By Elwyn Henderson
The 6-5 Houston Texans took on the 6-5 Denver Broncos at NRG Stadium in Houston Sunday in the last of a 3-game home stand. Both Houston and Denver came into the game knowing that if they wanted to remain in the playoff hunt with 6 games remaining in the regular season that they desperately needed to win the game. When all was said and done, Houston got the 22-17 win outlasting Denver.
Denver won the coin toss and elected to defer to the second half. Wil Lutz kicked off and as is usually the case, the ball went out of the end zone and Houston began their first possession of the game at their 25 after a touchback.
The Broncos forced a quick three-and-out. Cameron Johnston punted away on 4th and 1 and the Texans returned the favor, forcing a three-and-out of their own. Following a Riley Dixon punt was shanked, the ball went out of bounds on the Denver 47 and CJ Stroud brought his unit back on the field for their second possession hoping to put points on the board.
They moved down to the 11 and on a 4th and 1 Coach DeMeco Ryans chose to send Matt Ammendola out for a 29-yard field goal attempt. The kick was good with 10:11 left in the first quarter and Houston took a 3-0 lead. The drive was 5 plays, 36 yards and took 2:03.
Ammendola’s kickoff after the score resulted in a touchback and Russell Wilson brought his charges back to the field to begin their second drive at that point. The drive didn’t pick up a first down and after Dixon’s punt Stroud and company went to work at their 22. On the second play of the possession Stroud hit Nico Collins on a deep pass to the left for a gain of 52 yards down to the Broncos 26.
The offense moved down to the 11 once again and this time Ryans decided to keep the offense on the field. They ran a quarterback sneak with Stroud and the offense used the Philly “tush push” to propel him for a 2-yard gain and a first down. They moved down to the 7 and faced a 4th and 2 and Ryans went for the first down again. Houston was flagged for a false start, but after the play than e Broncos were called for a personal foul, resulting in the false start being disregarded and the ball being placed at the Broncos 4 with a first and goal. Dameon Pierce ran into the end zone on a 4-yard TD run with 3:49 left in the quarter. Ammendola add the extra point and Houston led 10-0. The drive was 10 plays, 78 yards and consumed 4:22 off the clock.
After another touchback, Wilson and the Denver offense came back on the field at their 25. It was another three-and-out and Houston began deep in their territory after a Riley punt. On a 3rd and 2 Stroud hit Collins for a 59-yard gain down to the Bronco 26 on the last play of the first quarter. The drive stalled thanks to an illegal block in the back and on a 4th and 4 Ammendola came in and booted a 38-yard field goal with 12:54 left in the half, pushing the Houston lead to 13-0. The drive was 7 plays, 69 yards and took 3:12.
Ammendola’s next kickoff was taken 2 yards deep in the end zone and returned up to the 25 where Wilson brought his offense back on the field. After gaining one first down the Texans forced a punt on the next series and Stroud went back to work at the Houston 9.
Houston moved the ball up to the 34 where they were forced to punt the ball. Consecutive penalties against the Texans resulted in them punting from their 20. Denver got the ball at their 28 after the kick and went into their 2-minute offense. They drove the ball down to the Houston 16 where Lutz came in for a 34-yard field goal attempt. The kick was good and Denver got on the board, trailing 13-3 with 1:24 left in the first half. The drive was 13 plays, 56 yards and took 5:09 off the clock.
After a touchback the Texans started at their 39 and Stroud had John Metchie open down the middle for what would have been a TD but he overthrew his receiver by about 5 yards and Houston ended up having to punt the ball back to Denver. The kick was fair caught at the Denver 11. Wilson came out and took a knee and half ended with Houston leading 13-3.
Denver got the ball on their 25 after a setback to begin the second half and the Texans forced a punt. Their first possession of the half resulted in a 7-play, 40-yard that consumed 4:02 and ended with a 38-yard Ammendola field goal with 8:51 left in the third quarter, bringing the score to 16-3 in favor of Houston.
Houston appeared to have gotten a TD after a completed pass was ripped out by Desmond King and returned to the end zone, but on a questionable call the officials ruled that forward progress was stopped and Denver punted the ball down to the Houston 15 where Stroud and his forces hit the field again hoping to increase their lead. It wasn’t to happen and Johnston came in on 4th down in the first series and kicked a 46-yard punt that was spotted at the Denver 42.
