I imagine most Texans fans are at school or work with a 24 oz. mug of dark murky liquid grasped in their shaky hand after mixing a Monster and coffee to jump start the day. Their clothes reek after saying, 'Screw the shower. I'm sleeping in 15 minutes later!" The eyes are narrowly open, sitting atop a curtain of purple skin that resembles Walter White's left eye after getting punched in the face by Hank. However, underneath all the grim and crust, there's a wide dinner plate sized smile after last night's improbable 31-28 victory over San Diego.
Last night was the best of halves, it was the worst of halves, it was a sentence mimicking a quote from a book some were forced to read in high school. The first half was a disaster after a Matt Schaub pass was tipped at the line and intercepted, putting the Texans down 7-0 ten seconds into the game. Houston then whimpered into the locker room at halftime down 21-7. We all sat aghast and tried to comprehend what was worse--the game, or the sound of Chris Berman and Trent Dilfer's voices as they mumbled like college interns calling a D-III softball game.
Halftime brought the worst out of Texans fans, with quotes like "We suck. I knew it," "That's exactly why I didn't trust this team this year," and "I told you were going 6-10," only for it all to change in twenty-five minutes and thirty five seconds. In the second half, those words were jammed back down the throat of the fan base with a steel serving spoon. Houston fought back and won despite playing one of the unluckiest halves of football I've seen in a long time.
Philip Rivers' F-bombs, fist pumps, and theatrics lost their luster. The O-line split the defense in two in the zone running game. Schaub played maybe the greatest game of his career. Brian Cushing tied it up when he picked himself off the grass and paraded into the end zone after diving in the way of a forced pass to Danny Woodhead. Finally, Randy Bullock sent the Texans home and us to bed when he knocked down a game winning 41 yard field goal, giving Houston their first lead of the night with 0:00 left on the scoreboard. It was an incredible win under ridiculous circumstances. Let's sift among the emotion and dig deeper into last night's game.
The Worst of Halves
Houston's Week 1 win can be broken down into two different games: the first half and the second. The Texans came into a situation no team has (maybe ever) since ESPN took over Monday Night Football. When ESPN bought the rights to this game in 2006, they implemented the doubleheader to start the season. The first game was usually a divisional rivalry or playoff rematch, and the second game boasted two West Coast teams who would start at 9:30 p.m. Central/7:30 Pacific. It was a game the rest of the country fell asleep to, waking up the next morning laughing about how bad the Raiders would be this season. Here are the games we have missed and fallen asleep to since 2006:
||San Diego @ Oakland
||Oakland @ Denver
||San Diego @ Kansas City
||San Diego @ Oakland
||Denver @ Oakland
||Arizona @ San Fransisco
||San Diego @ Oakland
This year, ESPN changed their minds and opted for a better game. This season. they craved the NFL Kickoff ratings and the chance to showcase the new superstar of the NFL, J.J. Watt. They showed him off in commercials and promos about why you had to stay up until 1 a.m. to watch San Diego play Houston. It worked. We did and I'm sure others around the country did as well.
However, I wonder how much the late start played into the Houston's abysmal first half? We have no historical evidence right to know if it does, but with the way Houston played to start the game, there might be some merit to the late start having a negative effect.
Hopefully, we don't get to study any new evidence and ESPN goes back to the old system of Chargers versus Raiders so we can all sleep peacefully again. Despite the late start, the Texans were able to win and are now the first team to win two OT games in four days and the first team not in the AFC or NFC West to win the late night Monday night game.
Whatever the reason Houston came out slow, they faltered because they gave San Diego great field position, played terrible on third downs and endured a severe case of bad luck.
First half starting field position for the Chargers and the end-result:
- Houston 14 - Touchdown
- San Diego 6 - Punt
- SD 20 - Touchdown (featuring two 3rd down conversions and a 4th down conversion)
- SD 27 - Punt
- SD 41 - Touchdown
The Chargers had to gain only 153 yards for their three first half touchdowns. That's 51 yards oer drive. Consequently Philip Rivers had a first half stat line that looked like this: 8/14, 57.14%, 112 yards, and 3 TDs. Rivers only threw five passes that didn't result in a touchdown. If that isn't unsustainable, I don't know what is.
Now let's dip our toes into the third quarter and look at San Diego's first drive of the second half. The first play was a 47 yard bomb to Malcom Floyd. Floyd made a miraculous catch even though Johnathan Joseph had blanketed him. That play swung the field position from their own 20 to Houston's 33. Again, Rivers was dealt a short field to maneuver.
Third down was a sore spot in the first half last night. San Diego had eight third downs (9, if you want to count 3rd and Goal at the ten yard line). They converted on third and 6, 6, 7, 8, and a 4th and one. The problem wasn't first and second down defense; it was Houston's inability to shut the Chargers down on third and long. San Diego averaged 3rd and 7.5 in the first half, picked up an average of 9.125 yards, and completed 62.5% of their conversions (5/8; yes, I'm including that 4th down). I have no numerical evidence, but watching the game, the problem was fairly easy to see.
