The Houston Texans received an extended and well-deserved break following a win on their Thanksgiving debut.
Playing 10 straight quarters of football can be draining physically and mentally, and the Texans look to come out fresh Sunday against the AFC South- rival Tennessee Titans.
The Texans have won five in a row and back-to-back games in overtime, most recently a 34-31 win at Detroit last Thursday to kick off the holiday slate. In the first of three consecutive games on the road, Houston made it five straight wins away from home and caught a break courtesy of Lions head coach Jim Schwartz, who threw an illegal challenge flag when he didn't have to.
A furious Schwartz threw the red flag when Texans running back Justin Forsett scored on an 81-yard touchdown run in the third quarter after two Lions tackled him. It appeared Forsett's left knee and elbow hit the turf, prompting Schwartz to challenge the play when rules state that an automatic review follows all scoring plays.
Challenging a score automatically results in a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct and makes the play unreviewable.
"Give him (Forsett) credit for continuing to play football," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "We talk about that all the time. You don't stop, you play."
Texans quarterback Matt Schaub passed for 315 yards and a touchdown, and was intercepted once. Schaub, who threw a career-high five touchdown passes, completed a franchise-record 43 passes and finished with 527 yards in the air the week before versus Jacksonville, completed 29-of-48 passes for 315 yards and a TD against the Lions.
Schaub has won 14 of his last 15 starts for the Texans, who share the best record in the NFL (10-1) with Atlanta and have won five consecutive road wins for the first time in franchise history. He needs one more touchdown pass to reach 20 for the third time in his career.
"He's exceptional. He handles a great deal of offense," Kubiak said of his quarterback. "Volume-wise, we're really up there right now in what we're doing and he's the one getting it handled."
The Texans, who will visit New England on Dec. 10, are 5-0 in one-score games this season and have registered two straight 10-win seasons for the first time in team lore. The 10th win on Thursday wasn't an easy one and stud defensive end J.J. Watt expressed that.
"Ten quarters in five days is draining, physically and mentally, but our team persevered," said Watt, who had all three of Houston's sacks and his 14 1/2 sacks this season set a new franchise record. The previous record was 14, set by former DE Mario Williams in 2007.
Watt owns 13 passes defensed, which ties the NFL record for deflected passes by a defensive lineman in a single season (Reggie White, 1991). He is the second player, along with White, ever to record 14 sacks and 13 passes defensed in one season. Watt is arguably the main reason why the Texans' defense is sixth in yards allowed (319.7 ypg), fifth in points allowed (19.2 ppg) and second against the run (87.5 ypg) this season.
Texans linebacker Brooks Reed (left groin) became another casualty for the corps on Sunday. Middle linebacker and captain Brian Cushing is already done for the year, while Whitney Mercilus and Bryan Braman could see extended time if Reed is unable to play.
Tennessee is third in the AFC South standings, parked behind Houston and upstart Indianapolis. Its chances of making a run at the playoffs worsened with Sunday's 24-19 setback to the division's last-place team, the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Titans had seven sacks, two by linebacker Zach Brown, and still couldn't find a way to avoid losing for the third time in four tries. The Titans may have taken Jacksonville lightly over the bye week.
"I don't think there was any lack of preparation. I don't think guys came in here expecting just to walk out and win the game," Titans quarterback Jake Locker said. "We knew Jacksonville was a good football team. If you don't think that, then you're mistaken. And I don't think our team prepared that way. I don't think we came here with that mindset today. We just didn't execute as well as we needed to win the game."
Locker was playing his second game since missing five straight due to injury and passed for 261 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. The 261 yards passing were the second highest this season for Locker. Locker also threw two interceptions in the same game for the first time in his career.
Tennessee came away with just one touchdown in six chances inside the Jaguars' 25-yard line. Running back Chris Johnson did not score for the first time in three games and was held to 80 yards on 21 carries, his lowest total since posting 24 rushing yards in a loss at Minnesota in Week 5. Johnson was coming off back-to-back 100-yard performances and was averaging 130.4 rushing yards per game in the previous five weeks.
"We basically didn't execute the plays that were called for us. We got down there so many times and we didn't execute," Johnson said. "We let it get away from us early in the game. Any time you play a team like Jacksonville, a division game, it's going to be a very tough game no matter what their record is."
So, Johnson can expect an even tougher game Sunday with one of the NFL's best teams set to invade LP Field. The Texans routed the Titans, 38-14, back on Sept. 30 at Reliant Stadium. These two teams have alternated wins and losses over the last seven meetings. Houston is just 3-7 on the road in this series.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
For most offenses, the ground game usually opens up the pass attack. When you're fortunate to have a running back of Arian Foster's status, running the football is primary. The Texans know that all too well. Foster had 86 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries in the first meeting with the Titans and owns 359 yards and three scores in four lifetime matchups against them.
Foster posted his sixth 100-yard rushing performance of the season at Detroit and is second in the NFL behind Adrian Peterson with 1,064 rushing yards. His 12 rushing touchdowns are tops in the league and has topped the 1,000-yard mark in three straight seasons. Foster has the Texans fifth in the league with 144.1 rushing yards per game and third in total yards (394.8 ypg). Kubiak is feeling optimistic for the rest of the season thanks to Foster's play.
"We've got ourselves in really good position. We have some challenges," Kubiak said. "Every win right now is huge because every time you reach a new number now, it can mean the difference in the long haul. We understand that, but right now we have to kind of regroup our team and see where we go physically and get ready to go to Tennessee."
The Titans are only 27th in rushing yards allowed, permitting 129.8 yards per game. They did hold the Jaguars to 100 yards on the ground last week, but Jacksonville was without last year's leading rusher Maurice Jones-Drew. Brown had 11 stops and is third on the team with 65 tackles. Linebacker Akeem Ayers leads Tennessee with 80 tackles. Brown, Ayers and DE Kamerion Wimbley have combined for 11 1/2 sacks this season.
Houston could be without offensive right tackle Derek Newton (knee) after he left Thursday's game. Newton will most likely be replaced by Ryan Harris if he's unable to go, which could open the door for Wimbley, who has a sack in each of his last two games played.
Tennessee failed to record a sack or an interception of Schaub in the first matchup of the season, but did post seven sacks on Sunday. Brown had two of those sacks for the Titans, who recorded the most sacks in a game since posting seven against Jacksonville in 2008 and equaled their total in the three previous games combined.
Titans defensive back Alterraun Verner was upset his team couldn't cash in on several opportunities and expressed his displeasure in games against AFC South foes afterward.
"We had a chance with the playoffs, and now it's definitely out of our hands," Verner said. "I felt like we still had it under our control if we kept winning out. So it's definitely frustrating because we still haven't won a division game. We're 0-3."
A big game from Johnson and efficient play by Locker could alter those results this week. However, luck is not on Tennessee's side against a stingy Texans defense. The Titans have a poor defense and sit 27th in both rushing yards allowed (129.8 ypg) and against the pass (262.1 ypg). They're 29th in yards allowed (391.9 ypg) and 31st points allowed (30.5 ppg). Houston, which is 3-0 in division play, sits second in points scored with 29.7 ppg.
Tennessee's defense is just too weak to stop Foster and Houston's high-powered offense. Schaub seems to be hitting his stride at the perfect time, while the Titans' offense is headed in the opposite direction. If Johnson can break off some big runs, the Titans might have a chance to avoid embarrassment. But pulling off the upset and ending their slide in division play won't happen.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texans 27, Titans 17