At what point this season did you realize that the Houston Texans were legitimate? You might even be forgiven if you barely noticed them, unless you had Arian Foster on you fantasy football roster. Gary Kubiak's team doesn't get much national attention, certainly not on par with the rest of the AFC playoff contenders, but here they are, ready to start postseason play for the first time in the 10-year history of the franchise.
The Texans carried the stigma of a newcomer. The uniforms look different. The players are strangers. It's the little things that make expansion teams feel like the new kid that moved in from Cleveland in the middle of seventh grade: a curiosity, politely acknowledged, yet mostly unseen.
Like most teams still playing, Houston got a little bit of luck in the win. Atlanta picked off Yates and returned it for a touchdown, but a defensive holding penalty took away what might have been the game-winner. With a new set of downs inside their own 30-yard line, Houston improbably started running the ball.
Of their next 13 plays on that fourth quarter scoring drive, 12 of them were runs, including two scrambles by Yates. The most unlikely play of all was a third-and-9 conversion; Arian Foster ran it up the middle for a 12-yard gain. Who runs like that anymore, much less on third-and-long? Later in the drive, they converted a fourth-and-one from the Atlanta 9-yard line, a place where most teams would have just kicked a field goal to tie it with most of the fourth quarter left to play.
Two plays after that fourth down conversion, Houston scored on a 7-yard run from Arian Foster. From there, Wade Phillips' defense took over, making it impossible for Matt Ryan and the Falcons to move the ball.
What stood out the most about the Texans throughout my fourth quarter conversion was that there was nothing particularly remarkable about this team. They just played good football. The linemen blocked exceptionally well. Linebackers moved easily to where they needed to be. Up and down the roster, play after play, the Texans did the basics with aplomb. The little things matter to this team; that's a big reason why they've been able to play through the kind of injuries that derail most other teams.
Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has a damn good case for the Coach of the Year award, if only he weren't a defensive coordinator. Chased out of Dallas' head coaching job, Phillips quickly landed on his feet just a little further south. He molded Houston's 4-3 defense that was ranked 29th in points allowed and 30th in yards allowed in 2010, into a 3-4 unit that ranks fourth in points allowed and second in yards allowed this season.
Most remarkable of all, is that Phillips turned the defense around with a handful of low key personnel moves, and retrofitting the roster. The acquisition of cornerback Johanthan Joseph ranks among the best free agent moves of the year. He was much better this season than two other, ahem, high profile cornerbacks that a certain NFC team added. Houston's first round draft pick, J.J. Watt, deserves some consideration for the Defensive Rookie of the Year, if only mauling 3-4 defensive ends got consideration for awards like that. Converting cornerback Glover Quinn to a strong safety strengthened
Houston also has a stellar group of linebacker, the heart of their defense. Brian Cushing, voted the team MVP, ties the whole unit together. Cushing is the second best inside linebacker in the league, according to the Pro Football Focus rankings, in his first season playing on the inside. The return of outside linebacker Connor Barwin gave Houston a sack specialist to replace Mario Williams, who was lost in October with a torn pectoral muscle. Moving cornerback Glover Quin to strong safety was another important tweak that paid big dividends.
The glue in all of that has been Phillips. With his precision parted silver hair and a pot belly that hangs over his waistband, Phillips resembles every high school football coach in America, the kind of coach who wouldn't let his players on the field unless they could execute the basics perfectly, regardless of their natural talent. Phillips missed Houston's Week 15 and Week 16 games having a tumor "the size of a volleyball," as his father Bum described it, from his midsection. It's telling that Houston lost both games without Phillips.
On the other side of the ball the offense is built around the powerful, versatile Arian Foster and wide receiver Andre Johnson, who missed more than half the season. If the NFL didn't have so many 5,000-yard passers, Foster would get some consideration for the MVP. All Johnson does, in his ninth season with the Texans, is catch everything thrown his way, often smothered by the league's best cornerbacks.
Foster, Johnson and whoever is quarterback has the solid foundation of the Texans' offensive line, what you would expect for a team the prides itself on its mastery of the basics. Center Chris Myers anchors the group. Myers, according to Pro Football Focus, is the league's best center this year, and the top run blocker of any interior lineman. He's a free agent in 2012.
Houston hosts Cincinnati on Saturday afternoon, the first game of the playoffs. Few experts give the Texans little chance of getting past a second playoff game. There's also an inherent bias against rookie quarterbacks in the postseason, especially a fifth-round pick like T.J. Yates. Houston's biggest question mark is whether or not they can score enough points to beat some of the league's most prolific offenses.
Nevertheless, the is a precedent for what Houston is doing, using a shut down defense and leaning on an effective running game. The Texans have relied on their command of the little things to get this far, and that approach could put them on a big stage.