Smoke, mirrors and the Houston Texans
They're thisclose to their first playoff berth despite a glut of season-ending injuries
The Green Bay Packers? The best team in the NFL.
The San Francisco 49ers? The most surprising.
The New England Patriots? The most methodical.
But the Houston Texans?
They own the title as the NFL's most impressive.
Before you clutch your chest and yell, "This is the big one! Ya hear that, Elizabeth? I'm coming to join you!" note that I'm not inking the Texans into the Super Bowl in Indianapolis. They aren't the most talented team, just the most resilient.
The Texans have a two-game lead in the AFC South and are tied with the Ravens, Patriots and Steelers for the best record in the AFC (9-3) -- which is an absolutely remarkable accomplishment considering how much they've been decimated by injuries.
The Tim Tebow-led Broncos seem to have captured America's heart as the team of destiny, but that label belongs just as much to the Texans, who have now won a team-record six straight games and could become the division champs this weekend with a win over the Bengals and a loss by the Titans.
Who would have believed the Texans could be in a position to clinch their first playoff berth in the franchise's 10-year existence after they lost linebacker Mario Williams, quarterback Matt Schaub and his backup, Matt Leinart, for the season? Andre Johnson, their most talented offensive player, already has missed six games with a bad hamstring and could miss more time after re-injuring it against Atlanta on Sunday. Arian Foster, their talented, bruising running back, missed the team's first two games, also because of a hamstring issue.
And to think, the Colts can't win a single game missing just one starting quarterback.
"It just reflects the character of our team the way we deal with adversity and the job that coach [Gary] Kubiak has done in keeping these guys focused and ready to play in spite of all of these setbacks," Texans owner Bob McNair said after they beat Atlanta 17-10 last week.
Houston beat the Falcons -- whom some experts picked to go to the Super Bowl -- with a rookie quarterback, T.J Yates, a fifth-round pick out of North Carolina. Yates was 12-of-25 for 188 yards, threw one touchdown, and had no interceptions.
Third-string quarterbacks making their first NFL start aren't supposed to do that.
But the Texans have the magic touch, in spite of what seemed like the kiss of death due to injuries. Houston came into the 2010 season riding a high after finishing 9-7 and just behind the Colts in the division in 2009. With a potent offense returning, the Texans were poised to make a splash.
They finished 6-10 and unofficially led the league in creative ways to lose games. They lost on a Hail Mary at Jacksonville. They blew a 17-point lead against Tebow's Broncos, with Tebow lighting up the worst pass defense in the league for 308 yards. In fact, at one point last season, the Texans went through an eight-game stretch in which they lost seven times when they either led or were tied in the fourth quarter.
This year, regardless of the circumstances -- or what the injury report says -- all they do is win.
"I just told the guys, it's been three weeks, three different quarterbacks, but it's the same team, it's the same 46 guys going out there every week and just battling as a heck of a football team," Kubiak said.
The coach of year award is probably Jim Harbaugh's to lose in San Francisco, but Kubiak -- whom many thought would be fired after last season --- deserves some serious consideration. No coach has had to overcome as much as Kubiak has; and while last year's disappointing season provided plenty of reasons to doubt him, it says something about his leadership ability that Houston didn't use the injuries as an excuse to fall apart.
Let's also not forget that once McNair decided to stick with Kubiak after last season, the coach made the bold decision to fire defensive coordinator Frank Bush, secondary coach David Gibbs and linebackers coach Johnny Holland, and turn the defense over to former Dallas head coach Wade Phillips, who has transformed the Texans' D into a top-tier defense. Houston finished 30th in defense last season; now they're ranked second in total defense behind the Pittsburgh Steelers. Phillips couldn't save the Cowboys, but he has followed in the footsteps of defensive coordinators Gregg Williams and Dom Capers -- who returned to being excellent coordinators after less-than-successful stints as head coaches.
Still, with all their success, it's hard to predict where the Texans go from here. Their punishing running game is the foundation of their offense; but rational thought says that at some point, the injuries will catch up to them and bring this glorious run to an end.
Destiny, though, isn't rational. It might have other plans.
Jemele Hill can be reached at email@example.com.
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