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J.J. Watt, Matt Schaub have Texans rolling; Week 4 notes

HOUSTON -- Standing at his locker, still dressed in his uniform 45 minutes after a game that was actually over by the fourth quarter, Duane Brown pondered the question. As the Houston Texans' left tackle, he has all the answers, and on the field, few are better than him.

The question was this: What is his team's weakness? At that moment, though, Brown had nothing to offer.

"Uh, I don't know," Brown said. "I don't know, man. I think this is the only team I've been a part of where you look at all facets of the game and we're pretty darn good."

Following a perfunctory 38-14 win over the Tennessee Titans in front of a Reliant Stadium crowd of 71,581, Brown's confusion could be excused. What is Houston's weakness?

As one of three NFL teams to boast a 4-0 record (along with the Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals), the Texans might be the most complete outfit in the league.

A balanced offense? On Sunday, Houston rushed 31 times and attempted 28 passes, giving up zero sacks and not committing a single turnover. A playmaking defense? The Texans recorded not one but two defensive pick-sixes, courtesy of safety Danieal Manning and former punching bag -- and cornerback -- Kareem Jackson.

When you consider that the Texans are the most unselfish team linebacker Brian Cushing has ever seen, it's clear they've got it going. No wonder Brown called the feel of the team "special."

"Our team has a high level of maturity," said quarterback Matt Schaub, who finished 20-of-28 with 202 passing yards and two scores. "We understand the position we're in, and we are hungry to keep it going."

How are the Texans in the position they're in? Focus on three decisions that led them down this path:

1) Owner Bob McNair's decision not to fire coach Gary Kubiak.

Kubiak had a winning record in just one of his first five seasons with the team. Those in the NFL would praise Kubiak's talent on offense on a year-to-year basis, but so little always seemed to come of it. As Kubiak said this week, McNair "could've made a snap judgment on a lot of people a couple years ago, not just this guy." Instead of kicking Kubiak to the curb, McNair kept the franchise on course.

Kubiak rewarded McNair with a playoff berth last year, despite losing Schaub to an injury for much of the season. Kubiak has continued with a dominant 4-0 start this year.

Players have responded to the coach.

"We love Coach Kubiak," Brown said. "He's a great coach, a player's coach; he really looks out for us. He gives us great inspiration and motivation to play well. We just weren't getting the job done (before). We knew we had to, in order to keep him around, and we definitely put it all out there for him. We continue to do that. I think we finally learned how to lock into our ability and what we have as a team."

McNair believed in Kubiak's offensive expertise. The former backup for Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway simply needed a defensive foil to help Houston close out games. Which leads us to ...

2) The hiring of defensive guru Wade Phillips in January 2011.

The Dallas Cowboys sent Phillips packing eight games into the 2010 season, his fourth year as the team's head coach. But he wasn't unemployed for long. With Houston fielding the NFL's worst pass defense in 2010, help was needed. McNair targeted several candidates to interview, and Phillips was at the top of the list. The hunt was over quickly.

"Fortunately, it worked out with Wade, and he wanted to be with us and we wanted him," McNair said. "We made a deal on the spot."

So far this season, the unit has given up the second-fewest yards per game in the NFL.

"Prior to bringing Wade in, we lost a lot of games the year before in crunch time," McNair said. "We had games won, and the defense couldn't keep things together. Wade simplifies things, and when they do that, the players have confidence. They know what they're going to do; they don't have to think before they act, and so they're more aggressive."

Case in point: The disguised blitz by safety Glover Quin that allowed him to hit Titans quarterback Jake Locker, who was subsequently knocked from the game with an injured shoulder. Quin lined up over the tight end, left his man, and raced in; Locker never had an inkling he was coming.

"I was able to hide it," Quin said. "That was all Wade's influence. It was perfect."

3) The drafting of defensive end J.J. Watt in April 2011.

It wasn't a shock that the Texans, picking 11th in the 2011 NFL Draft, were looking for defensive help. What was surprising was the direction they chose to go in. Though crowd pleasers like Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley and Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan were still on the board, Houston general manager Rick Smith went with neither. Instead, he tabbed Watt to become Phillips' first new toy. No one in the organization could have foreseen what would come just one-and-a-half years later.

A playmaking cameo in the 2011 playoffs bequeathed a rock star in 2012. Watt already has 7.5 sacks this season, joining legendary pass rusher Kevin Greene as the only players to record at least 1.5 sacks in each of their first four games of a season. Suddenly, the Texans have a new face, and it's the smiling mug of a former Wisconsin walk-on.

