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Houston Texans, Atlanta Falcons among teams serving notice

HOUSTON -- Near the top of a ladder inside the Houston Texans' locker room on Sunday, a team employee was wearing a new, black cap that read "AFC South Division Champs" as he jostled at a sign hanging above the threshold that leads to the field.

He eventually pulled down the board -- probably about 6 feet wide and 4 feet tall -- and traded it for a nearly identical sign being held by another hat-wearing employee at the bottom of the ladder.

"One Focus," both signs said, the only difference being the opponent listed beneath those words.

The Texans' 29-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, which clinched the division, had barely ended, and players were still milling about the locker room. But the team was already moving away from this game and onto the next, against the Minnesota Vikings. There was very little celebration, very little overt enthusiasm.

"When you expect it," Texans defensive end J.J. Watt said candidly as he stood at his locker, "you don't need to celebrate it."

That's all well and good, and it backs up the "one game at a time" cliché, but it still shouldn't stop the rest of us from realizing this win, like several others around the NFL on Sunday, was worthy of added attention. Sure, they count the same. But this was Statement Sunday, and messages have been sent.

Did you see how the Atlanta Falcons, in the face of a season's worth of disrespect, dominated the New York Giants in a 34-0 rout? Did you see how the Texans, equally underrated despite their current 12-2 record, tamed everyone's sudden beliefs that, somehow, the Colts had become the better team within the AFC South?

"Of course we're excited," said Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, who finished Sunday's game with a passer rating of 109.7. "But there's a lot of stuff at stake and a lot of things we can do that's still ahead of us -- so we're more excited about the opportunities ahead."

Fair enough. But a week after the Falcons were embarrassed by the Carolina Panthers and the Texans were rolled by the New England Patriots, both of these teams needed to make statements as much as anyone.

"I thought that we rebounded very well from our performance from last week," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "We didn't play up to our standards and expectations and we knew we would have to play beyond them this week. I thought that we did that in all three phases."

In all on Sunday, six games featured two teams with records above .500. The Denver Broncos knocked around the Baltimore Ravens. The Green Bay Packers took care of the Chicago Bears. The Dallas Cowboys notched a statement win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots shared epic blows, and both teams, despite differing results, also made some major noise.

So what did we actually take away from Statement Sunday? How much did we really learn, given the inconsistencies that have surfaced among many teams throughout this season?

» The Falcons deserve our respect. Had Sunday's score been transposed -- had the Giants come out with the 34-0 win -- we would unanimously be mocking the fraudulent Falcons and booking the Giants' plane tickets to New Orleans. That's the result of recent postseason history, but at some point, we need to start living in the present and recognize that, yes, this Falcons team has some real swagger behind it.

» The Texans are still vulnerable occasionally. Houston's secondary can't have breakdowns like it did on the 61-yard touchdown pass from Andrew Luck to T.Y. Hilton that allowed the Colts back into the game on Sunday. But Schaub's efficiency and Watt's impact make this team as dangerous as any in the NFL.

» If Cowboys coach Jason Garrett could just continue to make sound, clutch decisions, as he did Sunday, he could take himself off the hot seat as quickly as he put himself on it. All too often, Garrett makes the wrong choices down the stretch, leaving many to question his clock management. On Sunday, he put his team in the right situations -- and the Cowboys backed him up by making big plays.

» The Bears might have made a louder statement with their loss to the Packers than the Packers did with their win over the Bears. The way Chicago wide receiver Brandon Marshall expressed his postgame frustrations reeked of old habits -- and also foreshadowed the future of an offense that's on the brink of imploding.

» New England and San Francisco? Forget about the score. The 49ers deserve our respect for the way they started and held on. The Patriots deserve it for the way they battled back. Both teams made statements -- and they could very easily be playing each other again soon, with the Super Bowl on the line in New Orleans.

But before we look too far ahead, it is still undoubtedly important to recognize that consistency at this point in the season is as important as a week's worth of powerful play, no matter how much we think we learned from Sunday's games. How will these teams respond to the momentum they've created? How will the losers bounce back, particularly those teams still alive in the playoff hunt?

"We still have some things in front of us, in terms of the regular season, that we want to accomplish and get done," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. "That's what I spend my time thinking about."

With home-field advantage still in flux throughout the NFL, we have not yet reached the point when players will be rested for the sake of preserving health. Instead, these teams must press forward, each week presenting more evidence in support of their respective cases for making a postseason run.

Which teams will do it? Which will enter the playoffs with the most energy? Sunday's statements gave us some hints, even if we're still three weeks removed from the games that will let these teams make the types of statements that truly matter most.

"We've got another game coming up," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "We've got to keep going."

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @JeffDarlington.

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