By Elwyn Henderson
The Houston Texans returned to NRG Stadium in Houston Sunday and faced the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Houston came into the game at 3-4, coming off a disappointing 13-12 road loss to previously winless Carolina a week earlier. The Bucs came in the game with an identical 3-4 mark.
Tampa Bay won the coin toss and elected to defer to the second half. Jake Camarda kicked the ball out of the end zone and Houston began their opening possession at their 25.
After a pass completion the ball was fumbled and Antoine Winfield, Jr. recovered for the Bucs at the Houston 42. The Texans defense bent but didn’t break, forcing a 25-yard Chase McLaughlin field goal with 12:56 left in the first quarter, putting the visitors up 3-0. The drive was 5 plays, 25 yards and took 1:42.
Following the score Camarda kicked the ball out of the end zone again and CJ Stroud and company began their second drive.
Stroud moved the team the 75 yards to pay dirt in 7 plays that took 3:46 off the second quarter clock. The score came on a 14-yard TD pass from Stroud to Dalton Schultz with 9:10 left in the opening frame. The PAT by Ka’Imi Fairbairn was good and Houston took a 7-3 lead.
Following a touchback of Fairbairn’s ensuing kickoff, Baker Mayfield led the Bucs offense on the field for what would be a 12-play, 75-yard scoring drive that consumed 6:57 off the first quarter clock. The drive concluded with a 3-yard TD pass from Mayfield to Cade Otton with 2:13 left in the first frame. McLaughlin nailed the extra point and Tampa Bay regained the lead, 10-7.
Houston began their next drive at their 8 after an ill-advised return from the 1. Stroud missed badly on two passes and it was quick three-and-out. Cameron Johnston punted the ball away on fourth down and Mayfield and his charges returned to the field to set up shop at their 36.
Thanks to an offensive pass interference call against star receiver Mike Evans, it was a three-and-out for the Bucs. Following a Camarda punt, Houston went back to work on offense at their 10. The offense still seemed out of sync and it was a 1-series possession, leading to a Johnston punt that was returned to the Tampa Bay 45. A 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty against Houston was added on and Mayfield brought his troops out at the Texans 40 to start their next possession.
Mayfield carved up the Houston defense, moving his unit the 40 yards into the end zone in 2:28 and took 6 plays to get there. The score came on a 1-yard plunge by Rachaad White with 9:05 left in the first half. McLaughlin kicked the extra point and Tampa led 17-7 and Houston was in desperate need of a scoring drive when the offense hit the field again. Following a touch back Stroud and the offense began at their 25.
Stroud hit a couple of nice passes and got the team into field goal range before the Bucs shut the door, forcing a Fairbairn 50-yard field goal with 5:17 left in the half. The 3-pointer brought the Texans deficit down to 17-10. The drive was 10 plays, 43 yards and took 3:48.
Mayfield brought his offensive teammates back on the field at their 25 after a touchback of the kickoff. The Houston defense forced a three-and-out and after a Camarda punt Stroud brought the offense back out to the 16 for the next drive. They ran 3 plays and half ended.
Dare Ogunbowale came in to kick the second half off due to Fairbairn suffering a quad injury on his final kick of the first half.
Mayfield led his group on a 7-play, 42-yard drive that took 2:22 and ended with a McLaughlin 49-yard field goal with 12:38 left in the third quarter, advancing the Bucs lead to 20-10.
McLaughlin’s kick resulted in a touchback and Houston began their first drive of the second half. On the first play of the possession, Stroud hit Noah Brown on an 85-yard TD pass and run with 12:20 left in the quarter. Due to the injury to Fairbairn, Houston decided to go for a 2-point conversion. Stroud’s pass was intercepted at the 1 and the try was no good and the Texans trailed by a 20-16 count.
Ogunbowale’s kickoff out of the end zone and Tampa began at their 25 for their next shot on offense. Thanks to a pass interference against the defense the Bucs managed to get a 55-yard McLaughlin field goal and went up 23-16 with 9:23 left in the third quarter. The drive was 6 plays, 38 yards add took 2:57 off the third quarter clock.
The Texans finally got the offense cranked up again on the possession, getting into the end zone with a 29-yard Stroud to Tank Dell TD pass with 5:59 left in the quarter. Once again, with the injury to Fairbairn, Houston went for 2, but Stroud’s pass for Dell was incomplete, leaving the score 23-22 in favor of the Bucs. The drive was 6 plays, 79 yards and took 3:24.