Wilson wasted little time in moving is unit down the field and into the end zone for the first time. They moved the 58 yards in just 3 plays that took only 1:20. The score came on a 45-yard TD pass from Russell Wilson to Courland Sutton with 4:47 left in the third quarter. Lutz was true on the PAT kick and the Broncos narrowed their deficit to 16-10.
The kickoff after the score by Lutz was returned to the 21 and Stroud and the Houston offense came back on the field knowing they really needed to counter and increase their lead but that didn’t happen and Johnston had to punt the ball back to the Broncos. He nailed a 69-yard kick and it paid dividends quickly.
On the second play of the possession Derek Stingley intercepted Wilson at the Denver 21 and the Texans were in excellent position to add to the lead.
The did just that as Stroud hit Collins on a 3-yard TD pass with 14:16 left in the game. The decision was made to try a 2-point conversion. A Stroud pass into the end zone was intercepted and the try was no good, but Houston increased the lead to 22-10 with 14:15 left in the game. The 21-yard drive took 4 plays and 1:43.
Denver took little time in moving 75 yards back down the field to counter the Houston TD, moving 75 yards in 5 plays and taking 2:12. The score came on a 1-yard run by Wilson with 12:04 left in the game. Lutz was true on his extra point kick and the Broncos cut the Texans lead to 22-17.
On their next possession the Texans couldn’t move the ball and they had to punt away. The ball was spotted at the 30 and Wilson came back out with a chance for the Broncos to get their first lead of the day.
On the second play of the possession Stingley intercepted Wilson for the second time and Houston went back on the offensive at their 27 with 9:33 left in the game.
They weren’t able to take advantage of the turnover and punted the ball back to Denver at their 20 with just over four and a half minutes remaining, and you had a feeling that Wilson was about ready to get hot and that was exactly what happened.
Wilson moved the ball down to the Houston 22 where they faced a 4th and 1. They gained 2 and had new life. The Texans did what they HAD to do and forced a 4th and 2 from the Houston 12. Wilson ran down to the 8 for 4 yards and a 1st and goal with 23 seconds left. Denver used their final timeout to come up with the best play to run. On third and goal Jimmie Ward intercepted the ball in the end zone with 9 seconds left, preserving the 22-17 victory and pushing Houston to 7-5 on the season. The loss dropped Denver to 6-6.
When Coach DeMeco Ryans faced the media after the big win the Mirror asked him about the great game that Nico Collins had on the day and how critical that was with the injury to Dell.
“Yeah, Nico shows up every week, and you talk about two catches over 50 yards, over 190 yards receiving. I tell Nico ‘you’re a big time playmaker, believe it. He goes and puts it on display every week and he really shows up for us. I’m really proud of the work Nico’s done; improving as a player, showing his playmaking ability big time, deep threat for us, he’s one of our more reliable receivers.”
“And at the end of that, it just really hurt us losing Tank. He has been very valuable to our team. He’s provided a spark to our team each and every week that he’s out on the field. Everybody’s just waiting for that moment. You know it’s going to happen when he shows up and he makes an explosive play for us or he’s scoring a touchdown. So, to lose Tank with a leg injury, it hurts our team, really, because of what he means to our team; not only on the field, but off the field. Tank always has a huge smile on his face, he’s always full of energy, and it just really hurts losing him.”
When quarterback CJ Stroud came in for his press conference, The Mirror asked him how despite being a rookie has he performed like someone who has been in the NFL three or four years so far.
“Thank you, I appreciate that. I have the mindset that I feel like God has put the peace on me and I put the work on in the week understanding this is the NFL; they’re going to make plays too. It’s part of the game and for me it took a while to adjust to that. In college we were better than everybody other than when we played Penn State, Georgia. Those are like NFL teams too. For me, during the week I don’t short cut and I try to do everything that I do in my routine and I had a lot of great counseling during the offseason from players in baseball and basketball and football. They told me to just keep playing and don’t blink and for me that’s what I do. Even for me in a game like this we want some plays back on every position, including myself, but at the same time we got out with a dub so it is what it is. You’ve got to keep going man and I’m blessed enough to have that mindset to just keep going and not let one play affect another as best as I can.”
With the win Houston is in the thick of the AFC playoff race with 5 games left in the regular season. They will travel to play the New York Jets Sunday and the following Sunday they are on the road again with a trip to face the Tennessee Titans. IF they can get wins in both those games they will have a HUGE contest on Christmas Eve at noon at NRG Stadium when they host the Cleveland Browns. Almost no one expected to see the Texans resurrected so soon, and Houston fans are ecstatic and really believe their team can make it into postseason play.