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Sunday Football Notes

It still may not be wise to mess with Texans

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / November 27, 2011
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With the Patriots set to cruise to the AFC East title (get over it, you jinx-ophobes, it’s happening as long as Tom Brady is on the field), we were all set to use this opportunity to introduce you to one of the teams - the Houston Texans - that could end New England’s season before the Super Bowl.

But Texans quarterback Matt Schaub sustained a foot injury (Lisfranc tear) that ended his season. He will be replaced by the former Heisman Trophy winner from Southern Cal, Matt Leinart, whose seven-year NFL career has been forgettable to this point (7-10 as a starter).

Obviously, it was a huge blow to the Texans, but upon further reflection, they are still a legitimate threat to the Patriots.

We’ve been pointing to the Texans for a while, and the reaction from Patriots fans has been, “You can’t be serious.’’

Yes, we’re serious. (And aren’t you cocky? It’s as if you’ve forgotten that no one took the Patriots seriously until they shocked the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.)

Obviously, a lot hinges on how well Leinart can run the offense, but a well-timed bye week didn’t hurt. More important, the Texans are more than a quarterback.

Imagine if the Patriots had to play most of this season without Andre Carter and Wes Welker - even before dealing with the loss of Brady.

That’s what the Texans have had to deal with. Outside linebacker Mario Williams was placed on injured reserve Oct. 12, and superlative receiver Andre Johnson has missed the past six games.

It’s no wonder that executive vice president/general manager Rick Smith wasn’t outwardly sweating the loss of Schaub.

“I think, No. 1, we’ve done a good job dealing with some losses already, and so there’s some resolve and some experience with losing some good players,’’ Smith said. “I think the team is able to handle that mentally.’’

The Texans have continued to be successful because Smith has stocked his roster with impressive talent, and the team is well-rounded on both sides of the ball.

On offense, the Texans are fifth in points (27.3 per game), seventh in total yards (396.2), and second in rushing (158.1).

They have played with the same five players on the offensive line the past two seasons. Center Chris Meyers and right tackle Eric Winston (who will now protect Leinart’s blind side) are All-Pro-caliber. Left tackle Duane Brown has also played very well, according to Smith.

The line has paved the way for running backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate, who have combined for 1,426 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. Foster also has three 100-yard receiving games and 1,185 yards from scrimmage in eight games.

“With what we do on offense and the fact that we run the ball the way that we do and our play-action and boot game off of that, we’re not asking the quarterback to throw it 40 times a game,’’ Smith said. “He’s throwing it more like 20, 25 times a game.

“So I just feel like with what we’ve got on offense, what we do offensively, having Andre have an opportunity to maybe get back here pretty soon, the way we run the ball and then Matt Leinart’s ability, I think all those things are going to line up in such a way that we’ll be able to continue to be successful.’’

On defense, new coordinator Wade Phillips has done what he always does: drastically improve the unit as soon as he arrives. Phillips has reached the playoffs in the first season with each of the last seven teams he has joined as head coach or defensive coordinator.

Phillips has taken the holdovers from the Texans’ former 4-3 scheme - nose tackle Shaun Cody, end Antonio Smith, linebackers Brian Cushing, Connor Barwin, and DeMeco Ryans, and cornerback Kareem Jackson - melded in key additions in rookies J.J. Watt (end) and Brooks Reed (linebacker) and free agents Johnathan Joseph (cornerback) and Danieal Manning (safety), and made his attacking 3-4 scheme work.

The Texans finished 2010 with the 29th-ranked scoring defense (26.7). They’re now second (16.6). They gave up a league-worst 267.5 passing yards per game a season ago, and are now second at 178.4.

Smith, Cushing, and Joseph have played at Pro Bowl level, thanks to Phillips’s influence.

“He knows how to coach the system; it’s a player-friendly scheme and guys take to the scheme quickly,’’ said Rick Smith. “There’s a level of confidence that they gain pretty quickly because a) they understand what he’s asking them to do and b) he puts them in position to make plays. So when you get that kind of situation, all of a sudden the confidence level grows rapidly, the success level grows rapidly.’’

Of course, you can’t win in the postseason without good quarterback play. Smith believes that after two years in the system of coach Gary Kubiak (a noted tutor for Steve Young, John Elway, and Jake Plummer), Leinart, who has thrown 14 touchdown passes against 20 interceptions with a career 70.8 rating, is ready.

