When the Houston Texans gathered for training camp this past summer at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, it was clear that they were a team with possibilities. But they also were a team with significant question marks.
Deshaun Watson, their prized second-year quarterback, was returning from the knee injury that cut short his brilliant rookie season. J.J. Watt was coming back from his latest major injury and, after pushing his body so hard for so long, there were legitimate reasons to wonder if he ever would regain the dominant form that once made him an annual NFL defensive player of the year pick.
Three games into the season, the question marks outweighed the possibilities. The Texans got off to a 0-3 start and the competitive portion of their season seemed over before it even began.
They haven’t lost since.
Houston is the first team in NFL history to run off eight straight victories losing its first three. Win No. 8 came Monday night with the Texans overcoming a nearly perfect passing performance by Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota to beat the Titans, 34-17.
The triumph came in the Texans’ first game since the death of Robert McNair, the franchise’s founder who brought the NFL back to Houston after the Oilers relocated to Tennessee and eventually were renamed the Titans.
“That’s all he wanted was to win,” Watt told ESPN after the game. “That’s all he wanted for Houston was a winner. That’s all he wanted for us every week was a winner. And tonight, that was for him.”
It wasn’t entirely easy. The Titans had an early 10-0 lead and Mariota was nearly flawless, completing his first 19 attempts before finally throwing an incompletion with just more than a minute remaining in the game. Mariota ended up going 22 for 23 for 303 yards and two touchdowns. He had a passer rating of 147.7, not too far from a perfect mark of 158.3.
But the Texans regrouped after their sluggish start, scoring 27 straight points to take control of the game.
“We just got on the same page,” Watson said on ESPN’s postgame coverage. “Everybody did their jobs, stayed focused. We didn’t let the adversity early on get to us.”
The Texans got many contributions. Watson threw for 210 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 70 yards and a touchdown. Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas had his first two touchdown catches since the Texans traded for him. Tailback Lamar Miller ran for 162 yards, 97 of them on a second-quarter touchdown. It was the longest run in the NFL since Miller himself had a 97-yarder for the Dolphins in Week 17 of the 2014 season, making him the first player in league history to have two career touchdown runs of 95 yards or longer.
The Houston defense also did its part, even with Mariota’s exploits. The Texans sacked Mariota six times, including 2.5 by Christian Covington and 1.5 each by the relentless Watt and Whitney Mercilus. The Texans stopped the Titans on fourth-and-inches — aided by Tennessee’s curious decision to hand the ball to tight end Luke Stocker for his first NFL carry — on the play before Miller’s long touchdown run.
The Texans have a two-game lead over the second-place Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South and seem headed to a division win. But will they be a postseason threat to the true conference heavyweights like the Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers? That remains to be seen.
The eight-game winning streak has been forged with victories over the Colts, Cowboys, Bills, Jaguars, Dolphins, Broncos, Redskins and Titans. Houston isn’t exactly plowing through the NFL’s elite.
The Texans don’t have an offense as revved-up as Kansas City’s. They don’t have a quarterback with the Super Bowl-winning history of the Patriots’ Tom Brady or the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger.
But they do have a star in the making in Watson. They have a tremendous wide receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, now complemented by Thomas after the Texans traded for him to replace the injured Will Fuller. They have a threat at running back in Miller. They have Watt playing like a defensive player of the year candidate again, flanked by fellow standouts on defense like Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney.
“This team is gonna be a tough out come January,” former NFL defensive lineman Booger McFarland said on ESPN’S postgame show.
For now, Coach Bill O’Brien is keeping expectations in check. But O’Brien also made it clear that vying for a Super Bowl title is all the Texans should have in mind.
“In the end, what have we done? . . . We really haven’t done anything yet, if that makes any sense,” O’Brien said during his postgame news conference Monday. “You’re in the thing for one reason.”
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