"He's the kind of player we thought he was," McNair said. "To have done that well last year as a rookie and his second year, (he's) having a phenomenal season, he's playing even better than we had anticipated. I don't know if there's anybody on the defensive side of the ball that's playing as well as he's playing -- in the NFL. Did we expect that? No, we didn't expect he'd be the best player on defense in the NFL, but the way he's playing now, I think he is."

The way Watt threw around respected Titans right tackle David Stewart on Sunday -- aggravating Stewart so much, he was driven to rip off Watt's helmet -- was just the latest display of his prowess. Watt was a focus of the Titans offense all week, with Locker saying, "He creates plays for that defense."

Watt did plenty of that on Sunday.

******

What else is going on around the NFL? Here's a rundown:

Is it possible the Vikings' rebuilding process is over?

In July, while covering a celebrity golf tournament in South Lake Tahoe that counted several NFL players as participants, I spoke with veteran Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen. At that point, he had no idea what to expect of the 2012 season, though he knew expectations were rock-bottom low. He joked about how he only really knew "five or six" guys on the team, and said he recognized "only a handful."

Yet, while trying to make himself feel better, the sack master offered a prescient take on the Vikings.

"The way I try to look at it, I've been on teams on paper where we should've won the Super Bowl, and it didn't happen," Allen said. "Maybe this year, with some youth, hopefully these young guys will step up and play the way they're supposed to play."

And look at what's happened. A special-teams-fueled win over the Detroit Lions has pushed the Vikings to 3-1. Really. If you're scoring at home, that's the same number of wins they had all of last year. And no, special-teams scores like Percy Harvin's kickoff return and Marcus Sherels' punt return aren't flukes. They actually demonstrate depth.

And oh, one of the NFL's youngest and most inexperienced teams also has a road win over Detroit and a home win over the badass San Francisco 49ers. With emerging quarterback Christian Ponder behind the wheel, we haven't seen the last of the Vikes.

Cam Newton sulks. So?

What do we have in store for us this week? Another seven days of diagnosing the reaction of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton? Last week, following a beatdown loss against the New York Giants, the forlorn Newton drew criticism for making what some felt was an overly dramatic sad face. There was even a since-refuted report that he was seeing a "mind coach." After the Panthers lost in stunning fashion to the Atlanta Falcons this Sunday, Newton was spotted at his locker with a towel on his head for 15 minutes.

On NFL Replay
NFL Replay
will re-air the Atlanta Falcons' 30-28 win over the Carolina  Panthers in Week 4 on Tuesday, October 2 at 8 p.m. ET.

» NFL Network schedule

Before the reaction arises, and before we begin dissecting how much sadness Newton showed, let me offer my two cents: Puh-lease.

As Newton said last week, "Who likes to lose?" Nobody. Certainly not a football player who has just given everything for 60 minutes on the field. And yet, we attack him for being too upset about losing?

When did it become a bad thing to be stung by a loss? Since when are players supposed to shrug off defeats and act like they didn't happen? Did I miss a memo?

Newton hates losing. He doesn't push defeats aside immediately. And why should he? The game is important to him. It's meaningful.

Think about the reactions we criticize. Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler doesn't look frustrated enough on the sidelines during a playoff game, and we go after his demeanor. Players are seen fraternizing with opponents after games, and fans wonder about it. And now we're after Newton for caring too much?

He didn't blame his teammates. He didn't dodge responsibility -- just the opposite. He simply takes a while to get over a loss. Should he have posed like Superman while his team was facing a deep deficit? No. But how is showing teammates the pain of a loss un-leader-like?

It's time for a little perspective when it comes to Newton.

Chiefs in trouble?

The Kansas City Chiefs might be in trouble for a number of reasons, with their season -- which began with high hopes -- teetering on the brink already. One big reason for their 1-3 start has been the woeful play of quarterback Matt Cassel. The team's starter since 2009, Cassel has been brutal so far. During Sunday's mistake-filled 37-20 loss to the San Diego Chargers, it was no different.

Cassel threw three interceptions and completed just 57.1 percent of his passes. On the season, Cassel is 28th with a passer rating of 70.4, and he's completed just 58.4 percent of his throws. He's thrown for five touchdowns against seven interceptions.

Gross. No improvement.

Citing a source with knowledge of general manager Scott Pioli's thinking, Yahoo! Sports' Jason Cole reported that people in Kansas City are less than enamored with Cassel and are not surprised that he's struggled. The Chiefs knew what they had in the quarterback, which is why they pursued Peyton Manning after he became a free agent in the offseason.

