2011: After 9 seasons, the Texans finally get to playoffs, gaining it via their first division title. The off-season emphasis on rebuilding the defense paid huge dividends. While they started the season 3-3, Houston then went on a roll. They won the next 4 by an average of 22.5pts/game. After the bye, the Texans took the next 3, culminating with the “80 for 80” win against the Bengals to clinch the division. They would host the franchise’s 1st playoff game, a 31-10 blasting of the Bengals, only to fall in a valiant effort to the Ravens the following week 20-13.
While arguably the greatest season in Texans history, 2011 was filled with “what if’s” and “what might have beens”. Perhaps the biggest “what if” concerns Matt Schaub. In Week 10, Houston went down to Tampa Bay to administer their 4th straight beatdown of an overmatched opponent (Tampa Bay). Late in the 2nd quarter, with the Texans backed up on their 1 yard line, Houston calls for a QB sneak to try to get a few extra yards. Schaub executes the play, but during the tackle, defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, no stranger to confrontations with Schaub, landed on the QB, crushing his foot. Schaub got up limping a little, but remained in the game until midway through the 4th quarter, when the Texans were up by 28. Only after the game would the team get the news that Schaub had a Lisfranc injury and was out for the year. A massive blow for a team that had seemingly found a rhythm. While the team would ultimately lose another QB for the year and have to rely on a 3rd stringer, the squad still got to the post-season, and even into the divisional round.
In the 10 years since that season, many in the Texans’ fandom world pondered that very question. The play-call is likely not up for dispute. On the previous play, the Texans lost yardage and Foster barely avoided a safety. A handoff in that situation might have resulted in a safety, offering the then-struggling Bucs a chance for some much needed momentum. They did get a FG on the subsequent drive after a punt, but getting ball after a safety and with more time on the clock, might have yielded more points. Also, the injury did not appear that serious at first, as it looked like a sprained ankle. While replays from the game showed Haynesworth glaring back at the huddle after the tackle, there was little video evidence to suggest anything amidst.
Injuries are always the bane of a NFL team. They are random and can strike at inopportune times. The 2011 Texans had no shortage of those, between Schaub, Mario Williams and Andre Johnson. Yet, the loss of a starting QB, especially one playing as well as Schaub, can be a hard loss to overcome. That being said, if Schaub had avoided injury and/or Haynesworth hadn’t had been so Haynesworth-like, what would the fate of the Texans have been? What helped sustain the team through the QB attrition would be a top tier rushing attack and defense. The team managed to win the 1st three games post-Schaub injury, which included wins over playoff teams Atlanta and Cincinnati. Where Schaub’s presence would likely be most significant would be in the late-season match-up against Carolina. After the Bengals’ win, the home game against a middling Carolina team seemed tailor-made for a letdown, and it was, to the tune of a 28-13 loss. Would a veteran Schaub, if everything else held to form and the Texans on a 7-game win streak, lead the team to overcome a division-clinching hangover? Possible. While Schuab was never known for being the most clutch of QBs, he didn’t have to do everything for the team in 2011. His presence under center, knowing what was at stake and after an emotional win at Cincinnati, might have pulled the team through the letdown morass. It would have forced a more honest Carolina defense, opening up opportunities against that defense.
In the big picture, for Houston to change their playoff fate, they had to avoid the 3rd seed. Given that they already had a loss in hand to Baltimore earlier in the year (at Baltimore), they needed a better overall record. That the Ravens finished 12-4 meant that Houston needed to run the table to overtake them to get a bye. If Houston finished 12-4, they are still the #3 seed. They would likely still beat the Bengals, and then still have to go back to M&T Stadium. While it is likely that Houston would play better (presuming a healthy Schaub and that the Texans’ defense and Arian Foster still had the same type of games they did with Yates at QB), it is hard to see Houston getting out of Baltimore with a win. Even if they did, Houston would still have to travel to New England. While Houston would be a red-hot team, bringing in a 12-game winning streak to Gillette Stadium, Houston winning two road playoff games at two of the roughest places to play in the AFC seemed highly unlikely.
If a Schaub-led squad did overcome the Carolina letdown and ran the table (they were favored in the final three games), they would have finished 13-3. Since they didn’t play New England (who also finished 13-3) during the season, and they both would have had a matching conference record of 10-2, the NFL would have had to go to common opponents. The Patriots and Texans both played Miami, Indianapolis, Oakland and Pittsburgh. The difference in this scenario goes to Pittsburgh. When the Texans won against the Steelers in Week 4, that clinched the AFC #1 seed in this scenario. Houston gets the bye, and then hosts the “magical” Denver Broncos led by Tim Tebow. Tebow led the Broncos to a win over Houston in 2010. However, the Texans bring a stronger defense to this matchup. Maybe Denver is more motivated, and the Texans might be due for a letdown. However, the motivation from Andre Johnson, who finally gets to taste playoff glory, would negate that advantage. Johnson goes off, JJ Watt logs a momentum-altering strip sack of Tebow, and Houston not only logs the first home playoff win for the city in 20 years, they host the first ever AFC Championship game in city history. From there, they would likely face the survivor of the New England/Baltimore divisional playoff battle royale.
Since New England hosted in this scenario, let’s say the Patriots escape with a narrow win (like they would in the real-timeline AFC Championship game). Then the Patriots return to Houston for the first time since 2009. The dual-TE nightmare of Gronkowski and Hernandez would present some major challenges for the Texans defense. However, New England would face off against the hottest team in the league, and perhaps the loudest crowd in the history of Houston home sports. New England would not be scared, but they would have their moments of struggle. Provided the Texans avoided buckling under the pressure, be it with a ill-timed Schaub INT or a Jacoby Jones special teams muff, then they would have a decent chance at holding serve and getting to the Super Bowl. It might be easy to model the 2012 season Divisional Playoff game, where New England out-lasted Houston with basically the same cast. However, the 2011 team hadn’t suffered the dread “letterman jacket” debacle. Houston would be young, but they would also be riding mad momentum. Houston won the last game between the two at then-Reliant. All things considered, because it is the greatest home game in Houston history, we’ll give the Texans the slight edge.
Does this translate into an actual Super Bowl win? Houston would return to Indy…hardly their favorite place (even with the win in this scenario). Their opponent: the hot New York Giants, once again riding the timely passing of Eli Manning and with a locked in defensive line. Historically, Houston struggles in its matchups against the Giants. While New York never faced any of Houston’s better teams (until now), Houston hadn’t faced any of the Giants’ championship teams. The defenses would both bring their “A” games. Houston’s running game holds the slight edge over the Giants, but the playoff experience of Eli Manning trumps the newfound experience of Schaub. Unfortunately, Houston falls in Indy to a Manning-QB’d team in a relatively low-scoring affair. It is a sad coda to what is universally regarded as the greatest football season in Houston history. Still, the optimism for the team is officially off the charts. If this team could go from zero to Super Bowl runner-up, surely they could do better in the future, right?
All of this, had Albert Haynesworth not landed on Matt Schaub’s foot. This is not the only “what if” from 2011. From Mario Williams’ DPOY-season cut short in Week 5, to Andre Johnson out for a majority of the season, to Jacoby Jones not muffing a 1st quarter punt at Baltimore in the playoffs, 2011 had so many intriguing, if not painful “what ifs?” 2011 should still be remembered as a great season to be a Texans’ fan. However, it is the type of season that could have really delivered the ultimate glory.