Patriots

Texans' title chances take devastating hit: Watt, Mercilus out for year

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Texans' title chances take devastating hit: Watt, Mercilus out for year

The Texans suffered a pair of devastating injuries on Sunday night that could wind up ruining their chances at contending in the AFC.

During a 42-34 loss to the Chiefs, J.J. Watt suffered a season-ending tibial plateau fracture in the first quarter. He left the game and was eventually taken to the hospital. Whitney Mercilus was injured earlier in the first quarter, suffering a torn pectoral muscle that ended his season.

"I think that is tough, but at the end of the day that is not an excuse," Texans coach Bill O’Brien said after the game. "We have to do better in all three phases. Look, I thought we competed until the end and the next guys are going to have to step up and play. 

"We have to do a good job of coaching and scheming, but that is the National Football League. Guys get hurt and the next guy in the team meeting room at that position needs to step up."

The reality is, though -- and this isn't news to O'Brien -- "the next guys" in this case are not going to be the game-changers that Watt and Mercilus have been. 

Watt is arguably the best defensive player of this generation, having won three Defensive Player of the Year awards (2012, 2014, 2015). Mercilus was a Second-Team All-Pro last season and made up a three-headed pass-rushing monster in Houston alongside Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. 

Having both Watt and Mercilus in the mix with Clowney and linebacker Bernardrick McKinney is what made the Texans defense one of the most dangerous units in the league. Before the Patriots and Texans matched up in Week 3, we took a deep dive into why the sheer number of pass-rushers Houston possessed was such a problem

"I mean, they have too many good players so it’s hard to help," Bill Belichick said before the game. "If you help one, then you’re light on the others. If you help one of the others, then it’s tough. That’s what makes them so good, is they get a lot of those matchups and you can’t help. 

"Like I said, too many guys so the guys that get singled are productive and they make plays. They make plays for a loss. They make plays in the running game. They make plays in the passing game and they make plays in pursuit."

With Watt and Mercilus unavailable, the Texans will lean heavily on Clowney and McKinney to provide pressure while defensive lineman Christian Covington and linebacker Brennan Scarlett, in all likelihood, see more playing time. 

Houston made it to the Divisional Round without Watt last season, and they gave the Patriots offense fits at Gillette Stadium. But to make any noise in January without both Watt and Mercilus, the Texans will need rookie quarterback DeShaun Watson -- one of the best stories in the league through five weeks -- to continue to surpass expectations by leaps and bounds. And even that may not be enough.

In threatening Goodell, Cowboys owner insults Kraft

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In threatening Goodell, Cowboys owner insults Kraft

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, upset over the six-game suspension of his star running back Ezekiel Elliott, has been fighting against a contract extension for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

How hard has he been fighting? Enough to reportedly insult Patriots owner Robert Kraft in the process. 

ESPN reports that on a conference call in August with Goodell and NFL general counsel Jeff Pash when Jones was informed of Elliott’s suspension for domestic violence incidents, Jones told the commissioner, “I’m going to come after you with everything I have.” He then invoked Kraft’s response to Deflategate and Tom Brady’s four-game suspension.

“If you think Bob Kraft came after you hard, Bob Kraft is a p—-y compared to what I’m going to do,” Jones told Goodell, according to ESPN’s Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham.

Elliott, like Brady, abandoned his court fight this week and will serve his suspension. Kraft, of course, produced the Wells Report in context website, but grudgingly accepted the NFL’s penalty in the Deflategate case. Jones has threatened to sue the NFL if Goodell’s contract extension is approved.   

 

THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL: Steelers cruise to victory vs Titans, 40-17

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THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL: Steelers cruise to victory vs Titans, 40-17

PITTSBURGH -- Another uninspiring half in the books in a season littered with them for a team that expects to play deep into January and beyond, Ben Roethlisberger decided he had seen enough.

So the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback decided it was time to speak up. The defense had kept the Tennessee Titans and star Marcus Mariota in check, yet a game that had the makings of a blowout didn't feel like one mostly because the offense kept squandering chance after chance.

No more.

"He didn't call anyone out, he called all of us out," guard David DeCastro said. "Linemen. Receivers. Himself. Running backs. Purely positive. It was a challenge. He challenged us. The guys responded."

None better than the 35-year-old Roethlisberger. Running the no-huddle offense to near perfection, Roethlisberger threw for 299 yards and four touchdowns, three to Antonio Brown, as the Steelers pulled away for a 40-17 victory.

"I don't care if you're old or young, just someone has to step up and make a play for this team or else we are going to keep relying on our defense," said Roethlisberger, who went 20 of 23 for 185 yards and three touchdowns in the second half. "It is time that we step up and do something."

Brown caught 10 passes for 144 yards and the three scores, including an acrobatic grab in the back of the end zone in which he pinned the ball to his helmet before bringing it in to put Pittsburgh up 20 in the fourth quarter as the Steelers set a season-high for points and margin of victory.

"We've talked so much about having the potential in this room, but we can still strive for more," said defensive end Cam Heyward, who had two of Pittsburgh's five sacks. "We're a hungry group that still has a lot to prove. We're chasing ghosts. We're trying to be the best defense. That's what we strive for."

For long stretches, the Steelers (8-2) looked the part while extending their winning streak to five.

Though Mariota ran for a touchdown and threw for another, he was also picked off a career-high four times as the Titans (6-4) saw their four-game winning streak come to a crashing halt. Mariota finished 22 of 33 for 306 yards but was under pressure much of the night.

"When you play teams that are this caliber that are contenders, that win week in and week out, that's the blueprint," Mariota said. "We're going to learn from it. We're going to get better from it and hopefully we'll see them again."

There's plenty to work on. Tennessee appeared to be in it when Mariota found Matthews with a 75-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the second half to get to 16-14.

Then Roethlisberger and the NFL's highest-paid offense got going. Finally. Roethlisberger dropped some very not subtle hints that he wanted the freedom provided by the no-huddle after the Steelers used it to pick the Colts apart during the winning drive last Sunday in Indianapolis.

Offensive coordinator Todd Haley appeared to be listening.

Pittsburgh opened in the no huddle and needed just six plays to take the lead as Roethlisberger took advantage of a free play and hit Brown with a 41-yard rainbow. Mike Hilton then returned Mariota's interception to set up the first of Chris Boswell's four field goals and the Steelers appeared on the verge of another prime-time blowout at home.

The blowout did eventually arrive, just not quickly.

The offense ground to a halt for the rest of the half, held in check by former defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. The Hall of Famer spent 12 years building a defense that helped Pittsburgh to two Super Bowl victories before being ushered out in favor of protege Keith Butler in January 2015. The 80-year-old is in the middle of his latest project with the steadily improving Titans.

Yet the gap between Tennessee and Pittsburgh remains significant. The proof came after Mathews' long catch-and-run appeared to give the Titans momentum.

The Steelers reeled off three straight touchdown drives. Roethlisberger found a leaping Brown for a 5-yard score restored a nine-point lead, executed a perfect play-action fake at the goal line before flipping it to a wide-open Jesse James for a 1-yard strike and put the Titans away with a lob to the back corner of the end zone that Brown somehow hauled in from 10 yards out that made it 37-17.

Pittsburgh rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster knelt down and bowed to Brown during the giddy celebration. Hard to blame the 20-year-old. For the first time all season, the Steelers put it all together and looked every bit like a team with a legitimate threat to live up to its own hype.

UP NEXT

Titans: Visit Indianapolis on Nov. 26. Tennessee beat the Colts 36-22 on Oct. 16.

Steelers: Welcome the Green Bay Packers on Nov. 26, the second of four straight prime-time games for Pittsburgh.