HOUSTON -- Here, finally, was the moment the Texans got well, recovered officially from their December-long flu. Four minutes and 29 seconds into the second half, Arian Foster knifed up the middle for a one-yard touchdown that gave the home team a 16-7 lead over the Bengals, whom they would go on to beat 19-13. It would've been a garden variety TD were it not for the fact that ANY touchdown scored by the Texans during this, the winter of their discontent, was by definition remarkable. That's how rarely Houston has been in the end zone over the past month.
True, the Matt Schaub-led offense couldn't score another touchdown the rest of the way -- four Shayne Graham field goals made up the balance of Houston's points. But still, this was progress. While they weren't in actual free-fall going into 2013, the Texans were crowded onto an express elevator, going down. By losing to the Colts on the last day of the regular season they dropped from the top seed in the AFC to No. 3. Going into wild card weekend, the Bengals were everyone's Upset Special. Now, they're just upset.
The Texans will now have eight days to relive the debacle of last Dec. 10. Recall how Houston traveled to New England wearing nifty letterman's jackets for what was described as the biggest regular season game in franchise history. That sartorial blunder did not go unnoticed by the Patriots, who embarrassed the arriviste visitors, dominating every phase of play in a 42-14 beatdown. Saturday's win earned the Texans a return ticket to Foxboro.
Can Houston give the Pats a better game this time around? The answer is a definitive yes, for the simple reason that the Texans could hardly play any worse. After arresting their fall on Saturday, Houston players spoke of the upside of a selective memory, and the restorative powers of a playoff victory. "No one is thinking about us losing like that," said Foster, referring to the New England rout. He questioned whether he would even review video of the loss. "They're a new team, we're a new team ... You have to attack it differently. It's a different mentality. Different things are at stake."
"No one is even thinking about us losing" up there, he insisted. "We put that behind us the next week."
In truth, that beatdown sent the team into a spiral, during which the offense suddenly struggled, and the Texans' once-fearsome defense, led by MVP candidate J.J. Watt, looked ordinary for long stretches -- in part because the offense couldn't sustain drives, and left them on the field too long.
Describing the past month as "a gut check for this organization," head coach Gary Kubiak recounted "a powerful, powerful" team meeting on the eve of the game, and praised the resilience of his players. They led the way today, and I'm proud of them."
Against a ferocious defense whose 46 sacks ranked seventh in the NFL, a much-maligned Texans offensive line kept the Bengals off Matt Schaub all afternoon. More impressive, Houston's line created the lanes and space for Foster to rush for 140 yards on 32 carries, allowing the home team to dominate time of possession.
"He turns those two- or three-yarders into five- or six-yarders," said Schaub of Foster, who became the first NFL player to rush for over a hundred yards in his first three playoff games. "He was outstanding."
In the first playoff start of his nine-year career, Schaub was less than outstanding, but more than adequate, completing 29 of his 38 passes for 262 yards and a touchdown. Unfortunately for the home team, that scoring pass was a pick-6 by Bengals corner Leon Hall, whose 21-yard interception return gave the Bengals a brief, 7-6 lead early in the second quarter.
It was a gruesome turnover, and had the capacity to drain whatever mojo Schaub had cobbled together to the point. Instead, his teammates went out of their way to meet him as he came off the field, to let him know they had his back; to forget about it.
Asked if he'd suffered from a touch of nerves going into the game, Schaub replied, "I wouldn't say nerves. We were just anxious." Out of politeness, no one asked him to explain the difference. He was clearly skittish early, but gained composure and confidence as the game went on. Other than that ghastly interception, he was crisp, if conservative. With the Bengals keeping two safeties deep to take away big-play threat Andre Johnson, Schaub was content to zip completions to tight end Owen Daniels, who caught nine balls for 91 yards.
Another Wisconsin alum, one J.J. Watt, also had a big game, with five tackles, one salute (which is how he celebrates a sack) and two finger wags (which follow tipped passes). The Texans heard a lot about the Bengals defense this week. On Saturday, Watt & Co. reminded the NFL why everyone was so excited about this team through Thanksgiving. The Bengals converted zero of nine third downs, and eked out just 198 total yards.
"There were plays to be made the last time we were up there," said Daniels, the tight end, of Houston's last trip to New England. "We just didn't make 'em."
They'll make more next Sunday. Will they make enough? The Texans looked good on Saturday, but they didn't look like a Super Bowl contender. Then again, for most of December, they didn't look like a playoff team. All that's certain is that, this time, they'll leave the letter jackets at home.