HOUSTON -- To be sure, they don't give out trophies for victories in Week 7 in the NFL, but the Houston Texans did earn more than just another win Sunday afternoon against Baltimore at Reliant Stadium.
Gary Kubiak's team won its self-respect back. And it reacquired a little bit of the necessary swagger that helped Houston start this season 5-0, before last week's humbling 42-24 comedown at the hands of the visiting Green Bay Packers. The Texans were itching to play again after that Sunday night debacle, because they knew how it looked when Aaron Rodgers and Co. put them away with relative ease on national TV.
"A lot of people thought we got exposed last week,'' said Texans offensive left tackle Duane Brown, after Houston dispatched the outclassed Ravens 43-13, setting a franchise record for points in a game. "They thought we were pretenders. But we know better than that. It was a very important game for us today. We knew that really wasn't us out there last week. It wasn't our best effort.''
The Texans produced their best effort this time, and because of it there can be no debate about the best team in the AFC as October winds down. It's Houston, which improved to 6-1 for the first time in franchise history, and opened up considerable daylight between itself and 5-2 Baltimore, the only other team that entered Week 7 with a winning record in the AFC.
Playoff positioning doesn't get you anything in midseason, but the Texans wanted to exit this game with the ability to dictate to the rest of the conference, rather than be dictated to at some point later this season. So for the moment, the sound of the AFC playoff field having to go through Houston is music to many ears in these parts.
"We just won against a pretty darn good football team, and now we control the AFC heading into the bye week,'' Brown said. "It's great to at least have that vantage point for the rest of the season and go into the bye atop the AFC. We get a chance to get our bodies right, and then come back to work and focus on that final nine-game stretch. We know what we can do, and we also know the kind of effort it's going to take to get the same kind of results week in and week out.''
The Texans' 20-point second quarter made this showdown of AFC powers a 29-3 laugher by halftime. The 30-point win wound up being the second-largest margin of victory in Houston franchise history, and the Texans posted by far their most complete and dominating showing of what promises to be a memorable season. Everyone wearing red got involved. Houston's offense didn't commit a turnover, held the ball for 38:16, and rolled to 420 yards, 181 of it on the ground. On defense, the Texans tallied a safety, a pick-6 touchdown by cornerback Johnathan Joseph and limited the Ravens to just 176 yards of total offense.
It was a good, old-fashioned Texas butt-kicking, and even Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh colorfully acknowledged how thoroughly manhandled his Ravens were in this supposed battle for midseason AFC supremacy.
"It's the NFL,'' Harbaugh said, by way of explanation. "It's one loss. Sometimes you get tossed out of the bar. We came in with hype, with good intentions, ready to do battle. I thought our guys fought. We kept running back in and they kept throwing us back out.''
So vivid. So true. The Ravens had never lost to the Texans, going 6-0, including a win in Baltimore during the 2011 regular season and another in the AFC divisional playoffs last January. Houston has bigger challenges in store this year, but getting past its Ravens problem was a pretty good first box to hit on the priority checklist.
"I think it's a step,'' Kubiak said. "The road we've been traveling against [Baltimore] a bunch, we haven't been able to stay on that road at times, so it's important from that standpoint. It was a very important football game for our team.''
Not to say the Texans were shellshocked by their loss to Green Bay, but the pounding by the Packers did leave a mark. Especially mentally. A team builds up an air of invincibility the more it wins, and last week's 18-point defeat provided the puncture wound that could have made Houston's balloon fly around the room backwards for a while. Especially with a Ravens team headed to town that always seems to make a game's key plays against the Texans.
That's one reason Kubiak took the unusual step of addressing his team captains in a Saturday team meeting, challenging them to find a way to make the difference between victory and a second demoralizing homefield defeat.
"He was just basically telling everybody to turn it up a notch,'' said Texans receiver Andre Johnson, who had a team-best nine catches for 86 yards, six of them for first downs. "When you're a captain, a little bit more pressure is put on you. He called out all the captains and just told everybody we need to turn it up a notch, take our leadership role and do what's necessary for us to win. And that's what we did today.''
Emphatically. Demonstratively. And overwhelmingly. Whether it was the six three-and-outs the Texans defense forced, the five tipped passes by a Houston defensive lineman or linebacker (a Texans specialty at this point), or the four sacks registered against Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, the Texans came ready in this big-stage game.
"Defensively, after last week, we wanted to come out and make a statement, and show that we can play the kind of football we play,'' Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. "I thought it was a great game for us. We put the pressure on them. We had a lot of pressure on [Flacco]. They've been one of the top offensive teams in the league. And for us to play the way we did was outstanding.''
For as much good as the Texans' win did for their state of mind heading into their bye week, the blowout loss by Baltimore will renew all of the questions about this Ravens team as it approaches its mandated week off. The reality is, in this first big test of life after the injured Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb, Baltimore fared horribly. Even if the Ravens did enjoy the return of reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs (one sack, four tackles, one pass defensed), who made a remarkable comeback from an Achilles tendon injury this spring.
The Ravens are 5-2 and in firm command of first place in the AFC North, but they've played somewhat poorly for three weeks now, and it's hard to ignore the problematic issues that keep resurfacing this season: Why can't Baltimore play anywhere near as well on the road (where it's 1-2 this year, with a shaky 9-6 win at Kansas City) as it does at home? Is the defense ever going to resemble the proud and productive unit it has been for more than a decade, or has age finally taken its toll? Baltimore has given up more than 180 yards rushing for three straight games, and looks old and slow in that part of its game.
Flacco didn't exactly rise to the elite status he claims for himself at times, winding up with just 21 completions in 43 attempts, for 147 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions. At halftime, when the Ravens trailed by 26 points, Flacco was a dismal 7 of 20 for 52 yards, with two picks and a microscopic 4.2 passer rating. If that's how Baltimore's offense is going to exert its new-found team leadership role, in wake of the defensive struggles, then the Ravens might be in danger of snapping their streak of making the playoffs and winning at least one game in the postseason in each of Harbaugh's four seasons on the job.
"We lost to a very good Houston Texans team,'' said Suggs, whose presence didn't make up for many of Baltimore's deficiencies this season. "There's no sugarcoating it. Call a spade a spade. They whooped our [butt]. They played a hell of a football game. They're a great team. We didn't lose to a team still searching for its identity. They know who they are.''
And so do we at this point. Houston is the clear-cut class of the AFC. It may or may not matter come January, but being the best team in even a down year for the conference carries a little cache' for these Texans, given where they've come from and where they hope they're heading. Sunday gave Houston the belief that last week was the aberration, and the showing against Baltimore was all about a return to normalcy and the business of winning.
"We played the way we're capable of playing,'' said Texans general manager Rick Smith, looking like he had just had a smile plastered on his face for three-plus hours. "We just have to make sure we can continue to do that, and play that way consistently. If we do, we can play with anybody.''
At least anybody in the AFC, where Houston is now 6-0 and still climbing. That much we know. The message came through loud and clear on this day. Going forward, it's going to take more than one bad game to make the Texans doubt themselves. In both their division and their conference, they're at the top as the season's midway point looms, and they're starting to really enjoy the view.