“I’ve seen a guy that came in and, quite honestly, he was beat down,’’ Smith said of Leinart’s time with the Cardinals. “What I saw him do last year was come in, put his head down, and go to work.

“I meet with every player at the end of the year. When he sat down at the table, he was a different guy. He had that sparkle back in his eyes, had his confidence back, and he had shown enough in practice to where it was a priority for us to re-sign him as our backup.

“I expect that he’s going to play well. I’m excited for him. He wanted a situation where he could prove that he could play the position successfully in this league.

“He’s got a 7-3 football team with talent on that side of the ball and playing good defense, so he’s in a situation that almost couldn’t be better for him. I think he will excel.’’

The Texans still have much to prove. Out of the four postseason hopefuls they have played, they have beaten the Steelers and lost to the Saints, Ravens, and Raiders. The rest of their six victories have come against teams with a combined 19-42 record.

Tests remain against the Falcons and Bengals. Then we’ll see in the postseason whether Leinart and the Texans are for real.

“We’ve got to go prove that we’re good,’’ Smith said. “We’re a 7-3 football team with a ton of football left to play.

“The thing that has been most impressive is they remain focused from week to week. If we continue to have that focus, we’ll play good football.’’

A GIANT STEP

Herzlich solid in first start

The reviews were positive after former Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich made his first career start last Sunday night for the Giants in their loss to the Eagles. Herzlich, who started because Michael Boley was out with a hamstring injury, finished with four tackles.

“Against a good run team, I thought Mark was physical,’’ said Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. “I thought he was commanding in the huddle. I thought he was decisive in his reads. I thought he gained a lot of respect from his teammates by the way he played that football game.

“Obviously, there are some things that he has to work on and he will work on in the pass game. But I was very pleased with how he played the run and how he fit the run and how he commanded our defense.’’

Boley liked what he saw from the sideline.

“Mark is a playmaker,’’ Boley said. “Even seeing some of the things he does at practice, he is always around the ball.’’

Herzlich’s calling card is playing the run because of his lack of speed. But he was on the field for most of the Eagles’ game-winning drive, which went 80 yards on 18 plays and included six third-down conversions.

“I think that I played well for about 85-90 percent of my snaps and that other 10-15 percent is where I had the mental mistakes and it hurt the team a little bit,’’ said Herzlich, who is still a mainstay on special teams.

“I need to look at those plays and really reflect on those and figure out why I made that mistake and how can I correct it the next time, to be able to show confidence in myself so that the team has confidence in me.’’

Herzlich will likely get another prime-time start, because Boley is likely out of tomorrow night’s matchup against the Saints.

“It definitely gives me confidence, because the more experience, the better,’’ Herzlich said. “I think either way I expect perfection from myself.’’

HOMING SIGNALS

Ravens eager to get the edge

Even though the Ravens beat the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in the playoffs two years ago, Baltimore wants home-field advantage this year. It’s shaping up as a three-way battle among the Patriots (6-2 in AFC), Ravens (5-2), and Texans (6-2). All have three losses overall.

“That would be pretty good,’’ said Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. “Obviously, playing here, we’re pretty tough to beat.’’

The Ravens are 6-0 at M&T Bank Stadium, including wins over Pittsburgh (7-3), Houston (7-3), the Jets (5-5) and San Francisco (9-2). Baltimore is 2-3 on the road, with all three losses coming to teams with losing records.

“We haven’t had a home playoff game since I’ve been here,’’ Flacco said. “It would really be beneficial to get one.’’

The Ravens have won 16 of their past 17 games at home.

“When you get home-field advantage, you have a good chance of making it to the big dance,’’ said linebacker Terrell Suggs. “We have the best fans in the world. We win all of our home games, and that’s because it’s loud and because our fans give us the energy.

“We want to play well for them. That’s definitely an overall goal.’’

ETC.

