The Tennessee Titans have been the NFL’s most inconsistent team this season. The kind of team that could respond to a dispiriting season-opening loss with three straight wins, including one over the defending champion Eagles. The kind of team that could follow those three consecutive wins with three consecutive losses, including one to the Bills. The kind of team that could return from a post-London bye week with convincing wins over the Cowboys and Patriots, only to get blown out by the Colts a week later.
For a while there, it looked like the Good Titans were the ones that were going to show up against the division rival Houston Texans on Monday night. Tennessee marched right down the field for a field goal on its first drive, held the Texans to a three-and-out on their first possession, and then got a 61-yard touchdown from second-year tight end Jonnu Smith on the next drive.
They were even on the verge of responding to a Demaryius Thomas with a score of their own … but they were stopped on a 4th and 1 from inside the Texans’ 5-yard line when they called for a jumbo set hand-off to tight end Luke Stocker, who was lined up as the up-back on the play. Stocker was stuffed, the Titans turned the ball over on downs, Lamar Miller took the next snap 97 yards to the house, and save for a Corey Davis touchdown that provided the Titans a momentary glimmer of hope, it was pretty much all Houston from there.
Miller, Alfred Blue, and Deshaun Watsoncombined to rush for 282 yards on 33 carries. DeAndre Hopkins did his usual dominating. The defense eventually was able to pin its ears back and consistently come after Marcus Mariota, sacking him five times. It was all too much for the Titans to overcome.
The Texans ended up with a 34-17 victory, their eighth consecutive win after starting the year 0-3. Some of those wins were of the by-the-skin-of-their-teeth variety, but this one was pretty convincing. The Texans now have a hold on the No. 3 seed in the AFC, and are in firm control of the AFC South. They have a year-ending schedule that’s quite favorable. They have a quarterback-receiver duo that is capable of breaking a big play from anywhere on the field. They have a defense that boasts star talent along the front line. They’re not yet in the mix with the best teams in the AFC, but they’re likely in that next tier, just behind the Chargers. Considering how they began the season, that’s pretty impressive.
Here are a few more things to know about the Texans’ 34-17 win.
Lamar Miller busts out
It’s been a strange season for Lamar Miller. He’s gotten a ton of carries all year, but before Monday night, he hadn’t done much with them except in a two-game stretch where he ran for 233 yards on 40 carries against the Jaguarsand Dolphins. In his other seven games, he’d combined to take 105 carries for just 378 yards.
This game, however, was much different. Miller got only 12 totes, but he did a lot with them, racking up 162 yards on the ground. In so doing, he joined Arian Foster on an exclusive Texans list.
Most of the damage came on this play
That carry gave Miller sole possession of a pretty cool NFL record. He’s now the only player in NFL history with at least two rushing touchdowns of 95 yards or more, according to the NFL’s internal research department.
Miller had a 97-yard touchdown run back in 2014, when he was still a member of the Miami Dolphins. The most recent non-Miller player with a 95-plus-yard touchdown run is Chester Taylor, who did it for the Vikings back in 2006. Corey Dillon, Ahman Green, and Tiki Barber are the only other players this century with touchdown runs of 95 yards or more.
Controversial ruling helps the Texans
Early in the fourth quarter, Deshaun Watson stepped up through the pocket and scampered through the Titans defense for a 34-yard gain. It was typical Watson, first using his legs to keep the play alive and then using them to move his team down the field.
But it sure looked like the ball popped out of Watson’s hands before he hit the ground, and Titans coach Mike Vrabel challenged the play because he felt that way, too. But the initial ruling was upheld on review, Houston kept the ball, and Watson found Demaryius Thomas for a score two plays later. And that was pretty much all she wrote.
J.J. ups the Wattage
We were spoiled by J.J. Watt back in the early 2010s. We took for granted that he was a yearly force of nature that did absurd things and wrecked opposing offenses on an every-snap basis. From 2012 through 2015, Watt racked up 315 tackles, 119 of them for loss. He recorded 190 quarterback hits and 69 sacks. He made four Pro Bowls and four All-Pro first teams and was named Defensive Player of the Year three times.
And then he basically disappeared for much of the 2016 and 2017 seasons as he dealt with various injuries. Watt played just eight games across those two years, and largely did not look like his regular self even when he was on the field. That dude has been fully back this year, dominating on an every-snap basis and he did it again on Monday night.
Watt had nine tackles, including one for loss. He hit Marcus Mariota twice, sacked him once (his 11th in 11 games), and forced a fumble on that play.
It’s so good to have this dominant version of one of the best defensive players in the league back. Enjoy it.
Mariota’s weird night
Go take a look at Marcus Mariota’s box score numbers. Do it right now and then come back. We’ll be here waiting.
OK. You back? Great. Marcus Mariota was 22 of 23 for 303 yards and two touchdowns! And yet, it didn’t really seem like he played all that well? Mariota checked down pretty much all night. He got 109 of his passing yards and both of his touchdowns on two plays, and the first one featured a busted coverage and long run after the catch, while the second was a good throw but also saw two Texans defenders run into each other, allowing Corey Davis to trot into the end zone.
Mariota threw just three passes longer than 15 yards down the field — all to Davis. His big night also put him in some strange company, as he became just the second quarterback to attempt at least 15 passes, complete at least 90 percent of those passes, and still lose. Per ESPN:
Like we said above: strange night.
Welcome to the offense, Demaryius Thomas
On his first drive with the Houston Texans, Demaryius Thomas had two catches for 49 yards. Later in the first quarter of that game, he caught another pass for 12 yards. For the rest of that game he was not targeted even once. For the entirety of Week 11 he was not targeted.
This week, Thomas was brought back into the fold. Things started off with a 12-yard touchdown catch on a really nice route in the red zone, where he beat Adoree’ Jackson‘s inside leverage and broke toward the back corner and made a nice grab.
On the next drive, he took a screen pass, evaded a few tackles, and got the Texans a first down. He disappeared for a while after that, but came up with a big third-down conversion in the fourth quarter, making a contested catch over the middle to extend a drive, burn some more time off the clock, and eventually get the Texans some points — which he did himself with a 10-yard touchdown catch.
Slot man Keke Coutee left the game with yet another injury, so the Texans could end up depending on Hopkins even more over the next few weeks.
Your weekly DeAndre Hopkins absurdity
Thomas got in the end zone twice, but Hopkins led the Texans in both catches and receiving yards, as he almost always does. Two plays in particular stand out. There was a leaping grab on a crossing pattern in the first quarter, which he made look incredibly easy. And then there was some ridiculously fancy footwork and glove-work on the right sideline late in the second quarter, setting up a Texans field goal that extended their lead to 14 points.
This dude is just really, really good.
The Texans are now 8-3 and in control of both the AFC South and the No. 3 seed in the conference. They have a home date with the Browns next week (1 p.m. ET, CBS, stream on CBS All Access or fuboTV (try for free), and finish up the season with contests against the Colts, Jets, Eagles, and Jaguars. One more win should wrap up a playoff spot, but if they can go something like 4-1 or better, they can perhaps get themselves a first-round bye if the Patriots falter. The Titans, meanwhile, are now 5-6. They’re on the fringes of the playoff picture and their upcoming schedule (Jets, Jaguars, Giants, Washington, Colts) is favorable, but it’s difficult to count on any of those games being sure victories, given how inconsistent the team has been all season.