Texans 38, Titans 14: After Early Scare, Houston Finally Proves It Can Handle Success
3.) Kareem Jackson
The division-rival Titans personally witnessed many of Jackson's worst days in his first two years. They found out Sunday that in his third year, he's an entirely different cornerback. Hasselbeck frequently targeted Jackson in man-to-man coverage against Kendall Wright, but the first-year, ex-Baylor wideout didn't catch a single pass until garbage time. On a perfectly thrown deep ball late in the third quarter, Jackson put on a masterful display -- showing the speed to stay stride for stride with Wright downfield, the technique to lean against the receiver without interfering, and the awareness to turn at the last moment, identify the ball and swat it away. Jackson also, of course, capped his day with a fourth-quarter interception, which he returned 63 yards for a touchdown to officially launch the celebration.
"The last three weeks, he's been exceptional," said defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. "He's really grown up as a player and as a person."
If Phillips' defense had any flaw in 2011, it was the revolving door at No. 2 cornerback. This year, Jackson has taken hold of the position and slammed it shut.
2.) Matt Schaub
On statistics alone, it wasn't one of Schaub's finer days. After connecting on two 50-plus yard scoring bombs in Denver and averaging nearly 10 yards per attempt, the Houston QB threw for just 202 yards against Tennessee on 7.2 per attempt. But Schaub deserves high praise for his patience. In a sluggish game with shaky pass blocking where it would've been easy to force the issue, he never came close to turning the ball over. He took what the Tennessee defense gave and knew his team was good enough to eventually break through, as long as they didn't make the big mistake.
"It's just us playing through that adversity," said Schaub.
Schaub is clearly among the league's better quarterbacks. But if he has one career black mark, it's an occasional penchant to force throws that aren't there. For much of his Houston tenure, those mental mistakes were understandable, considering the lack of a competent defense to back him up, occasionally compounded by an M.I.A. running game. Now, the Texans have the most-complete team in football and Schaub can focus on efficiency. With eight consecutive regular season wins under his belt, he's more than doing the job.
1.) Danieal Manning
Yes, he's mostly at the top for one play. But when it's as big as Manning's interception and 60-yard touchdown return were on Sunday, it's justified.
It can't be stressed enough just how listless the Texans were in the nearly two quarters preceding the play. They were outplayed up front physically, and the game slowly began to resemble the Oakland disaster almost a year ago. The crowd sat almost in stunned silence. But not only did Manning make the pick, he had the presence of mind to look upfield and weave his way through seemingly the entire Tennessee offense and convert the interception into seven immediate game-changing points.
"Those guys were never able to get back in the game from that point," said Manning. "We needed the big score right there. Early they were going right with us, but it changed."
Cornerback Johnathan Joseph drew most of the headlines, but it was the signings of both Joseph and Manning that were responsible for the night-and-day turnaround of the Houston secondary between 2010 and 2011. That turnaround has continued into 2012, and Manning proved Sunday that his playmaking ability remains an enormous part of it.