With the defense forcing a season-high four turnovers, the Houston Texans extended their winning streak to nine games with a win over the Browns.
But as good as the unit has been, the Texans believe they can get much better down the stretch with the first test coming on Sunday against Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts.
"We can tackle better," coach Bill O'Brien said. "I think we can communicate better. I think there's a lot of things that we can improve on in all three phases, but I think they're playing hard. They're playing with really good effort."
That effort was highlighted on Sunday when rookie safety Justin Reid chased down Antonio Callaway after a long catch and forced a fumble just before he crossed the goal line to prevent a touchdown.
It was just the latest big play for the third-round pick, who helped Houston to a 23-21 victory over Washington on Nov. 18 by returning an interception 101 yards for a touchdown.
"He's really improved every week," O'Brien said. "He really works hard to improve. He's a very smart guy, works very hard in practice, instinctive player, good speed, good size. He's come a long way. He really understands the importance of practice and he tries to get better every day."
Reid's emergence illustrates the fact that Houston's defense has succeeded this year because it has received important contributions from several players. While the return of three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt and the solid play of 2014 top overall pick Jadeveon Clowney has led the unit, the Texans have also seen plenty of other players step up to make big plays as they've piled up win after win.
On Sunday, Andre Hal had one of three interceptions of Baker Mayfield. It was the first interception of the year for Hal, who missed the first six games of the season recovering from cancer after being diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in May.
Zach Cunningham made another big play for the defense when the second-year player grabbed his first career interception and returned it for a touchdown against the Browns.
"You're always looking to try to figure out, as you get ready for the next team, what does this individual player need to improve on," O'Brien said. "What does this unit need to improve on? What does the team need to improve on? What do I need to improve on? I think that's been a big theme for us and our players are doing a good job of taking that to heart."
The Texans are also careful not to get too caught up in the streak. They know that if they don't focus on their next opponent that things could go wrong quickly.
"I don't even think about it anymore," 13-year veteran cornerback Johnathan Joseph said of the winning streak. "It's almost boring to talk about because ... it doesn't really mean anything. We have to go out and play the next game whether we're on a win streak or we lost the week before. So, it's all good for everything other than the people in this locker room because if we buy into it too much that's when we get smacked in the face."
Houston is allowing the third-fewest points in the NFL (19.6), ranks 10th in yards allowed (341.5) and its rush defense ranks fifth by allowing just 91.3 yards rushing a game.
Jalen Ramsey reached out and briefly offered to help Andrew Luck off the ground , only to quickly withdraw his hand and walk away.
Ramsey and the Jacksonville Jaguars refused to give the Indianapolis Colts anything Sunday, turning in one of the most dominant defensive performances in franchise history and carrying the team to a 6-0 victory.
"Truthfully, I do that almost every week," Ramsey said of his fake-out moment with Luck. "People just caught it this week."
The Jaguars (4-8) needed that kind of defensive effort to make up for a lackluster offense. They stopped a seven-game slide and snapped Indy's five-game winning streak, leaving the Colts (6-6) in need of some help to get back into the AFC wild-card picture.
Ramsey was at his best while playing through a knee injury. He helped hold T.Y. Hilton to eight catches for 77 yards and also made a game-ending tackle on Erik Swoope with 8 seconds remaining.
Ramsey hit Swoope near the sideline at the end of a third-and-6 play at the Jacksonville 29, and the tight end seemed to land out of bounds. But officials ruled Swoope's forward progress had been stopped and kept the clock running. The Colts were out of timeouts and could only watch the clock wind down.
The Colts entered with the fourth-most points in the league, having averaged more than 34.6 a game during their win streak. Luck had thrown three or more touchdown passes in eight consecutive games, one shy of the club record.
Jacksonville shut them down and out.
"It feels great to get in the win column," Jaguars defensive tackle Calais Campbell said. "It's been way too long."
Titans coach Mike Vrabel may go with who has the hot-hand when it comes to Tennessee's offensive line — whoever that might be.
Who plays is not etched in stone.
So even though changes in the offensive line may have jump-started a comeback victory against the New York Jets that kept the Titans' playoff hopes alive for another week, there may be more tweaks on the horizon.
"Just kind of something that I felt like needed to be done at that time," Vrabel said Monday. "Again, that may change each week. But, at that point in time, I wanted to try to get Corey (Levin) in there at center and see if Ben (Jones) looked like a left guard."
Trailing 16-6 at halftime, the Titans benched left guard Quinton Spain, a lineman with 44 career starts as an undrafted free agent out of West Virginia, after a mere 126 yards of total offense against the Jets. They slid Jones from center to left guard and put Levin, a sixth-round draft pick in 2017 out of Chattanooga, at center.
The combination seemed to work.
The Titans (6-6) rallied and beat the Jets 26-22 on Sunday while piling up 277 yards and 20 points in the second half.
Vrabel fielded plenty of questions about the offensive line going into this game. The Titans had allowed the most sacks in the NFL (39) with the offense anemic. Even after a season-high 403 yards total offense against the Jets, the Titans still rank only 28th in the NFL for both total yards and points per game.
Levin started at left guard Oct. 21 in a loss to the Chargers with Spain out with an injury. Jones has started every game at center since signing with the Titans in March 2016, but he started 16 games at left guard for Houston in 2014. Vrabel said both did OK in the new spots.
"Keeping the quarterback clean and giving us a chance to throw certainly was big in being able to come back," Vrabel said. "So again, we all have to play better and coach better than what we did at times in that game. That's my challenge."
After the tweaks to the middle of the line, the Titans turned in their biggest comeback since their playoff victory in Kansas City last January with Mariota posting his third game-winning drive this season.
The Titans have plenty of issues to fix. They failed to convert their first 10 third downs with the lone conversion coming on the game-winning touchdown pass from Mariota to Davis. They also continue to struggle with penalties, racking up eight for 75 yards.
Left tackle Taylor Lewan was so unhappy with referee Jerome Boger's crew that he yelled at officials after the game . Lewan said in the locker room that the Titans are really good at beating themselves right now and the officials didn't help with calls the tackle described with an expletive.
"It's frustrating, man it's frustrating with some of those calls, like the one with Jack where he's just finishing on the play and the guy actually hits him," Lewan said of Conklin being flagged for a late hit. "Calling me for holding after the ball is out, there were just some absolutely ridiculous calls. That being said, we shot ourselves in the foot so many times even without their help."
The Titans have little time to clean up their mistakes; they host the Jacksonville Jaguars (4-8) Thursday night.
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