HOUSTON -- The Houston Texans provided a critical glimpse into whatever future they hope to enjoy in the coming weeks. It involved an offensive line bullying defenders, a shifty running back darting into open spaces and a gifted, young quarterback settling into a comfort zone. There are surely more dynamic and explosive offense pervading the NFL these days. What the Texans are doing is something of a throwback, a calculated approach that simply keeps paying huge dividends.
When this season began, it seemed Houston's success relied greatly on how far second-year quarterback Deshaun Watson could take them. After the Texans' 34-17 Monday night win over the Tennessee Titans, it's now clear that his workload doesn't have to be so overbearing. Houston has the kind of rushing attack that could make them a dangerous postseason contender, especially since it serves as a perfect complement to the Texans' dominant defense. That type of balance has helped Houston rip off eight straight wins and it might very well lead to quite a few more.
Of the 462 total yards the Texans amassed against the Titans, 281 came on the ground. Houston averaged an eye-popping 8.3 yards per rush, as well. "It opens up the whole offense," Watson said of the running game on Monday night. "Safeties get aggressive. The defense has to show their hand. That was the challenge tonight -- for the offensive line and the running backs to set the run game and open up the passing game. And that's what we did."
On a night when the Texans honored owner Bob McNair -- who died last Friday -- there was no disputing the message Houston wanted to send. McNair was known for his fierce spirit and that's exactly what his team displayed to the rest of the football-watching world. Houston wanted to win this game in the worst possible way. It meant even more that they did it with a workmanlike approach and an undeniable focus, two more traits that McNair loved to embrace.
Houston's success on the ground started with Lamar Miller, who gained 162 yards on 12 carries and scored on a 97-yard touchdown run. Watson added 70 yards of his own, mostly coming on improvisational scrambles, while running back Alfred Blue contributed another 49 yards. Watson did throw for 210 yards and two touchdowns but it was the rushing attack that looked more impressive than anything else.
If the Texans really are going to make some noise in the postseason -- and hold off the Indianapolis Colts for the AFC South title -- they will need to have their own established identity heading into January. Teams like Kansas City, New England, Pittsburgh and the Los Angeles Chargers already have proven that they have high-flying offenses that can overwhelm most opponents they face. Houston has been a solid team offensively thus far this season, as they rank 14th in the league in scoring (in contrast, the Chiefs rank second, the Steelers sixth and the Patriots and Chargers are tied for seventh). The more balanced the Texans become, the more dangerous they look when compared to the opponents they might face in the playoffs.
It also says something that Houston has built this eight-game win streak after starting the season 0-3. "It's a blessing," Miller said. "A lot of people doubted us when we were 0-3 but everybody in this locker room stayed together. Every day people came to work -- and ready to work -- and the coaches did a great job of just getting us ready for football games. Everybody has been buying in."
Monday night's game was literally a microcosm of the Texans' season. They fell behind 10-0 and struggled to find a rhythm offensively. Then they slowly developed some confidence as their game plan kicked into gear. Watson found Demaryius Thomas for a 12-yard touchdown pass that gave Houston its first score. Then the defense stopped the Titans on fourth down from the Texans' 3-yard line early in the second quarter.
The next play after that defensive stand changed the game for good. Miller took a handoff, broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage and dashed up the right sideline. At first, it seemed that Titans safety Kenny Vaccaro might catch him around midfield but Miller kept pulling away. By the time Miller hit the end zone, he'd become the first player in NFL history to have multiple touchdown runs of 95 yards or more (he also accomplished the feat as a member of the Miami Dolphins in 2014) and the Texans led 21-10.
That explosiveness was something Miller had been hoping to showcase after shedding eight pounds this offseason. He's now averaging 100.4 yards over his last five games, with three 100-yard efforts during that stretch. "This whole offseason, I was just trying to keep my speed and work on my burst," Miller said. "I think that work (is) transferring over to the season."
Miller isn't the only Texan who's seen the benefits of his offseason commitment. This entire team is starting to look more like the squad many people expected to see after multiple injuries destroyed their 2017 campaign. That team finished 4-12 after winning two straight AFC South titles, largely because Watson and defensive stars J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus sustained season-ending injuries. Now that everyone is healthy again, the optimism is growing from week to week.
The defense had a season-high six sacks against Tennessee. Watson continues to thrive as more of a game manager than the dynamic playmaker he was as a rookie. There's also an undeniable resilience, both because of how this team rebounded from a slow start and how they handled McNair's death. When head coach Bill O'Brien handed the game ball to McNair's son Cal, the team's chairman and chief operating officer, it was with the pride of knowing that this was the kind of evening the boss would've savored.
"It was a great night," said O'Brien. "Give credit to our players. We talked a lot about Bob. What he meant to the city of Houston, obviously bringing football back to Houston, and just the kind of man he was. He was a very honest man, a very Christian man and he would tell you the truth. He would tell you when he thought you weren't doing well and he would tell you when he thought you were doing really well."
It's fair to say McNair would've given his head coach high marks for Monday night. The Texans beat up on a division rival in front of a national television audience. They took another step toward claiming their third AFC South title in four years. They also let the rest of the AFC know that they have plenty of reasons to feel good about their own playoff possibilities.
This is all because the Texans have a strong sense of who they are. They can bully teams in the trenches and gash them with a running game that is vital at this time of year. That approach helped them recover in a season that once seemed destined for a ruinous end. Now it's likely to take them to the places where they'd been dreaming of going all along.