John McClain: Mills, Texans finally get a breakthrough win over Titans

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Mark Zaleski/AP/Shutterstock (13683857y) Houston Texans quarterback Davis Mills (10) works in the pocket against the Tennessee Titans during the first half of an NFL football game, in Nashville, Tenn Texans Titans Football, Nashville, United States – 24 Dec 2022

John McClain: Mills, Texans finally get a breakthrough win over Titans

Neither running back Derrick Henry, a one-hour weather delay caused by the coldest home game in Titans history or a desperate team determined to remain on top of the AFC South could keep the Texans from upsetting Tennessee at frigid Nissan Stadium on Saturday.

After playing well in close losses to Dallas and Kansas City in the previous two games, the Texans overcame two deficits to defeat the Titans 19-14 on Christmas Eve, ending a nine-game losing streak while dealing Tennessee a fifth consecutive defeat. 

The Texans, who have games remaining against Jacksonville and Indianapolis, won for the first time since Oct. 9 when they defeated the Jaguars. Even though they improved to 2-12-1, the Texans still have the NFL’s worst record and the inside track to the first overall pick in the draft. Their goal is to close the season with a three-game winning streak against AFC South opponents.

“We have a three-game season in our division,” coach Lovie Smith said. “Those games are huge for us. The best we can do is to have the best record against division opponents. That’s our goal, and Tennessee was the first one up. That’s been our motivation. That should get you pumped up. You shouldn’t need any more incentive.”

Like they did in four- and six-point losses to the Cowboys and Chiefs, the Texans almost blew Saturday’s game, but quarterback Davis Mills, who shared playing time with Jeff Driskel again, engineered two scoring drives in the fourth quarter to help the Texans escape Nashville with the victory.

“We needed this one, and our guys definitely showed up today,” Smith said. “I thought Davis threw some good balls. We needed to drive at the end when we were down. That said an awful lot (about) the offense to go down there and get that touchdown.”

The Texans scored the last 10 points, including Mills’ 6-yard touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks that ended up winning the game. The loss saddled the Titans with a 7-8 record and dropped them into a first-place tie with Jacksonville in the AFC South. Unlike in the Titans’ 17-10 victory in the first game of this division rivalry, the Texans didn’t allow Tennessee to defeat them with rookie quarterback Malik Willis.

Henry, who rushed for 219 yards and two touchdowns in the first game against the Texans, was limited to 126 yards on 23 carries. The Texans stopped his four-game, 200-yard streak against them. He scored Tennessee’s first touchdown on a 48-yard run but was reduced to 78 yards on his other 22 carries, an average of 3.5 yards.

In his previous four games against the Texans, Henry had pounded them for 211, 212, 250 and 219 yards. He’d scored at least two touchdowns in each of those games.

“Henry is the best running back in football,” Smith said. “The guys kept fighting, and at the end when we needed to clamp down and play the run a lot better, the tackling was better – gang tackling, and it takes more than one to get him down.”

With Smith’s defense focusing on containing Henry, the Titans were hoping Willis would improve from his first two starts. Other than his 14-yard touchdown run, he struggled. In his second start against the Texans and his third overall, Willis completed 14-of-23 for 99 yards with no touchdown passes and two interceptions in the fourth quarter. He was sacked four times – twice by end Ogbo Okoronkwo — and finished with a 34.5 rating. His best play was a 14-yard touchdown run.

Willis replaced Ryan Tannehill, who’s out for the season after undergoing ankle surgery. When the Texans won in Nashville last season, they intercepted Tannehill four times. That’s six interceptions for the defense in the Texans’ last two games at Nissan Stadium.

Smith’s defense forced three turnovers in the fourth quarter to ignite the rally. Linebacker Jake Hansen stripped the ball from Henry that end Jonathan Greenard recovered, igniting a field goal drive that pulled the Texans within 14-13. Two rookies —  linebacker Christian Harris and safety Jalen Pitre – intercepted Willis on Tennessee’s last two possessions when they were trying to rally.

“Whenever you take the ball away, it’s about momentum,” Smith said. “Nobody harps on taking the ball away more than we do, and I think our three rookies — Pitre, Harris and Hansen with the takeaways – those were big. Defensively, we’ve been playing pretty well for a while.”

On an afternoon that began an hour late because of a rolling blackout in downtown Nashville, the Texans didn’t seem bothered by the delay, the 20-degree temperature at kickoff or Henry’s 48-yard touchdown run that staked the Titans to a 7-0 lead.

Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton continued with his quarterback rotation, with Mills wisely getting the bulk of the playing time. The Texans led 10-7 at halftime after Rex Burkhead fell on a Mills fumble in the end zone when the quarterback was trying to run. Ka’imi Fairbairn’s 25-yard field goal gave the Texans the three-point advantage at the break.

Mills completed 5-of-10 for 47 yards in the first half. He was horrendous in the third quarter, connecting on 3-of-9 for 28 yards and an interception when he had enough time but still tried to force the ball to Cooks. Mills’ interception led to Willis’ touchdown run that left the Texans behind 14-10.

When the Texans were trying to recover, Hamilton left Mills in the game on back-to-back possessions, and he sparked them to a Fairbairn field goal and the touchdown pass that won the game. On those two drives, Mills completed 9-of-9 for 103 yards. He found Cooks on the left side of the end zone for the game-winner.

What made the last two scoring drives even more satisfying was the Texans being able to overcome injuries at left guard. Kenyon Green was injured and didn’t dress. Tytus Howard replaced him and departed with a concussion. Backup center Jimmy Morrissey replaced Howard and also left with a concussion. That left Justin McCray in the lineup.

“On that drive, we had to have the protection,” Smith said. “The quarterback had to make some good throws. Davis did that, and the receivers made plays that we needed.”

Mills was at his best in the fourth quarter. He threw some terrific passes for completions to Phillip Dorsett for 18 and 20 yards and to Amari Rodgers for 37 yards before collaborating with Cooks for the touchdown. All that remained was two interceptions by Harris and Pitre so the players could experience what it’s like to win again.

“The last two teams (Dallas and Kansas City) that beat us have a chance to win it all,” Smith said. “This team (Tennessee) has a chance to represent our division (in the playoffs). And we’ve been playing tough. If you’ve been watching our team play, you’d say, ‘Hey, this is a team that’s trending.’ We’re getting better. We’re playing good football right now.”

Next up is Jacksonville, a team the Texans have beaten nine consecutive times dating back to the first game of the 2017 season.

(John McClain writes four columns a week for He can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on Sports Radio 610 and Monday and Thursday on Texans Radio. He does three weekly Houtopia podcasts for 610. He also can be read three times a week on

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