Victories against division rivals are always special. For football fans in Houston, it’s even more special to see their team beat up a division rival whose owner took away their beloved Oilers. This Week 7 matchup between Houston and Tennessee saw the Texans shake off their brief 2-game losing streak in a big way, demolishing the Titans to the tune of 41-7. After a closely-fought first quarter, the Texans began to run wild in the second and finished the day with 226 total rushing yards, with Arian Foster and Ben Tate each put up more than 100. Foster added another 119 receiving yards to go with 3 total TDs on his great day. Matt Schaub the Consistent completed 18 of his 23 passes for 296 yards. The defense completely shut down star RB Chris Johnson, who rushed for just 18 yards on 10 carries. Overall, they held the opposing offense to just 169 total yards. The Texans showcased their incredible depth with this convincing victory and proved that they are capable of winning without franchise cornerstones Andre Johnson and Mario Williams in the lineup. They also improved to 4-3 and retook the division lead from the Titans.
The Texans returned to Reliant Stadium to play another division rival, this time the Jaguars, in week 8. Houston’s No.1 ranked defense easily handled Jacksonville’s NFL worst offense. Other than a goal-line TD run in the fourth quarter, Maurice Jones-Drew was held in check throughout the game, finishing the afternoon with 63 yards on 18 carries. It was even worse for rookie QB Blaine Gabbert, who threw for just 97 yards on 10/30 passing and got picked off twice by Jason Allen and Brian Cushing. The Texans offense did just enough, scoring 24 points on a TD run by Foster, who eclipsed the 100-yard mark for the second week in a row and seemed to have finally rounded into form after a slow start; and a TD catch by Joel Dreessen. This win lifted the Texans to 5-3, their best 8-game start in franchise history.
In front of a packed crowd at Reliant, the two-headed rushing monster of Foster and Tate struck again, each accumulating over 100 yards on the ground and a score. The defense did the rest, recording four sacks (2 by Brooks Reed), one interception by backup safety Quinton Demps, and Demeco Ryans also forced a fumble. Fans went home happy with a well-rounded display by their beloved Texans, as evidenced by a lopsided 30-12 scoreboard. The 6-3 Texans further solidified their division lead with the victory and went 3 games above .500 for the first time in their 9-year existence.
Week 10, Houston carried their 3-game winning streak to Tampa Bay to face the 4-4 Buccaneers. Picked off right where they left off last week against Cleveland, the Texans produced yet another well-rounded effort. Schaub started the game with a bang, connecting with Jacoby Jones on a 80-yard play-action pass for a TD on the very first play of the game, the longest TD pass of his career. He added another long TD pass later in the second quarter, this time a 78-yard completion to Arian Foster. Foster also had a rushing TD. Backup RB Ben Tate and Derrick Ward each ran for a TD. The defense showed why they occupied the NFL’s top spot with a 4-sack, 3-interception performance, led by Brian Cushing’s monster game (8 solo tackles, 1 INT, 1 sack). Despite the win, the Texans suffered yet another injury to one of their key players, this time Pro-Bowler Matt Schaub was the victim as he went down with a Lisfranc injury to his right foot following a QB Sneak play and had to miss the rest of the season. Schaub’s injury delivered a crushing blow to the Texans’ playoff chances.
Following a bye week, the Texans traveled to Jacksonville to face the depleted Jaguars. Backup QB Matt Leinart started an NFL game for the first time in two years in place of the injured Schaub. He welcomed the return of a go-to target downfield in Andre Johnson, whose presence figured to make Leinart’s job much easier. He played a conservative game, relying on the running game while throwing mostly check-down short passes to his RBs and TEs. He threw a perfect 20-yard TD pass to Joel Dreessen but that was the lone highlight of a short afternoon for him, as he injured his throwing shoulder at the end of the second quarter. Rookie 5th-round draft pick T.J. Yates replaced him and did just enough. It was the defense who proved to be the catalyst of the Texans’ fifth consecutive win. Their front seven were all over Blaine Gabbert the whole afternoon, bringing him down seven times (4 by Connor Barwin, who enjoyed a career day) and forcing an interception (Jonathan Joseph). A 24-14 victory prolonged the Texans’ franchise-best winning streak to 5.
The Texans returned home in Week 13 to play an inter-conference matchup against the explosive Julio Jones and the Atlanta Falcons. The game marked Yates’ first start as a pro. There definitely were butterflies for the rookie out of North Carolina, but he showed incredible poise throughout the game and eventually won his first ever NFL game on the very first try. He received plenty of help from his two best offensive weapons, Foster, who ran for 111 yards and a TD, and Johnson, making four catches for 97 yards. Yates led the Texans to a game-winning touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter, highlighted by a gutsy decision by head coach Gary Kubiak to forgo a field goal and go for it on a 4th-and-1 that Foster converted and later ran for the game-winning TD. The defense held the dynamic Falcons offense in check, eliminating Michael Turner and the running game while also being spot-on in coverage, twice picking off Matt Ryan and limited him to 267 yards and 1 TD on just 20/47 passing. Another solid performance overall by the Deep Steel Blue pushed their historic winning streak to six. One sour note to this sweet victory was the fact that Johnson injured his left hamstring while running a deep route and had to leave the game.
A Week 14 encounter against the Bengals in Cincinnati presented a dream scenario for the Texans and their fans. If they can pull off a win and the Titans lose their home game against the New Orleans Saints, Houston will earn a long-awaited playoff berth for the first time in their 9-year history. Things did not go as planned for the Texans in the first half, as turnovers by Yates and Tate led to 10 points for the Bengals, who led 16-3 midway through the game. But as it had been the story throughout the season, when the offense struggled, the defense came up big yet again. Barwin’s sack forced Bengals’ QB Andy Dalton to fumble and Brooks Reed was right there to recover the ball. Yates and Co. took over with a short field and immediately put up 7 following a TD pass to Dreessen to narrow the score to 16-10. Both teams each proceeded to score a field goal. And then this happened with the Texans trailing 19-13 inside the 2-minute warning:
A Saints victory in Tennessee meant that the 2011 Houston Texans had made their way into the history book, becoming the first team in franchise history to make the playoffs.