Mike McCoy, the Chargers' new head coach and former Broncos offensive coordinator, employs a quick passing scheme and tries to get the ball out in 2-3 seconds. On third down, Wade Phillips did what he always does, sending 6-7 guys to bring pressure on the QB and playing man everywhere else. In McCoy's offensive scheme, the pressure does not work if Rivers gets the ball out quickly; he can shred the man coverage of Brice McCain and D.J. Swearinger. Consequently, San Diego was able to convert on third down and keep their drives going. This, plus the short field, led to Houston's defense giving up 28 points in a little more than 30 minutes.
The last component of the 28-7 equation was the bad luck Houston encountered. Everyone knows what occurred on the first play of the game. Matt Schaub went to throw short to Owen Daniels, the ball was tipped by Jarret Johnson and intercepted by Cam Thomas, leaving San Diego only 14 yards from the end zone. The interception, not the tip at the line, was incredibly lucky. My Bayesian guess is balls tipped at the line are intercepted maybe 10% of the time; the other 90% flutter lazily to the ground like a dove shot out of the air. Additionally, the ball was tipped by Jarret Johnson, who has 22 tipped passes in 111 games. The ball was intercepted by a 6'3" 330 lb. DT who in four years in the NFL and four years at UNC accumulated just one interception and one fumble recovery. If that play happens 10 times, Thomas' enormous carcass maybe catches two or three of those passes. Yes, it was a bad throw by Schaub, who was staring down Daniels. It was also incredibly lucky that a ball thrown that hard was intercepted.
Two more examples of bad luck include the officials and play reviews. On third and ten with twenty-six seconds remaining, Rivers completed a short pass to the left flat to Vincent Brown, who then proceeded to turn up field. He was hit out of bounds at the same time he dove for the pylon. The official called him out of bounds, which would have left San Diego having to decide to go for it on 4th and Inches at the one yard line-where anything can happen-or kick a field goal.
Instead, the play was reviewed, like it was supposed to be, and was overturned after the replay showed Brown's knee was a centimeter or two above the ground before the ball smashed into the orange rectangle. It was a bad case of physics, and San Diego was on the rewarding end this time. The same sort of play occurred shortly afterwards when Houston was trying to drive for the chance to kick last second field goal before the end of the half. Schaub threw a perfect pass, hitting Andre Johnson in stride. Both of his feet grazed the ground and he fell out of bounds. Again, the play was reviewed, and again Houston lost. For some reason, the focus was on Johnson's elbow hitting out of bounds and not on the fact both of his feet were in bounds when he had possession, I don't know why this fact was overlooked, but it stole the chance for the Texans to be able to narrow the lead to 11 (later in the game, Houston would be redeemed with a make-up call on the personal foul for leaping over Jon Weeks). The Texans suffered a terrible case of bad luck and lost points in the first half because of it.
The Best of Halves
The second half started almost as terribly as the first went. San Diego threw a 41 yard pass as I mentioned earlier, scored on the same drive, and made the game 28-7. After that, San Diego's offense was at Jaguarian levels. In the subsequent drives in the second half, the Chargers had five possessions. Four of them resulted in three and outs and the other was the Cushing pick.
Part of it was the Texans offense's ability to move the ball at will, changing the field position. The other was Wade Phillips making adjustments. San Diego was not as lucky in the second half. They actually stared down long fields. In the second half, San Diego's drives started from the 38, 20, 13, 20, and 16 yard line. During these changes in possession,Houston's special teams allowed only two returns--a 42 yard kickoff return and 5 yards on a punt return. Joe Marciano's influence on a game is limited if Shane Lechler skies punts and Randy Bullock kicks touch backs.
In addition to this, the Chargers and went 0 for 4 on third downs. They had to attempt to convert third downs of 9, 9, 10 and 2 yards. Their average length to go on third down was roughly the same, but the outcome was different. Wade deserves an enormous amount of credit for how the defense changed in the last 25 minutes of the game (after the Chargers' last TD drive). While watching, it seemed like he stopped blitzing as heavily, dropped back in coverage and masked his blitzes when he did. For example, on the Cushing interception, Houston shows like they're blitzing six, but Wade only brings five, plays man on the outside, and leaves Cushing to play a zone in the middle of the field. On other third downs, it seems like Wade did the same, faking the blitz and dropping more guys into coverage than Rivers was expecting. It was a great change to see after watching him not adjust at times last season, allowing great teams like the Patriots and Packers to take advantage of his defense.
