It wasn’t pretty. Not by any measurable. But the result was beautiful for the Texans.
Houston went on the road and knocked off previously unbeaten Cincinnati 10-6, getting its record to 4-5, tied for the lead in the AFC South.
They did it in a manner we expected all season: play elite defense, force turnovers and don’t give up the ball on offense.
It didn’t matter that they had almost no offense at all. Or that Brian Hoyer left the game with a concussion and was replaced by T.J. Yates. The defense, the unit the Texans had invested so much in and seen so little return, was finally dominant against a quality opponent.
J.J. Watt was his usual disruptive self, getting a sack, pressuring the quarterback all night and forcing penalties despite being grappled on every play by the overmatched Eric Winston.
But this was about the entire unit. Players like Christian Covington made huge impacts. Charles James, the star of Hard Knocks, was everywhere on the field. Jonathan Joseph played like the elite corner he has been in the past. Rookies Kevin Johnson and Bernardrick McKinney made plays.
And in the end, that added up to a surprising victory, the Texans’ best of the year. It came amid rumors of its head coach wanting a college job — a clear ploy in what has been an embarrassing front office power play — and essentially saved what has been a disappointing season.
This looked nothing like the team that was destroyed by an awful Dolphins team and blown out by a mediocre Falcons team in prior road tests. They were aggressive on defense, made tackles and frustrated the Bengals at every turn.
They held the Bengals to just 256 yards of offense — the same number the Texans managed. They sacked Andy Dalton three times. They came up with two key turnovers. You simply can not play better defense that what the Texans did Monday night.
The offense was predictably anemic and ineffective. But they did not turn the ball over (save for a Hail Mary at the end of the first half that wasn’t actually caught). When Hoyer left the game, Yates came in and threw the only touchdown pass of the evening, and it made the difference in the final score. Guard Xaviier Sua-Filo, who has looked like another in a long line of draft busts, played well in his first start of the year and actually looked like an NFL player.
As has been the case all year, the offense was boring, predictable and ineffective. And it didn’t matter, because the Texans defense played its best game of the year.
The win should give Texans fans hope. If you can beat the Bengals on the road, suddenly games against the Jets and Bills seem less daunting. The next three opponents are the Jets, Saints, and Bills. A 2-1 mark in that stretch would have them at .500 before a closing stretch that features the Patriots and a Colts team they have never beaten in Indy.
But after Monday night, those tests (other than the Patriots) don’t seem so daunting. The Texans played the formula they need to win — play outstanding defense, survive on offense. It probably put a national audience on Monday Night Football to sleep. But for Texans fans it was pure joy.
Hoyer is in the concussion protocol so there is concern about that. Yates managed the touchdown, but for the most part did nothing else. A healthy Hoyer is a must moving forward. So, too, is a dominant defense, which was finally on display.
For the first time all season. And now there is actual optimism about what comes next. No matter how ugly it was, the Texans did something special. And gave hope that maybe this season isn’t done after all.