Mayfield came back out at his 29 following the next kickoff and the Texans played lights out on defense, dropping the visitors for 19 yards in losses in 3 plays. After a punt and return, Houston was in business at their 48, trailing by just one point.
Stroud led his charges the 52 yards into the end zone with 14:11 left in the game. The score came on a 9-yard TD pass from Stroud to Schultz. Stroud ran into the end zone for the 2-point conversion and Houston took their first lead of the day, 30-23. The drive was 9 plays, 52 yards and took 4:26.
Mayfield brought his team right back, hitting Mike Evans on a 53-yard pass to the Houston 1. They got into the end zone 2 plays later when White ran into the end zone from the 1, capping a 75-yard drive that took p6 lays and 2:28. McLaughlin added the PAT and the game was tied, 30-30 with 11:43 left.
The Texans began their next possession at their 25 after yet another touchback. Stroud picked back up right where he left off on the previous possession as he led the offense down to the Tampa Bay 11 where the drive stalled. Everyone in the stadium was expecting to see the team go for it on fourth down, but Ogunbowale came in to attempt a 29-yard field goal. The kick was good with 9:35 left in the game and Houston regained the lead, 33-30. The drive was 7 plays, 64 yards and took 2:58.
The Bucs took over at their 27 after a kick and return and Houston’s defense forced a three-and-out. Camarda’s punt went out of bounds at the Houston 22 and Stroud led the offense back on the field. It was a quick three-and-out due to a couple of offensive holding penalties, bringing in Johnston for a punt. The kick traveled 62 yards and was returned to the Bucs 39 with 4:27 remaining in the game.
Mayfield led his teammates down the field, knowing a TD would almost certainly win the game and a field goal would tie things up and set up a potential overtime. Mayfield drove the team down the field and hit Otton on a 14-yard TD pass with 46 seconds left in the game. The drive was 10 plays, 61 yards and took 3:41 off the clock.
The final kickoff of the game went out of the end zone and Stroud brought the offense out needing a TD and having only 46 seconds and 2 time outs to work with. Against all odds, Stroud moved the team into the end zone with 6 seconds left, hitting Dell on a 15-yard TD pass. The drive was 6 plays, 75 yards and took just 40 seconds. He took a knee on the extra point try, leaving the score 39-37 in favor of the Texans. A 15-yard personal foul was also called on the Bucs after the score and Houston kicked off from midfield. The kick was fair caught in the end zone and Mayfield came out with 6 seconds at his 25 to try and pull off another miracle.
The miracle was not in the cards, and despite three laterals on the play, Houston made the tackle and won the game 39-37.
A jubilant Coach DeMeco Ryans faced the media after the big win and was asked his thoughts on quarterback CJ Stroud who threw for a rookie NFL record 470 yards and 5 TDs in the game.
“It’s a gutsy performance from him. It wasn’t all clean, but he gutted it out. He was tough in the pocket, made some plays, made some big-time throws for us, and the receivers, they were reliable for him. They made those catches, they made tough catches, made big plays for us, so it was all those guys working together. But C.J. [Stroud], it was a very gutsy performance by him.”
When Stroud addressed the media after the improbable win, he as usual began answering the question posed to him about the game winning drive by talking about his Christian faith.
“First, I want to give all glory and praise to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. On the field, we were going through a lot, and I remembered when we were in our chapel, and our pastor was talking about worship when you’re away, so basically worship when things aren’t the greatest, and that’s the true testament to faith. For me, that’s what I rely on. I couldn’t be up here; I couldn’t do anything on that field without my Lord and Savior. He’s given me a sense of peace even when everything around me is going crazy. Just got to say that and give y’all a little nugget of the Word. But, from the first play, when we ran out there, I had complete confidence. I knew we needed a touchdown. We had two timeouts, which was huge. When you start a two-minute situation, which we only had 46 seconds, you just want to get it started.”
“That drive, man, it was special. That’s something in this league I’m learning – you’ve got to be great in two-minute, and, for me, I just want the ball. Just give me the ball, call the play and I’m going to go make a play. I’m happy with the win.”
The win got Houston back to .500 at 4-4 on the season. They are in second place in the AFC South, two games behind 6-2 Jacksonville. The Texans face a very tough test next Sunday when they travel to Cincinnati to take on the 6-2 Bengals, winners of four games in a row. IF they can find a way to get out of the game with a win, they will send a clear word to the Jaguars that they will be challenging them for the division title. Hopefully, they can find a way to get it done.