By Sam McPherson

On Sunday, October 25 in Miami, the Houston Texans laid a huge egg and fell to 2-5 on the season after giving up 44 points and 503 yards to the Dolphins. Since then, everything has changed for Houston in terms of its defense and its playoff hopes. The Texans have won four straight behind a suddenly stifling defense, and now they sit atop the AFC South Division with the Indianapolis Colts. If the season ended today, Houston would be in the postseason for the third time in franchise history.

How did this happen? During the past four games, the Texans took down the previously unbeaten Cincinnati Bengals on the road and held Drew Brees’ New Orleans Saints offense to just six points. Houston hasn’t been plowing through cupcakes on the schedule the way the SEC teams do every fall; instead, the Texans have taken on very good offenses and strangled them. Giving up nine points and 250 yards per game on defense is a recipe for NFL success against whatever foe shows up on Sunday.

Stopping The Run

In the first seven games of the season, the Houston defense gave up 129 yards on the ground per game, including a whopping 248 to the Dolphins in Week 7. Since that watershed moment, the Texans have surrendered a mere 70 yards per game on the ground. This ability to stop the run has forced teams to throw on obvious passing downs, and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel has taken advantage of that predictability.

The Houston defense has done this against decent running backs too (Cincinnati’s Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, Chris Polk of the Jets and the Saints’ Mark Ingram, to name a few). The remaining opponents on the schedule, Buffalo, New England, Indianapolis, Tennessee and Jacksonville, all will need to take note of this and adjust their game plans accordingly. Hopefully, Crennel stays a step ahead of those teams’ coaching staffs.

Sitting On The Pass

When you stuff the run, it puts the opponent into third-and-long quite often. The Texans have been sitting on the pass, and the best example of this was holding New Orleans to just 218 yards in the air last week in a 24-6 victory. However, Houston also held the potent air attacks from Cincinnati and New York under 200 yards passing during this stretch of success. Think about that for a moment. Andy Dalton. A.J. Green. Tyler Eifert. Brandon Marshall. Eric Decker. These are some serious passing weapons that have been stifled by the Texans.

Earlier in the season, the Houston defense was giving up 261 yards passing to Jameis Winston and 311 yards to Blake Bortles. Both those games were wins where the opponent had to pass, but the same could be said of Brees last week. Look what the Texans have done to improve. The defense has had injuries, but it’s been next man up for Houston; which makes Crennel one of the pieces responsible for this resurgence.

J.J. Watt Is Back

After posting just six sacks in the team’s first seven games, All-World defensive end J.J. Watt has notched 7.5 sacks in the last four games. It’s more like him, the Texans needed this from their leader. It’s hard not to connect the uptick in Watt’s sack production with the team’s improved defensive output, but Watt hasn’t been alone in raising his game.

His emergence has allowed the rest of the defense to comfortably play within their own zones, and thus the unit is performing more like a team than it was for the first seven weeks of the season. Watt is what makes this defense tick. When he is on, everyone else on the defense can be that much better at their own jobs.

The Last Five Games

Buffalo is next, and on the road. The Bills have an inconsistent offense the Texans have the chance to shut down for a fifth-straight win. This could be the big swing game of the season for Houston, in truth. After Buffalo, the Texans host New England, a dangerous offense as long as Tom Brady is behind the wheel. However, New England struggled against Denver’s defense on the road last week, which may provide a glimmer of hope for Houston.

The final three games, at Indianapolis, at Tennessee and home against Jacksonville, are AFC South rivalry games. If the Texans can sweep all three on the back of this defense, it will be a tremendous accomplishment for the Houston organization. This didn’t seem possible earlier in the season, but the Texans can finish at 10-6 with the division crown in hand; but that depends a lot on Watt and the defense giving this kind of effort every week for the rest of the season.

Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.