(SportsRadio 610) - In DeMeco Ryans’ first season as their coach, the Texans are playing for first place in the AFC South.
I can’t believe I just typed that sentence.
So I’ll type it again: In DeMeco Ryans’ first season as their coach, the Texans are playing for first place in the AFC South.
Unbelievable, isn’t it?
On Sunday, the Texans overcame C.J. Stroud’s three interceptions by stopping Arizona on fourth down three times in the fourth quarter to escape with a 21-16 victory.
Fortunately for the Texans, Stroud also threw two touchdown passes and staked them to a 21-10 halftime lead they were able to maintain on the way to their first three-game winning streak since 2018.
Defeating the Cardinals set up the Texans’ most important game at NRG Stadium since they won an overtime game over Buffalo in the wild card round after the 2019 season.
The Texans (6-4) trail the first-place Jaguars (7-3) by one game in the AFC South. Because the Texans won 37-17 at Jacksonville for Ryans’ first victory, beating the Jaguars a second time will give them the head-to-head tiebreaker. A loss would drop them two games behind the Jaguars.
“It's a credit to our guys for putting us in a position to be where we are, to be able to compete,” Ryans said after the game. “That's all I asked from our guys from day one – just continue to improve, continue to focus on getting better. If we're playing meaningful football late in the season, that shows the growth.”
Ten games into the season, the Texans are playing meaningful football. Ten games into the season, they’ve already doubled last season’s number of victories.
“It's good for us to be in this spot playing meaningful football,” Ryans said.
It’s good for McNair family, general manager Nick Caserio, fans who support the team -- the players, coaches, personnel department and everyone associated with the administrative side of the organization.
And this surprising success starts with Ryans. As usual, he tries to deflect credit, but no matter how hard he tries, his players and coaches know they’re becoming a mirror image of their head coach – talented, respected, honest, smart, positive, resilient and mentally and physically tough.
“I understand it's not about me,” Ryans said. “Everything I've approached, everything that's happened to me in my life, I know it’s not because of me. I've had a lot of favor, a lot of grace over my life. I'm always thankful for God being able to surround me with good people, to make sure it's not about me.”
The way the last four games have been decided in the final seconds, Ryans must feel like he’s aged from 39 to 49, at least. Ryans couldn’t breathe easy until Will Anderson Jr. drilled quarterback Kyle Murray on his fourth down pass that was knocked down by Steven Nelson at the Texans’ 27 with 30 seconds left.
Anderson, Nelson, Blake Cashman, Derek Stingley Jr. and Christian Harris were among the defensive players who came up big time in pressure-packed situations. In the fourth quarter, the Texans stopped the Cardinals on fourth down at their 23, 45 and 27 to preserve their sixth victory in eight games.
Stroud finished with 27-of-37 (73 percent) and two touchdowns to Dalton Schultz (20 yards) and Tank Dell (40). Devin Singletary rushed for 112 yards, including 84 in the first half, becoming the first Texan to reach triple digits in back-to-back games since Lamar Miller in 2018.
“I'm so proud of our guys,” Ryans said. “I told them in the locker room, ‘Can we not make them so close?’ But, if it is close, and we're coming out with a win, I'll take it every single time.
“It seems like we have different lineups every week, whether it's offense, defense or special teams, and nobody cares, nobody flinches. Everybody has the mindset we're into this thing together, as a family, and we're going to find a way to win no matter what it takes.”
The Texans, a 4 ½-point favorite, should have blown out the Cardinals. They reached Arizona territory eight times. They were stopped on fourth-and-1 at the Cardinals’ 15 when backup running back Mike Boone – rather than Singletary – was stuffed.
After scoring two touchdowns on Schultz’s sliding catch across the goal line and Singletary’s 11-yard run, Stroud took the offense to the Cardinals’ 12, but he was intercepted in the end zone.
Stroud’s long touchdown pass to Dell, who made a leaping catch in the end zone late in the second quarter, gave the Texans the 21-10 halftime lead.
The Texans had 333 yards in the first half. Stroud threw for 250. In the second half, they were limited to 86, and Stroud had 77. He also was intercepted at the Cardinals’ 3 and 19 in the fourth quarter, but the defense stopped Arizona on fourth down after both interceptions.
“In the second half, it was totally us and our mistakes that stalled us on offense,” Ryans said. “Defensively, it was our mistakes that allowed them to continue to move drives. We stood up on fourth-down, but we shouldn't have let them get in those situations. We have to improve our tackling. We've got to be better in that situation.”
The Texans will have to be better on both sides of the ball against the Jaguars. The Texans are 10-1 in their last 11 games in the AFC South series.
Asked how he was feeling after Sunday’s victory, Ryans smiled and said, “After a game like this, we're feeling excitement. Anytime you win in this league, it’s a big win.
“There were a lot of miscues in this game, things that didn't go our way, but what I love the most is we found a way to win. That’s what it takes to be a good team.”
And there’s no doubt about the Texans being a good team. Now they need to prove it again against the Jaguars. Under Ryans, the Texans have been doing a terrific balancing act – offense one week, defense the next.
“The offense struggled, but the defense stepped up and had their back,” Ryans said. “We’ve had games where the defense struggled, and the offense stepped up and made drives at the end to win the game. It was awesome to see the defense being the reason we won that game.”
Three fourth-down stops in the fourth quarter deserve a lot of credit and praise. And the Texans are getting a lot of well-deserved praise locally and nationally for being the biggest surprise in the NFL.
John McClain can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on SportsRadio 610 and Monday, Thursday and Sunday on Texans Radio, also on SportsRadio 610. He writes five columns a week and does three Houtopia Football Podcasts for SportsRadio610.com.