Things we learned from Philadelphia's 34-24 defeat of Houston Thursday night at Lincoln Financial Field ...
1. In an NFC East that's weaker than it has been in years, the Eagles look like the team with the fewest flaws, and that should result in Philadelphia's sixth division title in a 10-year span.
That's the good news. But let's not kid ourselves about Andy Reid's 8-4 first-place Eagles. They're not dominant. Far from it, even with a Michael Vick-led fast-break offense that can score points in bunches and leave opposing defenses gasping for breath. Philly's offense is fun to watch, but the reality is it often masks many of the Eagles' defensive problems.
Philadelphia bolted to a 17-3 lead, scoring on its first three possessions. But that opening salvo wasn't nearly enough to knock the Texans back on their heels, and the Eagles were stunned as Houston roared back to score 21 of the game's next 24 points, taking a 24-20 lead into the fourth quarter. Fortunately for Philadelphia, the Texans' comeback served the purpose of a cold splash of water in the face, and the Eagles dominated the fourth quarter 14-0, reasserting themselves and posting their fifth double-digit victory this season.
Vick continued to interject himself into the MVP discussion with his 22-of-33 passing performance, good for 302 yards, two touchdown passes and a rating of 103.3. He also found time to lead the Eagles in rushing, with 48 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries, and the fourth-quarter comeback was his first as an Eagles QB. But Philadelphia needed every bit of Vick's brilliance, because when the Texans got rolling offensively in the middle two quarters of the game, the Eagles defense was basically powerless to make a stop and force Houston off the field.
The Texans drove 80, 74 and 81 yards for touchdowns against the Eagles in the span of five possessions, wearing down Philly's defense and pounding it physically with their Arian Foster-led running game. The Texans were ridiculous on third downs against the Eagles, picking up 6-of-8 in the opening three quarters, including first downs on third-and-8, third-and-9, and third-and-17. All told, Houston produced 27 first downs and 431 yards of offense, with an average gain of 6.7 yards per play.
The Eagles were playing without injured Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel (knee), but you can't blame all of Philly's defensive struggles on his absence. This is no shutdown unit that D-coordinator Sean McDermott has assembled. In fact, it's difficult to imagine the Eagles playing championship football all the way through January with a red-zone defense that has now given up 26 touchdowns in 33 red-zone possession, by far the worst TD percentage in the league (79 percent). According to the NFL, that's the worst red-zone performance in terms of touchdown percentage for any defense since the 1988 Houston Oilers.
The bottom line in Philadelphia this season is that Michael Vick better continue to play spectacular football and keep those chains moving. Because these Eagles aren't going to win many low-scoring games, or shut down the opposing offense. In the weeks ahead, you get the feeling there will be more of the type of shootouts we were treated to Thursday night in Philadelphia.
2. The Texans continue to be the biggest tease in the NFL, and it looks like they'll protect that hard-earned title with a ninth consecutive playoff-less season in Houston.
This was your classic Texans game. When you're ready to throw dirt on them and declare them dead, they rise up and stage an impressive comeback, showing some mettle and resolve in a short week while playing on the road in one of the NFL's more hostile environments. But just when you start to think that Gary Kubiak's club might have the right stuff after all, it reverts to form, with the defense giving it up in the fourth quarter and the offense going cold or turning the ball over at the worst possible time.
Try this telling statistic on for size: Houston has now allowed a go-ahead fourth quarter score in each of its past five losses this season. The Texans can wow you at times, but they're going to disappoint you in the end. Houston is 5-7 for the second consecutive season, and even though the Texans are still in the race in the tightly-packed AFC South (where Jacksonville and Indianapolis lead the way at 6-5), last place in the division is an all-too-familiar vantage point.
It was at this point last season the Texans went on a season-ending four-game winning streak, only after the pressure of any bid for playoff contention was essentially over. But at 9-7, Houston finished with a winning record for the first time in franchise history, and in the process earned Kubiak a contract extension from team owner Bob McNair. A year later, the Texans are 5-7 material once again, and this one hurts even more given Houston's hopeful 3-1 start.
Sure, there's talent aplenty on the Texans' roster. But talent isn't the lone ingredient necessary to win big games in pressure situations. Houston just doesn't have a killer instinct as part of its DNA, and with a defense that continues to get torched week in and week out -- at least 29 points allowed in seven of its last eight games -- it's hard to see that pattern changing any time soon. Teams in the NFL are either improving or regressing, and it's obvious the category in which Houston belongs. This is a franchise that cries out for significant change, but has an owner too patient and too cautious for its own good.
3. Michael Vick won't last the regular season if he continues to take the kind of pounding he took against Houston.
Vick started the game looking like he could play quarterback in a Barcalounger. He had all kinds of time to survey the field and get comfortable in the pocket on the Eagles' first two possessions, and he led Philly to crisp touchdown drives on both of them. He was 11-of-14 for 159 yards passing after three Eagles drives, with 17 points on the board and Philadelphia totaling 12 first downs and 217 yards.
But then the Texans got tired of watching him carve them up, and coordinator Frank Bush started mixing up his calls and bringing the blitz with some effectiveness. Houston only sacked Vick once, but the Texans started to put heat on him in the pocket, and they banged him around plenty both when he was scrambling or setting up to pass.
At one point in the second quarter, Vick limped to the sideling rubbing his right thigh and looking as if he was in pain. At another, he seemed a bit dazed after taking contact to the head while being tackled at the end of a run. Vick's finest moment was toward the end of the first half, when he somehow shook off blitzing Texans linebacker Kevin Bentley, turning a seven-yard loss into a seven-yard rushing gain to set up a 22-yard David Akers field goal.
The Eagles just finished playing four games in a 17-day stretch, and that will weary any team, and any quarterback who carries as much as the offensive burden as Vick does. But Vick has to be as smart as he said he would be earlier this season, after returning from an almost four-game absence due to a rib cartilage injury. He promised to pick his spots better in terms of his scrambling, and it might be a good time to remind him of that pledge.
Against Houston, Vick was battered and harassed far more than Philly can afford, and even the Eagles getting a 10-day gap before their next game (at Dallas, in Week 14) won't be long enough to allow all his bumps and bruises to heal. For Philadelphia's Super Bowl dreams to have a chance to come true, Vick can't absorb the kind of pounding he got from the Texans. The Eagles will only go as far as they can ride Vick this season, but he can't carry Andy Reid's team if he's flat on his back.