Reason to be charged up

Former Patriots linebacker Junior Seau will become the 35th member of the Chargers Hall of Fame at halftime of today’s game against the Broncos. “To be honored with that label and to be part of a unique group and a fraternity is definitely something special,’’ Seau said. “Honestly, I don’t think words can ever express it.’’ Seau was named first-team All-Pro six times during his 13-year career with the Chargers. He earned 12 consecutive Pro Bowl selections in that time, making 1,396 tackles, 45.5 sacks, and 14 interceptions. He helped both the Chargers and Patriots win conference titles. “The 13 years he played here, he really was the heart and soul of our team,’’ said Chargers chairman Dean Spanos.

Nickel package

1. You can argue whether Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is a dirty player after his ejection on Thanksgiving for stomping a Packers player. What’s not up for debate is that Suh isn’t exactly the brightest player. I mean, the whole world is watching on Thanksgiving and the incident came just a few weeks after Suh met with commissioner Roger Goodell about his play.

2. Ditto for former Patriot Albert Haynesworth. He boasted last week of injuring Texas quarterback Matt Schaub, who had to be placed on injured reserve. Way to keep it classy, Al.

3. Still love the 49ers defense but, yeesh, that team isn’t going anywhere with Alex Smith at quarterback. Just throw the ball away. The line got whipped by the Ravens, but you simply cannot take nine sacks.

4. Jets coach Rex Ryan again tried to motivate quarterback Mark Sanchez by giving backup Mark Brunell first-team snaps in practice. It’s worked before, but how about this: Sign a real backup in case your starter is ineffective, which Sanchez is.

5. You know that Broncos-Patriots game Dec. 18 is going to get flexed to Sunday night. Tim Tebow vs. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady? Just get it over with.

New England update

Malden High product Breno Giacomini drew a tough matchup against Rams end Chris Long in his first career start at right tackle last Sunday, but he appeared to do well as Seattle emerged with a 24-7 victory to win back-to-back games for the first time this season. “I thought Breno really held up his own,’’ said coach Pete Carroll. “I was impressed with Breno. I thought he looked a little farther along and comfortable.’’ Giacomini allowed a sack and some pressures. The Seahawks allowed four sacks in all - none in the second half. “We just got together at halftime and said, ‘Hey, man, let’s go,’ ’’ Giacomini said. “We weren’t playing like we were expected to play, and we just had to turn it up a little bit.’’ Quarterback Tarvaris Jackson said he was at least partially to blame for the sacks. “A couple of them were my fault for holding onto the ball too long,’’ he said. “But I trust those guys.’’ . . . Giants receiver Victor Cruz, a UMass product, had six catches for 128 yards and a touchdown last week against the Eagles. He has 80 or more yards in seven of his past eight games.

By the numbers

2: Home games sold out by the Bengals in their last nine. They’re blacked out again today against the Browns.

3: Quarterbacks who have passed for 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in the first 10 games: Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Brady. First time ever that’s happened.

6: Consecutive losses for the Redskins, their worst losing streak since dropping seven to begin the 1998 season.

64: Passing yards needed by Norfolk native Matt Hasselbeck to reach 32,000. He ranks 31st all-time.

15: Passing touchdowns for Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, tied with Dan Marino and Peyton Manning for most by a rookie through 10 games. Amazing company.

Short yardage

Receiver Marvin Harrison will be inducted into the Colts Ring of Honor today. “As a player that was drafted in 1996, I saw others going up into the ring,’’ said Harrison in a statement. “But now to be one of those players placed in the stadium for a lifetime, words can’t describe how I’m feeling. I’ve never had anything retired, jersey or number-wise, on any level. But to be recognized by the Colts is the highest honor for me and my family.’’ . . . Well, at least Dolphins coach Tony Sparano is a realist. He raised eyebrows with a comment when trying to defend the play of left tackle Jake Long. “I’ll say this about Jake Long,’’ Sparano said. “We’re all going to be really happy down the road here, or you’re all going to be really happy down the road here, that Jake Long is here and he’s a Miami Dolphin.’’ Yeah, even Sparano knows he won’t be back next year . . . Raiders left tackle Jared Veldheer became the first player to hold Vikings end Jared Allen without a sack this season. Now Veldheer will try to stop Bears end Julius Peppers. That would be some feat . . . Chris Long has a career-best nine sacks. When he registers one more, it will allow him and father Howie Long to join Clay Matthews Jr. (Browns) and Clay Matthews III (Packers) as the only father-son duos to register double-digit sacks in a season.

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