do more than he needed to. He could have shoved Lestar Jean out of bounds after a middling gain. Instead, he flew by and Jean raced 54 yards for a touchdown to give the Texans that game-opening score Tennessee wanted so much to avoid.

Other mistakes that weren’t turnovers or sacks allowed killed drives, too, such as substitute offensive guard Kevin Matthews' penalty for holding Smith with 7:26 remaining in the game. Locker made a great run for a 28-yard gain that had the potential to rally his offense. But the penalty moved the Texans from the Houston 49-yard line back to the Tennessee 13.

“We’d gotten back into a rhythm and I think we all believed at that point we were going to win the game, get back into this thing, make it a seven-point game,” Loggains said. “He makes a heck of a run and it gets called back because of a penalty. That’s frustrating.”

Foster’s pace is fine: Remember early in the year when there was much hand-wringing about Arian Foster’s workload? He was going to wind up with 400 carries and that was going to prove catastrophic.

I suggested there would be days when the Texans didn’t need to rely on him so much, like this one. He had 14 carries, and so did Justin Forsett. Foster is now on pace for a reasonable 348 carries -- just 21 more than he had last season.

And odds are at least one game at the end of the regular season isn’t going to mean anything, which means he could get zero carries in that game and really reduce the total.

“We talked about kind of rotating a little more toward the end of the season,” Foster said. “But when they need me to carry the load, I’ll be ready to go.

“You always want the ball. I’m a competitor, I want to play. But I understand the big picture.”