Yes, I know the Texans-Patriots game was last weekend and that the rest of the world has moved on to analyzing this weekend’s Ravens-Patriots game. But if you’re sick of hearing the talking heads drone on breathlessly about Ray Lewis’s heart, or Rob Gronkowski’s arm, or Joe Flacco’s place in the quarterbacking hierarchy, allow me a brief thought on that Texans-Patriots game from last Sunday.
I wasn’t able to watch the game live, but did record and watch it late Sunday night. Sure, I checked my phone frequently for updates during the contest and even caught the final few minutes of the game live, but didn’t real see how things unfolded until 11pm that night. If you’re wondering, it takes about 80 minutes to watch a full game on DVR. There’s a fantastic button on the remote in my house that skips ahead about 12-15 seconds, and given that the Patriots take exactly that amount of time when in the hurry-up, I could click the button at the end of every play and slingshot ahead to the exact moment Brady was snapping the ball for the next play.
Of course, the game had an ominous start for the home team. Patriots supporters are still scarred from seeing Ray Rice scamper 83 yards untouched on the first play from scrimmage three years ago. This time, it didn’t even take the first play from scrimmage for the Patriots to allow a major play, as Danieal Manning took the opening kickoff inside the Patriots fifteen yard line. Again? Really? The Patriots were giving up a big play and going down early? When I watched that night, I liked to think I would have stayed confident had I been watching live. A natural pessimist, I’m sure I would have thought the worst, that the Patriots were going to let it slip away before it started. I would have been miserable.
And then a couple of interesting things happened. The Texans celebrated right after the play, which isn’t all that interesting because who wouldn’t celebrate a 90+ yard kick return to set the tone for the game? No, the interesting things weren’t on the field, but rather on the sidelines. As Manning approached the bench, his teammates hovered around him, like the secret service escorting the President to his limo. Texans quarterback Matt Schaub was seen on the sidelines, ready to come on the field. But first, he celebrated. He stood on the sidelines, arms fully raised in the air. Not arms straight in the air. More like, elbows out at about a 90 degree angle, forearms and hands up to the sky. Boston fans call this “The Kevin McHale,” for the way the Celtics power forward clumsily exalted after big wins back in the 80’s. Schaub’s eyes went wide, nearly glazed over. He couldn’t believe it. His team had done it. Matt Schaub had come into Gillette Stadium and beat the Patriots in the playoffs. Just 4 weeks after getting blown out, he’d come back, exorcised the demons, and led his team to the AFC Championship game, which the Texans would host the following Sunday.
There was only one problem for Schaub: He hadn’t taken the field yet! He raised his arms in victory, let his face relax in relief, and seemingly allowed himself to presume that his team had won. It looked like Schaub genuinely thought his mission was accomplished…even though he’d yet to throw a pass. It was as if this opening kick return, while certainly a wonderful start for Houston, meant the Texans were going to win. Granted, their win probability went from 50% before the game to 67% after that kick return, so the Texans had every right to feel confident, like they could come into Foxboro and win. But they confused confidence for complacence, and, worse, they confused a long kick return inside the red zone with actually scoring a touchdown.
That was the moment it became clear the Texans were going to lose. Well, besides the fact that I already knew the outcome. But seriously, seeing the reaction on the Houston sideline after the opening play, it became abundantly clear that the Texans did not belong on the same field as the Patriots. Hell, they didn’t belong in the same zip code. I would not at all have been comfortable writing that previous sentence a week ago, and I never bought into the media, especially in Boston, insisting all week leading up to the game that the Pats would blow them out. Well, it took one play–ironically, a play that swung the momentum hugely in favor of Houston–to tell me that the media was correct for once, and that Houston wasn’t in the same class as New England.
If Houston came ready to play, they wouldn’t have mistaken the opening kick return for a dramatic, game-winning score. They would have not celebrated on the sideline, showering Manning with love. Most importantly, their quarterback, the man supposed to be keeping his team focused, the one player most responsible in combating complacency, would not have shot his arms towards the heavens, no doubt allowing himself to feel the way players should feel only after they win a big game. Would Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, or Tom Brady celebrate that way on the first play of the game, which, mind you, wasn’t even a scoring play? No chance, because they’re winners. They don’t celebrate something that hasn’t happened. Sure, they like being gifted with great field position as much as the next guy, but you won’t see them mistake fortuitous field position for a win. They’d have kept a straight face, strapped on their helmets, and finished off what special teams started by scoring a touchdown. They stay focused from the first minute to the 60th, and it’s why they have rings and why Schaub probably never will.
So what happened? Houston predictably ran for a few yards. Then Schaub actually made a solid throw that his backup tight end dropped near the end zone. Then on third down, with one of the great receivers of the generation wide open in the end zone, Schaub showed us what he was made of, and overthrew Andre Johnson. All that revelry and jubilation on the sidelines for what would be three measly points. As great as the kick return was, only getting three points had to have been that much more of a disappointment.
The Patriots wouldn’t even score on their ensuing possession, but it wasn’t long before they were scoring in bunches, burying the Texans and ending their season. I watched the rest of the game after that opening play, obviously enjoying the vast majority of it. But even if I’d watched live and turned it off after that opening play, I still could have told you that the Patriots would win, and I’m not one to typically make such statements. Sometimes in sports you can just see when a player and a team aren’t ready for the big stage. It’s hard to recall any game in recent memory where that rung as true as this past Sunday with Matt Schaub and the Houston Texans.