With the Texans about to celebrate 20 years of playing on the field, we are taking a look back at the previous seasons, looking at various “What If?” scenarios that might have altered the course of the team’s history. Next up, the 2012 Texans:
2012 Texans: Record-wise, the greatest season in team history. With Schuab back as the full-time starter, the Texans looked to build on 2011. They started off with the best record in the league at 11-1. They lost Brian Cushing for the season against the Jets, and there would be some nail-biters against Jacksonville and Detroit, but the team was sitting in a great place. Then the closing stretch. Starting with the debacle that was the “Letterman Jacket” game, the Texans proceeded to finish the season 1-3, going from AFC home-field to the 3rd seed, another win over the Bengals on Wild Card Saturday, and a return to New England for a closer loss.
In that 1-3 stretch, if one of those losses flips over to a win, the Texans finish the year 13-3. By virtue of their win over the Broncos earlier in the season, Houston earns home-field advantage in the AFC. In looking at the 3 losses, perhaps the most painful, and inexplicable, is the one against Minnesota. In what had to feel like a repeat from 2011, the Texans came into that game having clinched the AFC South the week prior. They host a supposedly inferior NFC team. While the Vikings, unlike the Panthers, had a legit chance for the playoffs, the Texans were favored and had incentive. The Vikings were led by the running of eventual MVP Adrian Peterson, closing in on his 2,000 yard rushing season. They had a decent defense, but suspect quarterbacking with Christian Ponder. The defensive game: contain AD and force Ponder to beat you.
Unfortunately for the Texans, history practically repeated itself. The team did succeed in containing Peterson, holding him to only 88 yards. However, Ponder made use of a devastating play-action game and his legs to gash the Texans. Even if Peterson wasn’t the one-man gang, Minnesota still managed to rush for 174 yards as a team. The Texans offense could not get going, as the offensive line allowed the 2012 Vikings’ defensive line to channel the Purple-People Eaters and stifle the Texans’ offense. The Vikings led wire-to-wire, pounding the Texans 23-6.
While the game was a clear Minnesota victory, there were chances for the Texans to seize momentum and take back control. In particular, three plays stand out, where if they went a different way, perhaps the game, the season, and arguably the direction of the franchise changes.
2st quarter: Arian Foster fumbles at the 13:46 mark:
This drives starts in the first quarter and was moving into the second. Houston opened the scoring with a 53-yard FG, only to see Minnesota take the ball and march right down the field to score on a short Ponder-to-Randolph TD pass. After both teams trade punts, the Texans are on the move. This time, they get to the Minnesota 28. At the worst, the Texans are likely going to get a FG attempt to cut the deficit to 1, but there was a sense that Houston would score the TD. Foster, while prone to the occasional fumble, was not really seen as a fumble risk. On a 2nd and 7, Foster is about to wrap up a nice 5 yard gain to set up a 3rd and short. Unfortunately, he does not secure the ball. The Vikings recover the ball on the 21. They proceed to move the ball into FG range, and Blair Walsh cashes in on a 56-yarder to put the Vikes up 10-3.
While early, this play represent a major momentum swing. Instead of being 10-7 Houston, or ever 7-6, Houston loses the scoring chance and gives Minnesota one. A 56-yarder is no gimmie, but with the roof closed, it is an indoor kick and Walsh is up to the challenge. There is something deflating for a team to not only lose a sure scoring opportunity, to watch the other team take the ball and score on you in such an instance. The tough slog of a game just got tougher.
3rd quarter: Bradie James drops the interception at the 13:48 mark.
Coming out of the locker room, Minnesota is up 13-3. They dominated the 1st half and look to continue in the 2nd. They’ve moved the ball to their 48 and face 1st and 10. Ponder looks to complete the short pass to Kyle Rudolph. Yet, LB Bradie James is right there. The ball bounces around in his hands, but he can’t quite come up with the goods. Unfortunately for the Texans, Minnesota would take advantage. Benefiting from the INT drop as well as a Mercilus Roughing-the-Passer penalty 2 plays later, Blair Walsh adds his 3rd FG of the day and the Vikings lead 16-3.
