John Lopez
Tuesday November 24th, 2009

Lessons we learned from the Titans' 20-17 win over the Texans on Monday night at Reliant Stadium ...

1. The rest of the nation finally caught a glimpse of what fans in Houston and Nashville have known for several years.

Texans-Titans is the roughest, dirtiest, most bitter NFL rivalry you never knew existed. Until Monday night, that is.

Live and in prime time, NFL fans got a steady dose of chop blocks, late hits, extra shoving and more trash talking and after-whistle shenanigans than you've probably seen in any other game this year. Obviously, much of the angst and anger stems from the way Titans owner Bud Adams picked up and moved the Oilers from Houston to Tennessee when he didn't get the stadium deal he wanted in 1996.

But year after year, the rivalry has grown increasingly vile, thanks to the emotionally-charged Vince Young-Mario Williams draft of 2006, chattiness from the respective teams' players -- among them Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cortland Finnegan, Dunta Robinson, Eric Winston -- and claims of dirty play on both sides.

Earlier this week, Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck claimed his team was "really looking forward to come down to Houston and destroying all playoff thoughts and aspirations they have."

The Texans didn't say much publicly, but simmered all week. Inside the Texans' weight room underneath the Reliant Stadium stands, the Texans placed a stuffed cow, with a mannequin dressed as a hillbilly standing next to it. The Texans also brought legendary Oilers coach Bum Phillips to the game for the coin toss, to fire up the hometown crowd that poured into Reliant wearing "battle red" colors.

2. While Vince Young backed up Kerry Collins for more than a year, he obviously did more than sulk or wonder where his 2010 NFL address might be.

The man played a tremendous game Monday night. And clearly, in bringing Young back into the starting role, Titans coaches made a few calls to Austin, Texas, and watched a lot of video of the Texas Longhorns' 2005 NCAA championship run.

Jeff Fisher's game plan for Monday night's rematch, after a 34-31 Week 2 loss to the Texans, looked familiar to everyone in the stadium and anyone who watched VY as a Longhorn. While the Cardinal Rule in the NFL is to keep quarterbacks, even scramblers, out of harms' way, the Titans' Rule in this one was to put Young in situations where he could create in space, just like old times.

When was the last time an NFL team ran a quarterback draw, an option, a zone read and a designed quarterback sweep all in the same game? It's flirting with danger, no doubt. Young could be put into situations where he's more susceptible to injury. In fact, he came up limping twice in Monday night's game. But the Titans gave themselves their best chance to win by constantly pressuring the Texans defense with their best two runners -- VY and Chris Johnson.

3. The Texans clearly have hand-and-foot disease -- Steve Slaton's hands and Kris Brown's foot.

A year ago, Slaton and Brown were among the most reliable players for the Texans. Slaton burst onto the scene as a rookie running back and actually finished the 2008 season with more yards than Tennessee's Chris Johnson and just two fumbles.

Brown, who is the only kicker the Texans have had in their now eight-year existence, has been Mr. Automatic from close- and long-range.

But in crucial moments this year, Slaton has failed to hold onto the ball and Brown has missed potentially season-changing kicks.

Slaton was benched two weeks ago in favor of Ryan Moats and Chris Brown after fumbling five times. He came back to run well and make some important catches in the Texans' loss to the Colts and in Monday night's game. But when the Texans had a chance to move in for a potential game-winning field goal, Slaton dropped an easy third-down catch before he could tuck the ball away.

As for Brown, shades of the yips that haunted him in his last NFL home in Pittsburgh are beginning to crop up. Brown missed a relative chip-shot 42-yard field goal in Indianapolis that could have led to a huge Texans win in their last game.

And Monday night, after the Titans' Rob Bironas banged through a 53-yarder for a 20-17 Titans lead, and quarterback Matt Schaub all but put the ball on a tee for Brown on the last drive of the game, Brown missed. He not only missed, he missed badly. Brown took a perfect last-second drive, a perfect snap, a perfect hold and pulled the ball badly left.

4. Still on the brink of being an upper-echelon team, consider the Texans pretenders until further notice.

Yes, Schaub (25-for-39, 305-yards, two TDs) is a terrific quarterback. Yes, Andre Johnson is the best wide receiver in the game, or at least arguably so. Yes, there are weapons all over the field on offense and a much-improved defense led by rookie Brian Cushing and an off-the-street free-agent in Bernard Pollard. Yes, there are game-breaking return men in special teams and improving lines on both sides of the ball.

But nothing could have lined up more perfectly for the Texans to finally stake a playoff claim in the wild-card race. And they blew it.

Since the Texans last played, and lost, in Indy, nearly every significant wild-card contender lost a game and lost ground. The entire AFC North lost Sunday and that did nothing but help the Texans. Then there was the perfect stage on Monday night.

But until the Texans can win these types of games, they are not there yet.

5. Titans' tailback Chris Johnson could have every bit an MVP case as Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees or any other NFL player.

Everyone, it seems, has been talking about how much better Vince Young has made the Titans in his return. And to be sure, Young has made electric plays and made some more Monday night. But clearly Johnson has done as much or more for VY's game and this entire offense, than vice versa.

Every snap that Johnson is on the field is a potential coast-to-coast highlight. The Texans several times tried to spy DeMeco Ryans on Young and Brian Cushing on Johnson. It was impossible.

Johnson rushed for 151 yards against a rush defense that had averaged giving up 60.5 yards rushing in its six previous games. He sliced the Texans and split up their defensive resources on short gains, allowing Young to hit more receivers on underneath play-action routes and find room when he decided to scramble. Johnson now has 1,242 rushing yards for the season, well ahead of the Rams' Steven Jackson and Minnesota's Adrian Peterson.

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