Could an insane game get even crazier? Yes, and that could have had quite the impact.
2007. It was the beginning of the Schaub era. It was the second year of the Kubiak system. Some of the young prospects from the 2006 draft, mainly Mario Williams and DeMarco Ryans, started to make noise on the defensive side of the ball. Andre Johnson further cemented his role as one of the best receivers in the game. It also started a string of seasons where the Texans were near misses for a winning record and/or playoff appearances. The first of consecutive 8-8 seasons started here. A squad that finished 8-8, a then-franchise-best season record, could look at the season with both pride and regret. The team seemed back on track for on-field success, getting off to a strong start and finish. The prime-game against the Broncos, where Williams had his signature game of 3.5 sacks, saw the Texans demonstrate that maybe, just maybe, they were a team to watch.
Yet, the season also had a series of near-misses and regrets. In particular, the games against the former Houston franchise in Tennessee proved especially painful. After 2004, when the Texans not only logged their first win against the old team, but actually sweep the season series, the Texans lost the next 4 coming into 2007. History would show that the Titans ran the win streak to 6 that season. Yet, both of those games took some very dramatic turns. In particular, the week 7 tilt at-then Reliant Stadium might rate as one of the more under-rated, straight-up madhouse bonkers matchups of the year.
To look at the final score, you would see that the Texans fell to the Titans 38-36, which saw the Texans fall to 3-4, the first time under .500 for the year. The Titans moved to 4-2. This would be the 5th straight loss against Tennessee for the Houston team, but it was not against Vince Young. Due to a quadricep injury, back-up Kerry Collins got the start against Houston. Aided by running back tandem LenDale White and Chirs Henry (161 combined rushing yards), Collins proved a mostly effective field general, tallying over 280 yards passing.
Meanwhile, the Texans struggled on offense for much of the game. The running game offered little for the team, and Matt Schaub battled injuries for most of the day. Eventually, he gave way to back-up, Sage Rosenfels. All of this without team offensive linchpin Andre Johnson, out with injury. The Texans could only muster one touchdown in the first 3 quarters, and that came on a fumble return by DeMeco Ryans . Matters were not helped with the Texans turning the ball over 6 times. A 32-7 Titans lead should not have surprised anyone.
Yet, there were signs of life for Houston. In spite of all the dominance of the Titans over the Texans, the Titans left a lot of points on the field. Coming into the 4th quarter, Bironas was already having a career day, with SIX FGs and two extra points to cap off two rushing TDs. 5 of the Bironas FGs were 30 yards and less. For the 5 FGs, those likely could and should have been TDs. Doing some bar napkin math, the Titans managed 15 points, when they could have had 35. Career day or not for a kicker, leaving up to 20 points on the field can come back to haunt teams.
Cue the 4th quarter. Insanity reigned supreme. Sage Rosenfels went off for 4 touchdowns, and not even a mid-4th quarter interception that allowed Bironas to kick his league-record tying 7th field goal (also under 30 yards) could stop him. The 29-3 run gave the Texans a 36-35 lead at home with 57 second left. Unfortunately for the Texans, that would be 57 second too long. Tennessee drove down the field and put game MVP Bironas back on the field to secure the win for the Titans, and the record for most FGs in a game (8).
With a game like this, the what-ifs are all over the place. If Tennessee replaces just a couple of those short FGs with TDs, the game is a blowout, with some note given to the Texans for making the margin of victory that much less. Going perfect on multiple FGs is not always a given in the NFL, so the Titans, despite dominating for 3 quarters, managed to escape by the skin of their jerseys. While Rosenfels would have a habit of big 4th quarters against Tennessee as a Texan, putting up 29 4th quarter points, with no running game and no Andre Johnson, is hardly an outcome you would bet money on happening. Perhaps the biggest what if for Houston is if Rosenfels doesn’t throw that first interception midway through the 4th quarter. If Bironas doesn’t get his 7th FG, and the Texans lead 36-32 vs 36-35, then the odds of victory go up that much more. The Titans could move the ball, but facing a TD, the way the team had played on offense, and how the Texans’ defense went all really-really-really-bend-but-don’t break, there is no certainty the Titans could salvage victory.
If the Texans completed that miracle 25-point comeback against TEN, would they have been in the hunt for more than just clinching their 1st winning season? What of the Titans? For them, it is possible that they would have still made up for that loss at another point in the season, but if they did not, and everything else from the real timeline holds to form, then you have both TEN and HOU finishing 9-7 (going on the premise that all other results remain the same). The biggest immediate beneficiary of that action would be the Cleveland Browns, who finished 10-6, but out of the playoffs due losing a tie-breaker with TEN. Assuming that Houston does not take its newfound momentum and upend Cleveland (who they lost to later in the 2007 season), the Browns, led by Head Coach Rommel Crennel, log their second playoff appearance since their rebirth in 1999. Perhaps that might have kept Crennel coaching in Cleveland longer, but is just as likely that a second-order counterfactual occurs, and Crennel still becomes the Texans’ defensive coordinator for the 2014 season.
Maybe the loss would mean more for the Titans then the win would for Houston. The luster from the Fisher-led Super Bowl appearance in 1999 and the AFC-runner up finish in 2004 were distant memories by 2007. While the Titans, with Collins at the helm, would go 13-3 the next season, blowing a 25 point lead to the new Houston team in 2007 would not sit well with the Nashville fanbase, and probably would not have made Bud Adams all that happy. Coupled with a likely non-playoff appearance, mainly on the strength of that blown lead, Fisher might have entered 2008 on one of the hotter seats in the league.
For the Texans, that massive comeback might have meant more than just the first winning season in franchise history. The defense would continue to have its issues, and the running game would still need to evolve. Yet, the key element of intangibles, showing that a young team could win a game that they had no business winning, might have made a significant difference. Kubiak would gain praise for the win, but a renewed QB debate (Rosenfels vs. Schuab) would be a headache that he could do without. If Rosenfels logs a 5-0 record as a backup for 2007, it is likely someone makes a move to bring him in as a starter, and Houston has to search for a new backup. Yet, the good vibes from such a win could outweigh the problems. Perhaps the team’s first playoff berth is not in 2011, but well-before then. All because the team had a miracle 4th quarter, and Rosenfels avoided that one 4th quarter interception.