The Houston Texans started this season 0-3, and after a loss to the Giants, it looked like the season was coming off the rails. Instead, Houston escaped Week 4 with a narrow 37-34 win over the Indianapolis Colts and, from there, it was off to the races.
Since that Week 4 matchup, the Texans have won all of their games and haven’t allowed an opponent to score more than 23 points (Dolphins). In fact, in that span, the Texans have given up more than 20 points just twice (Dolphins and Redskins) while holding every other opponent to 17 points or fewer. The defense has come alive, rising to sixth in Football Outsiders DVOA metric. The offense continues to languish in the bottom third of the league, checking in at 21st, but there have been encouraging signs over the past three weeks.
This weekend, the Texans look to make it a double-digit streak, and become just the second team (Saints) to do so this season. Standing in their way is that pesky Colts team that was a few missed plays away from sending Houston to 0-4 way back when. How do the Colts flip that result this time around? Has Houston’s play elevated them to Super Bowl contenders? We asked NFL on CBS analyst Rich Gannon, who will call the game for CBS alongside Kevin Harlan and reporter Steve Tasker (1:00 P.M. ET), those questions and others.
CBS Local Sports: The Texans have won nine straight, the longest active winning streak in the league right now. After what we have seen from them in this run, do you think they are a legitimate Super Bowl contender?
Rich Gannon: I really do. They have a lot going for them. They are a team that plays complementary football. The overall play of their defense has been impressive. They are physical. They stop the run. They have pass rushers that can simply take over a game in Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt.
When we talk about getting into the month of January, it isn’t just teams that can score a lot of points. It is teams that have better quarterbacks, better offensive systems, better coordinators. And when you look at the way the Texans play defensively, it serves them well.
On the other side of the ball, they have found their rhythm offensively. Their quarterback, Deshaun Watson, is a multi-dimensional player with a unique skill set and dynamic play-making skills. The creativity and poise that he has are rare for such a young player. They also have a commitment to running the ball with Lamar Miller, Alfred Blue and D’Onta Foreman who may come back this week.
Then, you add in one of the best receivers in football in DeAndre Hopkins. Demaryius Thomas was a great pickup in the wake of Will Fuller’s injury. The quarterback is the one who makes it all go, but Bill O’Brien has done a really nice job. They are one of the hottest teams in football right now.
CBS Local Sports: The Colts were just a few plays away from winning this matchup the first time around. What are the biggest adjustments that coach Frank Reich needs to make heading into Sunday?
Rich Gannon: It all starts with protection. Anytime you face a team like the Texans, who have two really good pass rushers, the offensive line has to play well. They spent a lot of money, time, effort and energy in addressing the line. Their top two draft picks were offensive linemen in guard Quenton Nelson and tackle Branden Smith. Both have played well. I really like Nelson. He is a physical, no-nonsense guy, who sets the tone in the middle of that line. They have done a much better job of protecting Andrew Luck.
The other way they protect Luck is by playing with six offensive linemen at times. Joe Haeg will come in as an extra tackle, but he lines up at the tight end position. You’ll see a lot of six and seven-man protections. They will also bring in Ryan Hewitt as another tight end who blocks. They have done some good things in the play-action game to give Luck a little bit more time, comfort and security back there in the pocket. T.Y. Hilton is dangerous in the passing game.
But, to me, you better have a plan to stop Eric Ebron. He has had a really good season for the Colts, leading them in receptions to this point, and that is where Luck wants to push the ball down the field.
CBS Local Sports: Also on CBS, another playoff battle between the Chiefs and the Ravens. Baltimore has won three straight with Lamar Jackson at quarterback, what has made him effective as the starter?
Rich Gannon: His legs. It is very different when you look at what offensive coordinator Marty Morninwheg has done with Lamar Jackson. I was on the call for his first start against the Bengals, and the first 11 plays were all runs. And he was involved in a lot of them.
He has to do a better job of protecting himself. In fact, he was knocked out of last week’s game. He is a dynamic playmaker, but throwing the ball from the pocket is still a work in progress. That’s why they have done a good job of moving him out of the pocket and changing the launch point for him. They are committed to running the football and running back Gus Edwards has been playing really well.
The way that they win is running the football, chewing up the clock and punching you in the face on defense. They have a really good defense at all three levels. Their formula for success right now is with some young playmakers on offense, a solid kicking game with Sam Koch and Justin Tucker, and a really good defense.
CBS Local Sports: You mentioned the defense, and that’s where I wanted to go next with you. How does Baltimore slow down a Chiefs offense that has given everybody fits this season?
Rich Gannon: They have to match speed with speed. Don Martindale is a really good defensive coordinator, and we’ll probably see a lot of dime and quarter packages. We may see five, six or seven defensive backs on the field. That may affect how they choose to use their inactives on game day, but I think we are going to see a lot more of the secondary up and playing on Sunday.
They have to be able to stop the Chiefs’ ability to spread teams out. Playing that many defensive backs may neutralize the pass rush because of how quickly the ball comes out with Patrick Mahomes.