CHICAGO -- Covering a Ravens-Texans game last month on a beautiful sun-splashed Sunday afternoon in Houston, I couldn't help but notice the powers that be elected to keep the roof at Reliant Stadium closed, even though the weather couldn't have been much better.
It made me wonder if these Texans were climate controlled, or could they take their AFC-best game on the road this season and handle the elements, as the calendar deepened into November and December and the weather grew more unpredictable and nasty?
I think Sunday night at Soldier Field provided the answer.
On a blustery, rainy night that was made for the power running game and smashmouth defense, the Texans proved to the rest of the NFL that the venue, and the atmospheric conditions, isn't what will determine how far they go in this most-promising 2012 season. The result, a 13-6 Texans win, was so ugly it was beautiful, built as it was on the parts of football that show up the most when the weather is the worst, imbuing teams with the belief they can handle any situation and clear any obstacle in their path.
"In this league, you have to be able to win in all kinds of ways," said Texans head coach Gary Kubiak, whose first-place club improved to 8-1, maintaining its two-game lead over Indianapolis (6-3) in the AFC South. "We were able to muster it up and win the way we had to tonight. I think it's important that your team believes it can win a lot of different ways."
With today's pass-happy NFL resembling a video game most of the time, I have to admit, watching one of these rain-soaked defensive scrums is nice once in a while. You know, for a change of pace, like taking in a foreign film with sub-titles, or Chinese for dinner. Sure, it was a bit of an offensive slop-fest in the first half, with the teams combining for six turnovers (Bears 4, Texans 2) and just 14 first downs (Texans 10, Bears 4).
But there was something kind of retro refreshing about a game in which three quarterbacks played -- Matt Schaub for Houston; Jay Cutler (concussion) and Jason Campbell for Chicago -- but nobody managed to throw for more than 95 yards in the rain and wind. I wouldn't want it every NFL game day, but the teams combining for four field goals and one lone touchdown made it a throwback Sunday of a whole different sort in Chicago.
With four takeaways, all in the first half, Houston basically beat the Bears (7-2) at their own game. Chicago's aggressive and talented defense came into Week 10 leading the NFL in that pivotal department with 28, but added just two to its total, watching as the Texans defense stole the show and ended Chicago's six-game winning streak. Houston has a streak of its own going, winning three in a row and giving up just one touchdown (a garbage-time score against Baltimore in Week 7) in that span.
"We definitely have something to prove," Texans defensive end Antonio Smith said. "We made no secret about it: Our goal is to be the No. 1 defense in the NFL, and we were facing the defense who everybody said was better than ours, so we wanted to go out and make a statement.
"We knew coming into this game it was going to be a defensive battle. It was like a competition. Every time they made a play, it just made us get more amped up to go out there and make a play on our end of the bargain. This was knocking down one of the teams that everybody thinks is ahead of us on defense."
But the No. 3-ranked Texans defense didn't just knock down the Bears, it knocked out Cutler, who did not return to the game in the second half after being diagnosed with a concussion at halftime. Presumably Cutler was hurt late in the second quarter, when he was hit by Texans inside linebacker Tim Dobbins, who was penalized for unnecessary roughness on the play (an offsetting penalty was called on Cutler for throwing a pass after he crossed the line of scrimmage).
Cutler stayed in the game for seven more snaps after the head-high hit by Dobbins, scrambling for 11 yards on the next play, without sliding (he went head-first), and three plays later throwing a costly interception to Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson at the Houston 27 with 1:16 left in the half.
When the Bears returned in the second half, they announced Cutler's concussion and inserted their backup, Campbell. But like Cutler, he could only produce one field goal and four first downs in his half of work, completing 11 of 19 passes for 94 yards, with almost half of that production on a 45-yard third-quarter completion to receiver Brandon Marshall. Campbell was no Caleb Hanie-level disaster, but then again, he didn't make the difference between winning and losing for the Bears once Cutler went down. Last year, Cutler broke his thumb in a win over San Diego, but even at 7-3, the Bears' season swirled down the drain with Hanie and Josh McCown at quarterback and they missed the playoffs.
This matchup of 7-1 teams had Super Bowl preview written all over it, with the game representing just the fifth time since the 1970 merger that teams with one or fewer losses have squared off this late in the season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. But if these two meet again in New Orleans in early February, the Texans will go into the showdown with supreme confidence, having limited Bears running back Matt Forte to just 36 yards of offense on 18 touches, forced Cutler into a 7 of 14 passing night for 40 yards, with two interceptions and a 16.7 quarterback rating, and held Chicago to eight first downs and 249 yards of total offense.
Nobody on the Texans defense played bigger in the stormy conditions than strong safety Danieal Manning, the former Bears defensive back who returned to haunt his old team, picking off Cutler and forcing a fumble by tight end Kellen Davis in the first half. The hit on Davis set an early tone for Houston, on Chicago's first offense snap, and the interception ended the Bears' third drive at the Texans 6.
"We're one of the best teams at taking the ball away and putting points on the board," Manning said. "We didn't make it a personal battle, defense versus defense. We just said we're going to come out and execute our play. I'm still not all the way sold that we played our best game. Still. Our expectation is so high we expect to dominate."
The Texans didn't dominate in any fashion the last time they played a prime time Sunday night game against an NFC North opponent. They were blown out by the Packers in Houston in Week 6, their only defeat of the season. But the Texans made some amends with this victory, even though it wasn't the kind of win we've gotten used to seeing from Houston, with its multi-faceted offense and disruptive defense.
On a night when the rain made passing tricky, the Texans rode running back Arian Foster, who carried 29 times for 102 yards, and caught five passes for 15 yards, including an exquisite, diving 2-yard touchdown catch near the front right pylon with 4:14 left in the first half. That was one of Matt Schaub's 14 completions on 26 attempts, totaling just 95 yards with a pair of first-half interceptions.
"It was obviously a very, very difficult night for offensive football, and we were going to have to find ways to win," Kubiak said. "Just battling and playing great defense and doing our jobs special teams-wise. I'm just proud we were able to go win the way we knew we had to win tonight."
Houston has a couple more regular-season games that could pose weather challenges in December: at Tennessee in Week 13 and at New England in Week 14. But if things go to plan for the Texans in the playoffs, there won't be any outdoor games. If Houston can lock up the AFC's No. 1 seed, Kubiak's team will be in line to keep the roof closed at Reliant for a pair of games in January, and then proceed on to the Superdome and the Super Bowl after that.
But winning in a different way, like they did on this raw night at Soldier Field against the Bears, could well pay dividends at some point for these Texans, if only to prove they can play anywhere against anybody in any conditions, and come out with their hopes alive and their self-esteem soaring.
"You gain confidence when you know you're able to do things three ways (offense, defense, special teams), and you're not just built one way,'' Kubiak said.
Houston's confidence should be at an all-time high after this win, even though it may not have registered an artistic success. Some opponent may well end the Texans' Super Bowl dreams at some point this season, but when it comes to dealing with the elements, and some late-season weather, they just proved resoundingly to themselves that they can prevail.