HOUSTON, COWBOYS HOSTING WILD CARD PLAYOFFS SATURDAY
It’s not very often that the Houston Texans and the Dallas Cowboys will make the National Football League post-season playoffs without having to win their final game of the regular season. But that’s exactly what happened Sunday when both teams played at the same time for the second week in a row and both came away with impressive victories. Actually, the Houston-Jacksonville game was more important than the Dallas-New York Giants contest because it would have changed the AFC South Division champion plus the seed number for the playoffs. The Cowboys had already clinched the NFC East Division title and were able to sit out some of their stars like running back Ezekiel Elliott and a couple of All-Pro offensive linemen. Both teams finished the season with impressive victories, giving them additional momentum for the NFL Wild Card Playoffs that begin Saturday. The third-seeded Texans (11-5) will play sixth-seeded Indianapolis (10-6) 3:35 p.m. Saturday at NRG Stadium. Fourth-seeded Dallas meets No. 5 seed Seattle 7:15 p.m. Saturday night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Houston’s defense was outstanding, holding the Jaguars to a miniscule 119 total yards, mostly from passing in their impressive 20-3 victory over Jacksonville, and six first downs. J.J. Watt appears to be fully recovered from his injuries after enduring a pair of back surgeries and a broken leg during a painful two-year span. Watt recorded 1½ sacks Sunday, bringing his total for the regular season to 16 which led the AFC. He and Hall of Fame Green Bay Packer great Reggie White are the only players in NFL history with 15 or more sacks for four seasons. Watt also had a forced fumble, leading the NFL with seven forced fumbles. Twenty-seven per cent of the Texans’ points this season came from turnovers. Offensively, the story was the two-pronged attack by quarterback Deshaun Watson and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who both had record-breaking seasons. Watson was the first player in NFL history to pass for 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns and rush for 500 yards and five touchdowns in one season. On the negative side, Watson was sacked 60 times, which ranks second in NFL history. Hopkins hauled in 115 passes during the season which ties him for No. 1 in team history with Andre Johnson. Hopkins has 528 career catches which is the most ever for six years. There shouldn’t be any secrets between Houston and Indianapolis as they meet for the third time this season. Strangely, the visiting team has won both encounters. The Texans are 32-2 when leading at the half under Head Coach Bill O’Brien and are the only team since the 1992 San Diego Chargers to start a season 0-3 and win their division, finishing 11-2 in the final 13 games. Not to be outdone, Indianapolis began the season 1-5 and then won nine of their final 10 games. One of Indy’s losses came in their first meeting which might have been a win if Head Coach Frank Reich hadn’t decided to go for the win instead of settling for a tie with a short field goal that would have knotted the score at 37-37 and sent the game into overtime. Instead, the Texans’ defense held and the team registered its first win of the season 37-34. If the game somehow ended in a 37-37 tie, the Colts would be division champs and Saturday’s game would have been played in Indianapolis. The Cowboys had one of the most exciting finishes of any game this season after a Giants field goal with 2:35 left in the game gave New York a 35-27 lead. Quarterback Dak Prescott really showed his prowess in the Cowboys’ final drive when he moved the team downfield in a minute, connecting with wide receiver Cole Beasley on a 32-yard touchdown pass on a fourth down with 1:12 left. Beasley’s catch was probably one of the finest of the season in the NFL. Head coach Jason Garrett called for a game-winning two-point conversion and again Prescott eluded Colt tacklers and fired a strike to Michael Gallup, giving Dallas a 36-35 win. The Cowboys (10-6) will now meet the red-hot Seattle Seahawks (10-6), who needed to win six of their final seven games just to nab a wild card berth. Besides the homefield advantage, Dallas should have the edge on offense with Elliott running the ball while the Seahawks are a tad stronger on defense. Both the Cowboys and Houston are early 2½-point favorites and I expect them both to