Loss of Cushing a major test for Texans in coming weeks, maybe all season

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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Losing Cushing (left) won't be easy for the Texans, who will be without their 2011 team MVP. (US Presswire)  
Losing Cushing (left) won't be easy for the Texans, who will be without their 2011 team MVP. (US Presswire)  

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Houston Texans are one of two undefeated teams in the NFL, but I'll be honest: I don't know how good they are. What I do know is that we're about to find out.

That's because the Texans lost inside linebacker and leading tackler Brian Cushing in Monday's 23-17 defeat of the New York Jets, and while no one would elaborate on the extent of Cushing's knee injury it appears he'll be sidelined indefinitely.

Uh oh. Houston, we have a problem. Cushing not only was last year's team MVP; he's as valuable to the Texans' defense as virtually anyone not named J.J. Watt.

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"Obviously," said coach Gary Kubiak, "we're very concerned. We're going to sit here and hope for the best."

Then he paused.

"Crisis No. 1," he said.

Well, if there's a team that can handle setbacks it's the Texans. They were forced to do it last year when they lost quarterback Matt Schaub and linebacker Mario Williams to season-ending injuries, and they were forced to play on with star receiver Andre Johnson and star running back Arian Foster missing multiple games.

Yet they not only survived; they won the AFC South and reached the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Then they won a first-round playoff game and came this close to upsetting Baltimore in the divisional round -- all with a rookie third-string quarterback named T.J. Yates.

Yates is on the bench again, and Schaub has returned to the starting lineup, but the lessons Houston learned a year ago must come into play now as the season turns tough, with three of the Texans' next four games against Green Bay, Baltimore and Chicago.

Two of those teams are division leaders. Two are playoff teams from a year ago. And one, Green Bay, won Super Bowl XLV.

"I don't know who told me one time," said Kubiak, "but he said there are always two or three crises in a season. If this is our first one, then we've got to be ready for it. But one thing we learned last year was that we're a team and we're going to win and lose as a team.

"[The players] are focused on that. We already talked about it. And they understand. I know this team has tremendous character, and there are times you have to reach a little deeper than normal. If we have to do that, I think we'll find a way."

They have no choice. While no one knows how long Cushing will be sidelined, what they do know is that Houston must play better than it did Monday night. There's no doubt the club is balanced, poised, confident and a dead-bolt cinch to repeat as division champions, but the question is: How far can it go once it reaches the playoffs?

Yes, it has Schaub. Yes, it has Foster. Yes, it has Johnson and Watt. But it just lost Cushing to a brutal chop-block, and tell me there wasn't a difference in the Texans' defense when he was absent ... because there was.

I know, I know, Houston still held off a Jets' team that refused to die, and a win is a win is a win. Plus, the Texans hadn't beaten the New York Jets before. Ever.

But look at what they were facing: Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez was throwing to receivers named Cumberland and Kerley and Schilens and Gates, and New York's offense has exactly two touchdowns in its last 45 possessions. In other words, it wasn't exactly a challenge.

And it showed.

Houston was underwhelming against an opponent that was crippled. The Texans' offense looked good on one series, lethargic on the next two or three. It settled for field goals when it should have been scoring touchdowns. Schaub wasn't sharp. Johnson was hardly a factor. And cornerback Johnathan Joseph was downright dreadful.

Yet they won -- on the road -- with a mediocre performance and that's more than encouraging. It's the mark of a good team. The only question, as I said, is: How good?

They're 5-0, but the Texans haven't beaten an opponent with a winning record, and, yeah, I know they have a terrific running back and outstanding receiver and the leading candidate for this year's defensive MVP. But what they don't have is Cushing -- someone Watt called "our leader" and "our guy" -- and that means another torture test for a team that withstood a series of them in 2011.

"Our team is mature enough to understand that we dealt with this six, seven, eight times last year at a lot of key positions," said center Chris Myers. "We understand that the next man up better be able to step in and play up to his level -- if not better. That's one of the things we were able to accomplish last year in a lot of positions on both sides of the ball. We have all the faith in confidence that 'Cush' is going to get back healthy, and we're pulling for him. But we have to move on."

There is, of course, no choice for Houston. Cushing leaves the Texans as the Texans prepare to host Green Bay and Baltimore in successive weeks. The Packers have Aaron Rodgers. The Ravens have Ray Rice. And both will present problems that the handicapped Jets could not.

"Many things can happen," said Foster, "and things can change. But we're going to work to make sure that doesn't happen."

They did it before. They must do it again. And maybe then we'll discover just how good these Houston Texans really are.

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