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Red Zone Play: What Does It Take To Reach The Next Level?

A bit of NFL history, and then some thoughts on the Texans’ upcoming Thursday night tilt with the Patriots.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

When a team gets into the red zone, whether it’s on the field in a live game or, more figuratively, in their history, it takes extra effort to overcome the challenges and punch the ball across the goal line.

As we established last week, the Texans are in their historical red zone right now.

Looking back over the history of the NFL, some teams make it to the red zone quickly but fail to score (see the 1995 Jacksonville Jaguars or the 1996 Carolina Panthers). Other teams take a little longer, but ultimately get points… once… but not again (like the 1970 Kansas City Chiefs). The final category is the one the Texans’ current blueprint mimics the most. Those teams that take a little longer to hit the red zone, but break the plane of the goal line, then come back to do it again and again (see the 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers, the 1977 Oakland Raiders, the 2001 Baltimore Ravens and the 2002 New England Patriots).

Each of those teams had a strong core of homegrown talent, augmented with a few stellar players brought in from other teams. They also knew that while you focused solely on the next opponent, you also had to keep your eyes on the big picture of long-term domination.

As it stands right now, the Houston Texans have their last nine (9) first round draft picks in the starting line-up. While two are injured (2009’s Brian Cushing and 2008’s Duane Brown) the rest are making highlight reel plays nearly every game.

Case in point:

Houston rookie wide receiver Will Fuller had four catches for 104 yards in the Texans’ 19-12 win over Kansas City. Fuller, who had five catches for 107 yards in Week 1, is the first rookie drafted in the first round to have at least 100 receiving yards in each of his team’s first two games of a season.

Texans defensive end J.J. Watt had 1.5 sacks and a fumble recovery in the win over Kansas City. Watt has 76 sacks in 82 career games and is the second-fastest player to reach 75 sacks since the sack became an official statistic in 1982. Watt passed Pro Football Hall of Famer Bruce Smith, who reached 75 sacks in 85 games. Pro Football Hall of Famer Reggie White holds the record as the fastest to 75 sacks, accomplishing the feat in 62 games.

Another thing those four teams mentioned above have in common is a slew of players in the Hall of Fame. While the Texans are still too young to have a Hall wing all their own, those first round players still battling it out every Sunday have combined for nine (9) Pro Bowls, four (4) Defensive Player/Rookie of the Year awards and three (3) All-Pro selections. While that’s not the most dominant showing of a team’s draft picks, the fact that all nine of Houston’s first-rounders are still playing at an above average to off-the-charts level illustrates how Houston belongs in the conversation with the third group of teams.

Now they just need to get the hardware to prove it.

Stepping up and exorcising demons is one solid step in that direction. Houston took one such step this past Sunday when they beat the Chiefs 19-12 in front of a raucous home crowd that was still stewing from the Texans’ unceremonious ousting from the 2015 NFL Playoffs at the hands of Kansas City.

Next up is the second Star Wars reference in two weeks: In order to become a football Jedi, O’Brien must face his coaching father, Darth Belichick, and vanquish him.

Another old football adage: Winning teams beat the teams they should.

‘On paper’, there’s no single legitimate reason why Houston shouldn’t roll up to Foxborough this Thursday and roll the Battle Red Bulldozer all over the Patriots. But, ‘on paper’ doesn’t account for the mental aspects of the game. It doesn’t take into consideration the real-time strategy that happens on the sidelines as game plans go out the window, adjustments become the norm, and coaches strive to put their players in the best position to win with split-second decisions.

If Houston can go to New England and come home 3-0 on Thursday night, there may come a day when the football world looks back on this week as a changing of the guard in the AFC, a symbolic passing of the torch from one perennial powerhouse to the next.

If Houston goes in and comes away with a loss, it provides another opportunity to grow from adversity, rise above the negatives, and carry on their march to greatness.

Hopefully, it’s the former.

Either way, here are a few keys to the game for you Xs and Os types:

  • The Houston defense is currently ranked #3 in the league. New England’s is 25th.
  • Houston’s offense is 20th, the Patriots are 5th.
  • Historically, with few exceptions, the #1 ranked Defense will always beat the #1 ranked Offense.

Edge: Houston.

Toss in a Patriots rookie quarterback, the Texans’ record-breaking rookie receiver, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and a defense that leads the league with three times as many sacks as New England, and ‘on paper’ is looking pretty good.

What do you think? Are the Texans finally ascending or are they still a year or two away from truly contending?

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