The last thing to discuss is when comparing the halves is how much differently the individual players' numbers changed from the first half to the second half.
|First Half||Second Half||First Half||Second Half|
|Rivers: 8/14 112 Yds 3 TDs||6/15 83 Yds 1 TD||Schaub: 12/18 147 Yds 1 TD 1 INT||22/27 199 Ydss 2 TDs|
Matthews: 10 Att 33 Yds
1 Catch 14 Yds 1 TD
3 Att 0 Yds
1 Catch 8 Yds
Foster: 10 Att 34 Yds
2 Catches 12 Yds
8 Att 23 Yds
4 Catches 21 Yds
|Gates: 2 Catches 49 Yds||0 Catches 0 Yds||Tate: 6 Att 39 Yds||3 Att 16 Yds|
|Royal: 2 Catches 23 Yds 1TD||1 Catch 1 Yd||Johnson: 4 Catches 71 Yds||8 Catches 75 Yds|
|Owen Daniels: 3 Catches 47 Yds||2 Catches 20 Yds 1 TD|
|Hopkins: 1 Catch 0 Yds||5 Catches 66 Yds|
It's like looking at two different games. It really proves the adjustments made in the second half of Monday Night Football.
The Texans' offense was incredible. In the second half, they had drives of 11 plays for 70 yards (TD), 10 plays for 75 yards (TD), 7 plays for 7 yards (fake punt that turned into a punt), 5 plays for 27 yards (punt), and 9 plays for 38 yards (game-winning FG). Houston also held the ball for twice as long as San Diego and ran 29 more plays (HOU 42, SD 13). It was the craziest turnaround I can remember seeing in a football game in a severe case of recency bias. The Texans played a completely different game in the second half. It can be looked at with a narrative like "They found a way to win" or "They just know how to battle," when really the case was better luck, play, and adjustments.
Last night Matt Schaub played one of the greatest games of his career. In the sands of time, it will probably be overwhelmed by the immensity of the comeback and Cushing's pick-six. Schaub's entire career has been filled with people saying he can't win the big game and that he just lacks the ability to lead his team from behind. This ignores all the other variables that go into a football game. So now, since he did just lead Houston back from a 21 point deficit, he needs to be acknowledged. Since he was traded to Houston in 2007, Schaub has played in 9 games in this exact same situation--his team down by 21 points, needing him to bring them back from the dead. When Houston is down by 21, his numbers are: 66/105, 62.9%, 5 TD, 2 INT and 7.0 Y/A (not including last night's game). Most of these plays come in garbage time when everyone his hanging out until the clock reaches 0:00, but they are still respectable numbers nonetheless.
In his career, Houston is 0-9 in these games and 0-4 when down by 14 at the half.
Until last night.
In two of those games, Schaub was able to lead the team back to tie the game. The first one was in Week 7 of 2009 against the Arizona Cardinals. Houston went down 21-0, but came back to tie the game 21-21. They would end up losing 28-21 after Schaub threw an interception to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who then ran it back to the house for the win. The other was more recent in 2010, on Monday Night Football against the Ravens. Houston went down 28-7, but were still able to tie it after a Schaub touchdown pass to Johnson and a two point conversion to Jacoby Jones. They then went on to receive the ball in OT, only for Schaub to throw another pick-six in a similar situation to Josh Wilson.
It's funny how these things work out. Last night, Schaub received the benefit of his defense making a play and marched the team down to a field goal to win the game. He finished the game 34-45 for 346 yards, 3 TDs, and 1 INT. He finally brought Houston back to win a game after being down 21 points.
The past few years, Houston has been known for their Anaconda offense. Run the clock, make timely passes, and squeeze the life out of your opponents. However, they had to have a lead for this to occur. If they fell behind early, the offensive pendulum swung to the passing game and a loss would most likely occur. Last night might have been good for Houston in that regard. To have to play from behind 14 (then 21) points, come back and do what they weren't able to do last season against Green Bay, Indy and New England could be a good thing. To win a Super Bowl, you need a lot of luck and the ability to come from behind every once in a while to win a close game. Even though it was only against San Diego, the Texans proved they have the ability to do it.
I usually spend the first four weeks of the NFL enjoying the newness, but I watch analytically and try to figure out who's good, who's awful, and try keep the emotions at bay until November and December roll around. I feel more like I'm watching a documentary about black holes and not football.
However, last night was one of those nights where my thinking changed. I was standing up, yelling, cheering, and hollering, doing all the things that sports make us do as my emotions were throttled like a jet at an air show. I was ready for a nice 31-17 Houston win where they do their job, take a lead from the beginning, and hold it until the end. Then everything played out.
One of the main reasons why we watch and love the games is that when something spectacular happens. Like when a meteorite shoots a laser-like green streak across the sky as you're driving home from the gas station after picking up a bottle of chocolate milk. Last night was one of those nights. It brought one of the greatest games in franchise history (not the best), one we'll remember for a long time. It was just one game, but it was a fun one and worth staying up past our bedtimes for. The rest of these 16 weeks may not be as exciting, but they will be just as joyous.