Charlie Pallilo: Upstarts in the NFL, key stretch for Rockets and more

Tom Brady is the proven commodity this weekend. Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

The NFL’s version of the Final Four goes off Sunday, though even the almighty NFL can’t market it as the Final Four. The non-profit NCAA makes hundreds of millions of dollars per year off that trademark. The final four starting quarterbacks standing are Case Keenum, Nick Foles, Blake Bortles,….and Tom Brady. That’s like an SAT question: which of the following does not fit with the other three. Hence, the Patriots are favored to win their sixth Super Bowl of the Brady-Bill Belichick dynasty. The other three franchises have zero Lombardi trophies in their showcases. The Jaguars are one of four franchises never to have played in a Super Bowl (Lions, Browns, and yes, Texans). The Eagles last appearance was Super Bowl XXXIX. For the Vikings it has been 41 years since the Raiders blew them out in Super Bowl XI.

New England and Philadelphia are the home teams but we had colder temperatures in Houston this week than either site will have Sunday. If the Jaguars pull off the upset at Foxborough it’s the most stunning turnaround from stupor to Super in NFL history.  Last season they were 3-13. The Vikings are road favorites as they try to become the first team ever to play Super Sunday on their homefield.

And now the Frank the Tank portion of this week’s column. We’re going streaking!

Big stretch for Rockets

The Rockets finish off their most challenging consecutive home games on the schedule this season Saturday night. They follow up Thursday’s solid rout of vastly improved Minnesota with a second home date this month vs. Golden State. The season series is on the line with the teams having split their first two meetings and there being no fourth meeting to come. Being four and a half games behind the champs means the Rockets’ chance of catching the Warriors for best in the Western Conference is already slim. With a loss that chance dwindles to practically none. The Warriors are healthy and trying for a ridiculous 15th consecutive road win. The all-time NBA record is 16 straight road wins posted by the 1971-72 Lakers; they were a subset of the Lakers’ overall 33 game winning streak. That 33 in a row is the longest winning streak in any major league North American sport. Yes the Lakers won the NBA Championship that season.

Hold those Tigers

One of the more preposterous streaks in sports extended this week in college basketball when Clemson lost at North Carolina. The Houston Texans endured 13 years of uninterrupted futility before they finally won a game over the Colts at Indianapolis. We’ve all heard that expression “the 14th time is the charm.” What about the 60th? The Tar Heels takedown of the Tigers dropped Clemson’s overall record at Chapel Hill to 0-59.  Sure the Tar Heels are one of the greatest programs in college basketball history, their 20 Final Four appearances are 20 more than Clemson has. But 0-59!?! The 87-79 final score marked only the seventh time in the 59 losses that Clemson played Carolina within single digits or to overtime.

Game of the century

Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of one of the landmark games in college basketball history. January 20th 1968 the 2nd ranked University of Houston took down #1 UCLA 71-69 before 52,693 at the Astrodome. It was the first nationally televised (via syndication) primetime college basketball game ever. Elvin Hayes poured in 29 first half points, 39 for the game and the Cougars eked out a win over a Bruins’ team that had won 47 in a row. Lew Alcindor played while still recovering from an eye injury and had one of his worst games as a collegian. The Bruins would get the last laugh, destroying UH 101-69 at the Final Four, holding the “Big E” to just 10.

Good idea gone bad

Fun idea for the NBA All-Star Game to have captains choose sides as if on the playground. Lame idea to not televise the picks, the teams will merely be announced after the fact. It’s not as if being the last pick for the All-Star pick-up game makes that guy the clumsy kid nobody wants. LeBron James and Stephen Curry were the top vote getters in each conference so they will draft from among the eight other voted in starters and 14 reserves selected by head coaches. LeBron was the overall vote leader so he’ll have the first pick. Does he nab Curry teammate Kevin Durant? Does Curry then take James Harden over Klay Thompson? Is Kyrie Irving the last pick because LeBron wants no part of him?

Buzzer Beaters

1. I’m no sadist but doesn’t Larry Nassar deserve to die an excruciating painful death?    2. If UH wants just its second NCAA Tourney appearance in 25 years a win over Wichita St. tomorrow would be a huge boost   3. Best sitcoms ever: Bronze-Cheers  Silver-M*A*S*H  Gold-Seinfeld

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Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

Photo by Getty Images.

Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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