advance to the divisional round next week. The Texans should win in a shootout 34-28 over Indy while Dallas ekes out a 22-19 win over the Seahawks. The AFC’s No.2-seeded New England Patriots await the Houston-Indianapolis winner next Sunday at 12:05 p.m. while the top-seeded New Orleans Saints host the Dallas-Seattle winner next Sunday at 3:35 p.m. Sunday’s games feature the LA Chargers (12-4) visiting the Baltimore Ravens (10-6) at 12:05 p.m. followed by the defending world champion Philadelphia Eagles (9-7) at the surprising Chicago Bears (12-4). I look for the Chargers to sneak past Baltimore 21-17 and play in Kansas City (12-4) next Saturday at 3:35 p.m. while the Bears end the Eagles’ dreams of a repeat, 16-10, and take on the LA Rams (13-3) next Saturday. On the college bowl scene Alabama (14-0) will play Clemson (14-0) 7 p.m. Monday at Santa Clara, Calif. ‘Bama disposed of Oklahoma 45-34 while Clemson embarrassed Notre Dame 30-3. The Crimson Tide should squeeze out a 35-31 win. In games closer to home, the Texas Aggies gave Head Coach Jimbo Fisher his first bowl win in his new job by overpowering North Carolina State in the Gator Bowl Monday while LSU needed an interception in the final minute to subdue undefeated Central Florida 38-32 in the Fiesta Bowl. LSU snapped UCF’s 25-game winning streak which extends back to Dec. 17, 2016 when they lost 31-13 to Arkansas State in the Sugar Bowl. In the final New Year’s Day bowl game, the Texas Longhorns came flying out of the chute against No. 5 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl and ran up a 17-0 lead before the Bulldogs knew what was happening, led 20-7 at halftime and went on to win handily 28-21. Longhorn quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who broke Drew Brees’ passing records at Austin Westlake High School, rushed more than 20 times and scored three touchdowns. He shared that spotlight with teammate Shea Watson. Texas whipped Georgia in every category, even in penalty yardage, most of which was accrued in the game’s final minute. The Longhorns’ defense held the Bulldogs’ vaunted running attack to a scant 72 yards and 322 total yards, both season lows for the Georgia offense. KWICKIES…Former West Orange-Stark linebacker and Metropolitan Opera performer Shon Sims wowed the crowd last month in the Toyota Center when he belted out the National Anthem in his strong baritone voice before a Houston Rockets game. Army’s 70-14 annihilation of Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back as Head Coach Major Applewhite was fired after only two seasons. The Cougars finished this season 8-5 but lost four of their last five games. The school wasted little time searching for Applewhite’s replacement, planning to meet West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen, who spent two years as the Cougars’ offensive coordinator from 2008-2009. Along with his former ties to the school, he has a home in Houston and is friends with Tilman Fertitta, the university’s board of regent chairman who flew him to Houston on his private jet. As of late Tuesday, the two sides were finalizing terms of a five-year deal worth $20 million. Lamar’s search for a 2019 starting quarterback may have gotten solved last week when former Tennessee Volunteers signal-caller Will McBride announced last week that he plans on enrolling at the Beaumont school for the spring semester. And by switching to an FCS school, McBride will be able to play football this fall and have three years of eligibility with the Cardinals. JUST BETWEEN US…Several teams are making overtures to obtain Orange’s Earl Thomas III for the 2019 season when he becomes a Seattle Seahawks’ free agent in March. The latest is former Legion of Boom teammate Richard Sherman speaking on behalf of his new team, the San Francisco 49ers, who he believes will pursue Earl. Sherman and Thomas were teammates in Seattle from 2011 to 2017. Now Sherman is hoping to bring a championship to San Francisco and he’s willing to help the 49ers with the recruiting pitch to Thomas. “Would I love to play with Earl Thomas III? I would love to have him back in the locker room. But I’m sure he’ll have a plethora of opportunities, and I’m sure we’re going to throw our hat in the ring,” Sherman told NBC Sports Bay Area last week. Thomas broke his leg in Week 4 while playing in the final year of his contract with the Seahawks. He’ll turn 30 after becoming a free agent in March.