By ELWYN HENDERSON
The 3-11 Houston Texans, fresh off their victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars a week earlier, returned home to NRG Stadium in Houston Sunday to face the 8-6 and most likely playoff bound Los Angeles Chargers.
The Texans were hit particularly hard a few days before the game with several new COVID cases and 20 players were brought up on the 53-man roster. Some were returning off COVID protocols, but a large number were practice squad players who were brought up to the active roster because of pandemic protocols.
Because of the large number of players who were not going to play in the game most ticket holders chose to either watch the game from the various parking lots and not come into the stadium or just stay at home and watch the affair on TV. There were probably never more than 15,000 fans in the stands if even that many. It has been a sad and long season for NFL fans in Houston due to the team’s horrific results in 2021.
One of the players out due to COVID was kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn. His place was taken by Dominik Eberle. He got a chance to show his talents early, as Houston won the coin toss and elected to defer to the second half. The opening kickoff went out of the end zone and Justin Herbert brought the Charger offense on the field for their first possession of the game.
Herbert led the Chargers down to the Texan 32 where Dustin Hopkins booted a 50-yard field goal with 10:55 left in the opening frame and giving San Diego an early 3-0 lead. The drive was 8 plays, 43 yards and took 4:05.
On the ensuing Hopkins kickoff the ball went out of the end zone and Houston took to the offensive for the first time from their 25.
Davis Mills led his unit down the field and they overcame a holding call on what would have been a touchdown run. Rex Burkhead followed the penalty up with a 25-yard TD run with 6:25 left in the first quarter. Eberle added the PAT and Houston took a 7-3 lead. The drive was 8 plays, 75 yards and took 4:30.
Herbert drove his offense down to the Houston 28 on their next possession and after the Texans defense got a key stop Hopkins nailed a 46-yard field goal with 1:57 left in the opening quarter, closing the score to 7-6 with Houston still in the lead. The drive was 9 plays, 54 yards and took 4:28 off the clock.
The next score came on a 17-yard TD run by Justin Jackson with 11:15 left in the first half of play. The score concluded a 7-play, 70-yard drive that consumed 3:38 of clock time and put the Chargers up for the first time, 12-7. A try for 2 point on the conversion fell short.
Houston moved the ball down to the San Diego 33 before having to settle for a 51-yard Eberle field goal with 5:11 left in the first half, cutting the Houston deficit to 12-10. The drive was 12 plays, 42 yards and took 6:04.
The Chargers mounted a quick drive and appeared headed for a TD when Jonathan Owens intercepted Herbert at the Houston 1 and returned the pick 5 yards to the 6 and Houston went back on offense with a chance to take the lead before the halftime intermission.
They did just that with Davis Mills hitting Chris Conley on a 41-yard TD strike with 27 seconds left in the first half. Eberle added the extra point and Houston took the lead back at 17-12. The drive was 7 plays, 94 yards and took 3:30.
San Diego got the ball back at their 24 following a 17-yard return and the visitors gained 4 yards on a rush and let the clock expire knowing Houston would receive the ball to begin the second half.
Davis led the offense down the field after a touchback to begin the second half but the Chargers defense stiffened and forced a 52-yard Eberle field goal that was wide right and the ball turned over the San Diego at their 42.
Herbert took advantage of the missed field goal and led his team down the field toward the Houston end zone. Houston refused to allow the visitors into the end zone and Hopkins booted a 35-yard field goal with 5:42 left in the third quarter to cut the Houston lead to 17-15. The drive was 11 plays, 41 yards and took 5:25.
Houston responded with a lengthy 13-play, 75-yard drive that consumed 7:05 off the clock. The possession culminated with a 1-yard Rex Burkhead TD run with 13:37 left in the game. Eberle added the point after touchdown and the Houston lead extend to 24-15.
On the ensuing San Diego possession a fumble by Justin Jackson was recovered by Jonathan Owens at the Houston 47 and returned to the Charger 47, giving the home team a chance to pretty much ice the game away with 12:48 left in the contest.
Thanks to a dropped third down pass the Texans had to settle for a 25-yard Eberle field goal with 8:54 left in the game. The successful kick advanced the lead to 27-15. The drive was 8 plays, 40 yards and took 3:45 off the clock.
San Diego went into their 2-minute offense on the ensuing possession after a touchback knowing they had to get in the end zone quickly.
Herbert worked the offense to perfection and led his unit the 75 yards into the end zone in 9 plays and took only 3:04 off the clock. The score came on a 9-yard run by Justin Jackson with 5:50 left in the game. They elected to go for a 2-point conversion following the score and Herbert hit Jared Cook from 2 yards out and suddenly the Houston lead was just 4 points, 27-23.
With all their time outs remaining the Chargers had no reason to kick onside but Hopkins did a pooch kick and the Texans fell on the ball at their 28 hoping to chew up time off the clock.
They did just that and put the final nail in the coffin for San Diego. Mills hit Nico Collins on a 13-yard TD pass with 2:32 left in the game and following the Eberle extra point kick Houston led 34-23 and sealed the win. The drive was 7 plays, 72 yards and took 3:18.
Houston turned the game into a laugher when a Herbert pass was intercepted at the San Diego 48 by Tavierre Thomas who returned the ball 52 yards for a pick 6 score with 1:49 left in the game. Eberle added the point after the Texans lead was 41-23. The remaining fans in the stands began to exit knowing their team had locked up their 4th win against 11 losses on the season and managed to extend their winning streak to 2 games.
The visitors didn’t go down without one more score. Herbert led the team on a 6-play, 75-yard drive that took 1:15 off the clock and ended with a 3-yard TD toss to Josh Palmer with 34 seconds left in the game. They attempted a 2-point conversion but a Herbert pass fell incomplete, making the score 41-29.
Hopkins kicked onside but Houston recovered, ran one play and the game came to a close.
The loss dropped the Chargers to 8-7 on the year but they still have a good chance to make the playoffs.
An ecstatic Houston Coach David Culley addressed the media virtually via Zoom following the big win and talked about the resolve of his team.
“We’ve got a motto here — Team, Team, Team. It’s been that way from the word go. I had guys playing today that felt like they should have been playing way before they got the time to play because of the COVID. I always said to them, be careful what you wish for. They got it today and those guys came in showed that they were ready to do what we needed to be done. And you talk about the resolve. This team is so resilient. They’ve never really worried about what happens on the outside. All we’ve tried to do is just get better and get better. I thought today was one of those days where we probably played our most complete football game.”
Houston hits the road next Sunday to take on San Francisco and returns home on January 9th to close out the season against Tennessee. The team and their fans are hoping they can close out the year with two more wins and move to 6-11 on the 2021 season.