But what options do they have now? Brady Quinn? Eh. Ricky Stanzi? The Chiefs' fans would be happy, but few others would be.

If Cassel's play doesn't improve, the Chiefs could face some serious decisions. The team has issues, but with all its talent, it shouldn't have this record.

Not that this is a shocker for Cassel. Excluding the stats he posted during a breakout 2010 campaign, his touchdown-to-interception ratio with the Chiefs is 31-to-32. It just hammers home the point: Life in the NFL is much harder without a franchise quarterback.

Some rapid-fire takes:

» Oh, hello, New England Patriots offense. Where ya been? By scoring 31 points in the fourth quarter and finishing with 580 yards in a 52-28 win over the Buffalo Bills, the Pats gave Buffalo a nice reminder that they haven't given up the AFC East. The Bills have promise, but they aren't ready yet.

» Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan seems to love the big play as much as receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones do. The two bombs that Ryan tossed to White -- for 49 and 59 yards -- made me think this passing attack features weapons that fit perfectly together. They'll throw it all day if you let them.

» Did we see the first signs of progress for Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden? I'm not talking in terms of stats, because he did complete just 25 of 52 attempted passes for 320 yards in Thursday's loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Mostly I'm talking about how he stepped up in the pocket and stood tall amid pressure. He wasn't daunted. A huge leap forward for the rookie.

» I know the Lions needed to figure out some things on offense, but having quarterback Matthew Stafford throw 51 times doesn't help. Detroit needs to establish some semblance of a productive running game, just for the sake of Stafford's health. Mikel Leshoure (26 yards on 13 carries against the Vikings) was supposed to do that.

» On the other side, Vikings returner Percy Harvin is fast. And we saw his unfiltered speed when he took that kickoff to the end zone against the Lions. No one came close to touching him. What a weapon.

» Titans running back Chris Johnson said he was encouraged last week with his opportunities, and his performance against the Texans proved he was right. It also provided a silver lining for Tennessee. CJ rushed for a season-high 141 yards against Houston, showing some of the balance that the Titans will need. Fantasy owners, rejoice.

» I'll say the same thing I said last week: Couldn't Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Flynn do what Russell Wilson is doing, only better? In a loss to the St. Louis Rams, Wilson was a paltry 17-of-25 for 160 yards and three interceptions. That was through no fault of his own. Wilson is a rookie who will experience growing pains. But at some point, don't you send him to the sidelines to let him watch and learn for a few games?

» Oh, the New York Jets. Their lack of offensive talent is simply stunning. Not counting injured receiver Santonio Holmes, who on their roster would start for another team? Quarterback Mark Sanchez hasn't been good, obviously, but his dearth of options is incredible. But hey, call for Tim Tebow all you want, if it makes you feel better.

» I know the Miami Dolphins lost to the Arizona Cardinals, and they'll lose plenty more times this season. But rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill's poise is something to build on. He was supposed to be the inexperienced guy. And coach Joe Philbin has them ready each week, even if a lack of talent has made wins hard to come by.

» Is it too late to pick up Brian Hartline in my fantasy league?

» Speaking of that game, it's tough to imagine an open quarterback competition in Arizona going forward, even though John Skelton's health is now sound. Hasn't Kevin Kolb sealed it for the foreseeable future?

» Biggest in-game surprise of the season? The Oakland Raiders can't run the ball. In a 37-6 loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Darren McFadden averaged 2.6 yards per rush. If that continues, they're done. Carson Palmer can't carry a team.

» The idea that icing the kicker works is a myth, Andy Reid. It doesn't. Please, save us some time (and yourself some anguish).

On NFL Replay
NFL Replay
will re-air the Green Bay Packers' 28-27 win over the New Orleans  Saints in Week 4 on Tuesday, October 2 at 9:30 p.m. ET.

» NFL Network schedule

» The good news for the New Orleans Saints is that Drew Brees looked like Drew Brees in a close loss to the Green Bay Packers. The bad news is, the Saints' defense tackled like him. When they are officially out of it (which will come sooner rather than later), New Orleans will be the worst team to play against. By then, the Saints will have figured out their woes and will be dishing out upsets.

» Cool to see kicker Billy Cundiff redeem himself in the Washington Redskins' last-second win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He had botched three earlier attempts (and, of course, the former Baltimore Raven will forever have to live with that miss in the 2011 AFC Championship Game). A small consolation prize Sunday, but nice to see him moving forward.

Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @RapSheet.

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