The Monday Night Football matchup between the Houston Texans and New England Patriots was supposed to be a heavyweight fight between two of the best teams in the AFC. And it ended up resembling one: the 1988 bout between Michael Spinks and Mike Tyson that ended with a first-round knockout.
The Patriots jumped all over the Texans, building a 21-0 lead at the half and letting everyone in the conference know they're ready for the playoffs with a 42-14 rout. The Texans, meanwhile, showed that they need to win the first quarter. Yes, the first quarter.
As they did against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers, the Texans fell behind quickly on Monday, and, as against the Packers, they weren't able to overcome that deficit. Tom Brady, meanwhile, joined Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning in the group of elite quarterbacks that Houston has struggled to contain.
In both of the Texans' losses this season, they trailed at the end of the first quarter, 14-0. By contrast, when they beat the Broncos -- a playoff-caliber team -- in Week 3, they had a 7-5 first-quarter lead. When they destroyed the Baltimore Ravens -- another playoff-caliber team -- in Week 7, they led by a score of 9-3 at the end of the first quarter and 29-3 at halftime.
The Texans know that against good teams -- the explosive teams, the kinds of teams they must outlast in the postseason -- they have to play at their pace, set the tempo early and jump out to a quick lead.
Why must the Texans start fast? Because, from their system to their personnel, they're designed to play from in front. Their offensive line is built for the play-action pass. When they get behind or face a long third down, they struggle; they have a hard time handling power rushers and keeping the pocket firm and clean. From third-and-10 or longer, their conversion rate is just 12 percent. When the opposing defense knows the Texans must pass, and Houston has to drop back into pass protection, the lack of power up front becomes a problem.
Houston's offense is most effective in manageable down-and-distance situations, when the Texans can utilize the threat of Arian Foster running or their well-designed screen game to keep opposing defenses on their heels.
Starting quickly also allows the Texans' pass rushers -- most notably J.J. Watt -- to become a bigger factor. Houston's pass rush can create turnovers, but more importantly, it forces opposing offenses to win one-on-one matchups on the outside. Most teams cannot protect well enough to consistently win on the outside -- even the Patriots had moments where they struggled to execute on Monday. However, because New England was comfortably in the lead, they were never threatened.
The teams that advance in the playoffs can throw the ball even when the defense knows they have to throw, and they can run the ball even when the defense knows they have to run. These teams are diverse enough to play any type of style.
Does this mean that the Texans cannot win a playoff game? Hardly. It just means that the style and pace of the game are very important to Houston's chances.
I'm not here to bury the Texans. They can still rally back, find a way to right the ship and resume winning games. Home-field advantage in the playoffs is still in their sights. If they can remind themselves to start fast, score quickly and play their pace, they will be a dangerous postseason contender.
Often, a loss to a great opponent can serve as a learning experience for a team. If the Texans learned something on Monday, it was a worthwhile experience, and it will benefit them in the weeks to come.
THINGS I LOVED
I loved how David Wilson's hard work paid off. The New York Giants' rookie running back exploded onto the scene against the New Orleans Saints, making plays in the kicking game and on offense, racking up 327 total yards and three touchdowns. I really loved how he did not pout or question his lack of use when he was benched earlier this season. Giants coach Tom Coughlin did not simply give the first-round pick a place on the field because of his draft status; Coughlin made him earn it. Wilson brings a new dimension to the Giants' offense and has shown his teammates that he's tough minded and can handle the pressure -- especially from his coach. Great work.
I loved how the Indianapolis Colts kept winning. After topping the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, Indianapolis is now in the driver's seat in the AFC wild-card race. The Colts are mentally tough and find ways to succeed. Though it's never pretty, the end results are exactly what they need. I love the turnaround that Indy has pulled off this season, and I especially love the fact that they've done it with so many young players.
I loved that the Carolina Panthers, Philadelphia Eagles and San Diego Chargers won after hearing all week that their coaches might soon be fired. All three squads beat playoff-caliber competition despite such talk. Carolina's Ron Rivera, San Diego's Norv Turner and Philly's Andy Reid all had their teams ready to play and play well, a clear signal from the players that all three head coaches are still being heard and respected. I love when teams or coaches find a way to get their jobs done in the face of adversity.
THINGS I HATED
I hated waking up to another senseless tragedy on Saturday morning. One week after the Kansas City Chiefs had to deal with the sad situation of Jovan Belcher, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jerry Brown Jr. was killed in a car accident that resulted in a charge of intoxication manslaughter for nose tackle Josh Brent. The NFL provides phone numbers for players to call if they've been out and need a ride home. I hate that these Cowboys players did not make that call. My heart and prayers go out to the Brown family.
I hated the way the Arizona Cardinals' season finally came undone on Sunday. Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald is the best in football, but he doesn't have anyone to throw to him. Even if he did, the offensive line wouldn't protect that quarterback long enough. As a football fan, I love to watch Fitzgerald play, and I hate that the lack of talent around him is keeping him from showing us his incredible skills. Once again, the Cardinals have proven that regardless of the talent at the receiver position, a team needs a quarterback and a line to protect him.
I hated watching the Minnesota Vikings' passing game -- especially without Percy Harvin playing. How did they beat the Chicago Bears while recording less than 100 passing yards? Running back Adrian Peterson is remarkable, and I love watching him explode off each cut, but I really think that at some point, the Vikings are going to have to find a way to make their passing attack more effective.
THINGS ON MY MIND
» I've loved how Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant has been playing lately, and I hope he can play with a fractured finger. Over the past five weeks, his level of concentration has matched his amazing talent.
» I'm not sure Jim Caldwell can make a huge difference as the new coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens' offense. However, they do need to get back to the no-huddle approach, which is what Caldwell loves to run.
» People might say that the Oregon offense as orchestrated by coach Chip Kelly would never work in the NFL, but every time I watch the Washington Redskins on offense, I can't help but think they look like Oregon. If that approach is working in Washington, why can't it work everywhere?
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.