By MIKE HUTCHENS
Messenger Sports Editor
NASHVILLE — Looks can be deceiving.
At first glance — at the final score and many of the statistics — it would appear the Tennessee Titans played the team with the best record in the AFC on relatively-even terms.
Nothing could be further from reality.
The Houston Texans were in control from start to finish — scoring before the contest was three minutes old — then forcing six turnovers and sacking Jake Locker six times in what was ultimately a 24-10 victory over Tennessee Sunday at LP Field.
The win assured the Texans (11-1) a playoff berth and sent the Titans (4-8) to their fourth loss in five games.
More importantly and most-obviously, it illustrated the difference — both subtle and otherwise — the difference between the two South Division rivals.
Houston, which is tied with Atlanta for the best record in all of the NFL after its sixth consecutive victory, produced 17 of its points after driving just a total of 27 yards.
The Texans’ Lestar Jean caught a 54-yard touchdown pass from Matt Schaub on the sixth snap of the game, then used a 41-yard punt return by Keshawn Martin to set up a second Schaub scoring toss — a five-yarder to fullback James Casey — and was never seriously challenged after the first quarter.
Houston harassed Tennessee’s second-year signal-caller into three interceptions and two lost fumbles, and batted down several more of his passes.
The Titans, meanwhile, outgained the visitors in total yardage (354-332), but came up empty on a trip to the redzone early in the fourth period and repeated dropped passes in the debut of new offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains.
“I guess that’s why we’re 4-8,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said afterward. “We can’t make enough plays to win when we have an opportunity.
“The players eventually have to catch those balls, make plays and we didn’t at times. Guys don’t drop balls on purpose and the defensive guys are trying to hit them and knock it loose. We just made too many errors.”
Schaub threw for 207 yards and the two TDs in a quietly-effective performance for the Texans. He was not sacked and the Tennessee defense did not force a turnover.
Former University of Tennessee running back Arian Foster had a two-yard touchdown run in the second quarter for Houston, but had a much-lighter workload with just 14 carries for 38 yards.
Down 24-3 late in the third, the Titans scored their only TD — when Locker threw 34 yards to Kenny Britt to cap a four-play, 80-yard drive. Locker hooked up with Kendall Wright on another long pass play earlier in the march.
Any true hope of a Tennessee upset died, however, when Locker was sacked and fumbled on fourth down after the Titans had driven to the Houston seven yard-line midway through the fourth quarter.
“I thought overall the defense, other than the first drive, gave us a chance to get back in the game,” Munchak continued. “We caught some bad spots, the turnovers, and that’s really where the points came from. The rest of the game, the defense did a nice job getting three-and-outs, getting off the field. It didn’t get out of hand when it could have-score wise. We just didn’t get any turnovers from them.
“Obviously Houston’s a good football team. The good thing is that we fought hard. That thing could have really got one-sided like it did when we played there (a 38-14 Texans’ win in Houston in September). I thought the guys hung together. The plays we had to make, we just didn’t make them.”
Locker threw for 309 yards on 21-of-45 passing, while Chris Johnson rushed for 51 yards on 13 carries and is now seven yards shy of his fifth consecutive 1,000-yard season.
Tennessee also suffered a pair of damaging injury losses in the contest when starting right tackle David Stewart fractured his right leg and left guard Steve Hutchinson hurt his right knee and left the game.
Tennessee plays at Indianapolis next Sunday.
Sports editor Mike Hutchens can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in The Messenger 12.3.12