Based on the timing of the game, this one could have been a major momentum flipper. Being only down 10, even a shortish drive (1-2 first downs), the Texans can still kick a FG and only be down 7, and have some significant momentum for a suddenly fired up defense. If nothing else, it denies the Vikings another score and saves more time for Houston.
3rd quarter: Schaub overthrows a wide-open Andre Johnson at the 9:37 mark.
After the missed INT and allowing a FG, the Houston offense went 3 and out. Minnesota got the ball back, but this time, JJ Watt takes matters into his own hands. He sacks Ponder and forces a fumble. James realizes it is easier to recover a fumble, and the Texans start inside Minnesota territory. On a 1st and 10 from the Minnesota 45, Schaub drops back to pass and looks to an open Andre Johnson. Unfortunately, Schaub is under some duress and can’t throw the ball as accurately. The pass just sails past the open arms of Johnson and falls incomplete. The Texans only gain 4 yards on the next two plays, and Houston punts, still trails 16-3.
At this point, it is becoming apparent that Minnesota is dictating the game. The big completion to Johnson would have put the ball inside the Minnesota 30, which, presuming the Texans do not fumble or suffer any significant loss of yardage, would at least yield a FG. While Minnesota would still lead by 2 scores, the Texans could point to that play as proof they can move the ball. Additionally, a defense, rewarded for their efforts by the offense giving them points, could overcome the sluggish start and get the team back in position to win. If Houston can turn that play into a TD, cutting the deficit to 6, then Houston’s chance dramatically improve, and doubt starts creeping into Minnesota’s mind.
The change of either of these plays does not assure victory, but each could have altered the game momentum and the course of the season. Houston proved that it still wasn’t shell-shocked from the Monday Night embarrassment against New England two weeks prior, as evidenced by their division-clinching win the week prior. Unlike 2011, the team was not alien to this experience. Also, the 2012 squad had leaders on the field, mainly Johnson. While the team played a sluggish game, the squad seemed close to a breakout. One of these three plays could have been enough. Maybe it is more likely the 1st two would make the biggest difference, but that those plays went the way they did much to secure the Texans’ loss.
This also demonstrated a dangerous trend for the Texans. With the loss to the Vikings, the Texans fell to 0-4 in regular season games after they clinched the division (0-7 all-time). Given that there is more to the NFL playoffs than merely getting in, but momentum and position, especially when a critical bye week is available, the Texans lack legitimate excuses to fall to the 3 seed. Also, the confidence in the team, and in Schaub in particular, started to turn after this loss. If the Texans took care of business against Minnesota and clinched home-field, then the game at Indy means nothing. Additionally, winning two straight games against playoff-caliber teams after the Patriots’ loss would do wonders for the fanbase and for the team. Instead, the squad just never recaptured the momentum from the start of the season. Ironically, Houston would lose to an Indy team that had nothing to play for in the final game, as its playoff seed was locked in. Houston’s confidence, and Schaub in particular, was at a seasonal ebb, and the Vikings’ loss did much to facilitate that.
If Houston clinched home-field, what then? As the #1 seed, this would likely mean a rematch with the Baltimore Ravens. Revenge from last year’s playoffs perhaps? Yet, Baltimore would be coming in with some revenge of their own on their mind. Houston blasted them 43-13 earlier in the season. However, the Ravens would be bringing in a rejuvenated Ray Lewis (injured the last game), all of their post-season experience and no qualms about playing in front of a fired up Houston crowd. Also, this would be Matt Schaub’s first playoff game. While at home, he would be facing the playoff-tested and motivated Ravens. This game would be much, much closer than the regular season tilt, but Houston, stabilizing after the failure of the New England game, does just enough to cover the Lewis magic, and they barely hang on to host the AFC Championship. It is a game that could go either way, and a loss would not be out of character, but in this scenario, Houston eeks it out.
Thus, a rematch with New England, this time in Houston’s house for the right to go to the Super Bowl. Unfortunately for the Texans, their home-field advantage does little to deter New England. The game is closer, but this iteration of New England is too much for the Houston defense. Additionally, Schaub starts to show a lack of confidence and his play become inconsistent, punctuated with a playoff pick-six, much like he would suffer in the main timeline against Cincinnati. Still, Houston goes into the 2012 offseason with a bit more optimism, even if guarded, than they do in the primary timeline.