NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- After the final play before the two-minute warning, their eighth run play in a row, Texans offensive linemen had hands on their hips, gasping for air.
As Houston bled the clock, the Texans enjoyed the best kind of tired there is in football, the kind that comes after you run the ball almost 50 times and dictate things with nearly 38 minutes of possession.
“It feels great, we’re fresh,” Houston linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. “To finish a game and not be beat up and tired is a good feeling. The offensive line is going to be dragging getting on the plane going home, but that’s the work of an offensive lineman. They won the line of scrimmage. Arian Foster and Ben Tate did a great, great job running the ball.”
By the time the Texans were done with their 41-7 dismantling Sunday of the Titans at LP Field, Foster had 115 yards rushing, 119 yards receiving and three touchdowns; Tate added 104 yards rushing. The offensive line’s good work also included great pass protection as QB Matt Schaub was not sacked.
As I canvassed the visitors locker room, two lines of questioning produced consistent answers:
One big win didn’t reshape the Texans' expectations or standards.
Despite the miserable day they created for him, they still rate Titans running back Chris Johnson as a dangerous home-run threat.
As much as the Texans banged on both ideas, neither is true.
For the Texans to be this much better than the Titans in Nashville makes them the clear-cut favorite to win the AFC South, even if safety Danieal Manning's left leg injury is serious.
The Texans have a favorable schedule ahead. They will get Andre Johnson, one of the game’s top wide receivers, back from a hamstring injury that’s been holding him out. They have as good a one-two punch at running back as anyone in the NFL. They have a consistently disruptive defensive front working hand-in-hand with an improving secondary.
“Today we showed how good we can be,” rookie defensive end J.J. Watt said. “When we put all three phases together, we can be a very, very dominant football team. We just need to be sure we come with that every single week.”
“Right now, we just keep our head down and our blinders on and we just look to Jacksonville,” Schaub said. “We look to the next game. You can’t look at the big picture. Good or bad, positive or negative, you can’t listen to the outside hype.”
In a division loaded with quality runners, the Texans showed off Foster and Tate and deepened the major dent in Chris Johnson, holding him to 18 yards on 10 carries.
Chris Johnson was regularly booed by the home crowd, which was fueled by some good touches by backup back Javon Ringer, who started out one third-quarter series in the backfield and had four quality touches.
Ryans said Johnson is the same guy, just that the Texans built a wall to contain him. Linebacker Brian Cushing said Johnson’s still a home-run hitter who just hasn’t gotten in his groove yet. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said Johnson’s still a major threat.
“When you are as talented as he is, you have a target on your chest,” Foster said of Johnson. “Teams game plan for you and it makes it tough. … It’s going to be tough treading out there, that’s just the game that we play. But he’s one of the better backs in our league.”
Titans right guard Jake Scott was the only starting lineman to be found in the Titans' locker room when it opened to media. He said when as much goes wrong as went wrong for the Titans, it’s hard to point at one guy.
But Johnson sounded like he was on the verge of pointing at his blockers, saying if you know football “you just see what is going on.”
“I won’t say that I’m the issue,” he said. “I’m very confident that I’ve been doing the things that I’ve been having to do. It’s a situation where I continue to say that I can’t do anything but keep running hard and working hard and doing what I can do for this team.”
“…It’s just a point where everybody has to look at themselves in the mirror and say they are not going to let the next man beat them. They have to overcome things and play at their top level.”
It’s past time for the Titans to make a change on the offensive line and to do something dramatic to spark Johnson back to life. It’s a necessity if they are going to stay in range of the Texans and ensure the rematch in Week 17 is meaningful. Saying that Johnson needs more carries is not enough, not when Ringer can break off a 25-yard chunk on his second carry.
In Tennessee it’ll be another week of questions about the anemic run game.
In Houston there will be another round of conversation about how good the Texans can be.
As I asked him about how the team would handle a new round of hype as a favorite to earn a playoff berth, veteran center Chris Myers rolled his eyes and nodded.
“You can’t take this game and think you’re the best thing going,” Myers said. “You’ve got to start from scratch again.”
“You don’t ever want to cling on to one game or one week,” Foster said. “The NFL is kind of like a soap opera. Every week had its big story lines. Everybody tries to hang onto something that happened the last week. But you have to go out and prove it every single day.”