No Antonio Brown? No problem.
At least, that's what it looked like for the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Houston Texans on Christmas Day. The Steelers made quick work of the spiraling Texans, jumping out to a double-digit lead eight minutes into the game and never relinquishing it the rest of the way.
Ben Roethlisberger threw for 225 yards and two scores. Le'Veon Bell didn't even have to touch the ball a million times and rack up more miles. (He had 19 touches for 97 total yards and a touchdown.) JuJu Smith-Schuster made plays. Martavis Bryant made plays. Vance McDonald made plays. Justin Hunter made a gorgeous sliding touchdown grab. Fullback Roosevelt Nix ran for a score. And most of them got to rest down the stretch.
The defense was even better than the offense. Houston was able to move the ball on the ground throughout the day -- Alfred Blue and Lamar Miller both ran well, averaging over 5.5 yards per carry each -- but T.J. Yates and Taylor Heinicke (who entered momentarily because Yates was being checked for a concussion) were thoroughly manhandled by the Pittsburgh pass defense.
Joe Haden, Artie Burns, Sean Davis, Mike Mitchell, and Mike Hilton had the secondary on lock-down. Yates and Heinicke were sacked seven times combined and pressured even more often than that. The only reason the Texans even got on the scoreboard is because DeAndre Hopkins is a superhuman. If it weren't for that, the Steelers might've had their first shutout in six years.
As it is, they'll take a 34-6 win. Here are a few more things to know about the game...
Steelers set records
As mentioned above, it was a pretty nice night for the Steelers' offense, even in the absence of the great Antonio Brown. Pittsburgh didn't pile up a ton of yards, but they were efficient with their possessions, scoring on five of seven drives before the Texans ever got on the board, then scoring on their next drive to push the lead back to 28 points.
Not only that, but a couple players on the team set records during the game. Early on, kicker Chris Boswell hit his 35th field goal of the season. That's a single-season Steeler record.
Le'Veon Bell -- surprise, surprise -- set a Steeler record as well, becoming the first player in team history with multiple seasons of at least 1,900 total yards. He also became the first player since DeMarco Murray to touch the ball 400 times in a single season, and the first Steeler to do so since 1992. He also set a Steelers record for most receptions by a non-wide receiver.
With 13 touches so far vs the Texans, Le'Veon Bell now has a league-high 400 touches this season, 57 more than the player with the 2nd-most (Todd Gurley: 343)— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) December 25, 2017
Bell is the first player with 400+ touches in a season since DeMarco Murray (449) in 2014 with the Cowboys
Le'Veon Bell has a career-high 85 receptions -- the most by a non-WR in Steelers history in a single season. He also went over 400 touches for the season on this drive. He's only the second Pittsburgh player to do that, joining Barry Foster, who had 426... https://t.co/r21uyYAUs9— Michael Rothstein (@mikerothstein) December 25, 2017
They weren't the only Steelers moving up on leaderboards. Ben Roethlisberger moved into fourth place on the Steelers' all-time games played list, and Cameron Heyward tied Keith Willis for the second-most sacks by a Steeler in a single season since sacks became an official stat in 1982.
Hilton's huge night
Mike Hilton had a huge night for the Steelers. Your first thought here might be, "Who?," but while Hilton might not be a household name, he has emerged this season as an important contributor for Pittsburgh's defense.
He's served as the team's primary slot corner for most of the 2017 campaign, and he's been excellent -- especially in coverage. Among 31 players that had played at least 200 coverage snaps in the slot heading into Monday's play, Hilton had allowed the second-lowest passer rating on throws in his direction, behind only Kendall Fuller.
On Monday, though, it was as a pass-rusher that Hilton really shined.
Hilton sacked Texans quarterbacks T.J. Yates and Taylor Heinicke (more on him later) three times. (He had one career sack coming into the game.) He added a couple more tackles as well, and was once again terrific in coverage. Masterful performance from the rookie.
The Texans have gotten consistently terrible quarterback play from anybody not named Deshaun Watson. Tom Savage completed 56 percent of his passes and threw five touchdowns against six interceptions in his seven starts. T.J. Yates wasn't horrible filling in for the concussed Savage against the 49ers, but he was a mess last week against the Jaguars and he was bad again on Monday afternoon.
Yates missed several throws high and wide, including a wide-open Braxton Miller in the end zone just a play before he threw an interception on a terrible pass that Artie Burns never should have had a chance to pick.
Yates later fumbled deep in his own territory, setting up the Steelers to extend their lead even further.
After a Chris Boswell field goal to push the lead to 20-0, Yates ducked down into a crouch while taking a sack and was hit in the head. He had to leave the game and give way to Taylor Heinicke. (Real person.) Yates completed just 2 of 7 passes for eight yards, was sacked four times, and turned the ball over twice before leaving the field. He had a 0.0 passer rating.
Heinicke finished out the final drive of the half and started the second half, but he suffered a head injury as well. Yates re-entered the game, having cleared the concussion protocol minutes before Heinicke went down with an injury of his own. After his return, Yates completed 5 of 9 passes for 75 yards.
Cancer survivor makes NFL debut
What a night for Houston Texans guard David Quessenberry. If you're not familiar with Quessenberry, he was a sixth-round pick by the Texans out of San Jose State back in 2013. He injured his foot during practice early in his rookie year and went on injured reserve before playing a game.
He had a persistent cough during the following offseason. He went to the team's doctors and they diagnosed him with Lymphoma. He completed his cancer treatments earlier this year and was re-signed by Houston (they'd previously waived him with a non-football injury designation). He's been on the practice squad for most of this season, but he finally made his NFL debut on Monday. Not only that, but he served as a team captain for the game.
Texans offensive lineman David Quessenberry, a cancer survivor, is one of the team's game captains today— Aaron Wilson (@AaronWilson_NFL) December 25, 2017
Quessenberry was used mostly as an additional offensive lineman when the Texans went into heavy sets. Hopefully this is just the start of a long and productive career.
With their victory and the Jaguars' loss on Sunday, the Steelers officially locked up a first-round bye. They're tied with New England, but the Patriots have the tiebreaker by virtue of having beaten the Steelers a week ago, so if the Steelers are going to get homefield advantage, they need to beat the Browns and watch the Jets upset the Patriots on Sunday.
Had the Steelers lost this game, they'd still have been in danger of losing the bye, thanks to their having lost to the Jaguars earlier in the year as well. Instead, they'll have an off week in the first round of the playoffs. That should give Antonio Brown two more weeks to rest his partially torn calf muscle. Hopefully he can get back on the field for the Steelers' playoff opener.
What's next for Steelers, Texans
The 12-3 Steelers wrap up their regular season by trying to turn the 2017 Cleveland Browns into the second 0-16 team in NFL history. That game will be played at 1 p.m. ET on New Year's Eve.
The 4-11 Texans, meanwhile, are set to square off with the 3-12 Colts. The Texans have already traded their 2017 first-round pick (it was used to acquire Deshaun Watson, so they're probably OK with it), so they'll mostly be playing to avoid giving the aforementioned Browns a second top-five selection. That game will also be played at 1 p.m. ET.