Redskins, Texans in unexpected big game between first-place teams

Alex Smith and the Washington Redskins take on the Houston Texans on Sunday.Photo Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Redskins have a legitimate chance to put the NFC East on ice when they play the Texans this Sunday at FedExField.

That is not a sentence anyone expected to write before the season. But at 6-3 and with a two-game lead over the Philadelphia Eagles (4-5), the Redskins control their own destiny when it comes to the division title and the playoffs. Philadelphia also has to play the New Orleans Saints (8-1) on the road.

“We’re obviously not satisfied or sitting in the lounge chair with our feet up right now relaxing,” Washington head coach Jay Gruden said. “We’ve got to get back to work and continue to work. We know there is a lot of football ahead of us, a lot of great teams come in here to play and we have to go there to play and we have to do better. We have to do better on offense and there’s a lot more for us to get offensively and defensively for that matter. I’m glad that we’re winning without a doubt.”

The Texans are returning from their bye week and had all of their players on the field practicing for the first time all season. The Texans have worked themselves out of a 0-3 hole to move atop the AFC South sitting at 6-3. Texans head coach Bill O’Brien knows he has to keep his team focused facing the NFC East’s first-place Redskins.

“I think that this is a very focused group,” O’Brien said of his team. “Even the younger players seem to be mature guys, guys that understand that like, OK, this is a big challenge, Washington. We haven’t really done anything yet. We’ve done a good job of digging ourselves out of a hole, but what have we actually done? We’re 6-3, great. Now, it’s on to the second half of the season and we’ve got a big challenge here versus a first-place team in the Washington Redskins — first place in the NFC East. I think our guys realize that. They’re a very focused group.”

O’Brien has preached and instilled in his team the one day at a time mantra, and that is exactly what the team has bought into. Led by quarterback Deshaun Watson, the Texans have found a new beacon of hope leading them each week and his example is leaving its mark in the locker room.

“The biggest thing is just focusing on the task at hand, just focusing on today,” Watson said of his preparation. “Not looking ahead, not looking in the past, just focusing on today, Wednesday, getting Wednesday practice in, and making sure we’re mastering our craft and detailed on the game plan today and then just taking it one day at a time. If you have that mentality, you will always enjoy and really master the moment now. You just keep that mentality, take it one day at a time and let everything else come to you.”

The Redskins put themselves in position to run away with their division despite brutal injuries on the offensive line for the second year in a row and despite an offense that has struggled to generate points consistently. But the defense has been opportunistic and is among the most difficult fronts to run against.

That’s been enough so far, but Washington still has to play the Eagles twice in December and three of its wins (Dallas, New York Giants, Carolina) were nail biters. The Redskins aren’t ready to pop any champagne bottles yet. First place is nice — for now. And the Texans game represents an early opportunity to take control, but not much more than that.

“I really don’t worry about that. I think the good thing being 6-3, being in first place is we control what we have to control,” Gruden said. “We don’t have to look at the other teams, we just have to focus on what we do and if we do our job, we don’t have to worry about anything. Right now, it’s just all about Houston and that’s all it is.”

The Texans will meet the Redskins for the fifth time in franchise history this Sunday and the stakes are high for both teams who are sitting atop their respective divisions.

The big-game atmosphere is something the Texans really haven’t experienced in the O’Brien era, which is why Houston targeted Watson in the 2017 draft due to his experience on big stages. With expectations rising with the current win streak, Watson is treating every game the same no matter who the opponent is.

“Honestly, they all feel the same, for me at least,” Watson explained. “Being young and being still new to this league, every game is big to me. Everyone’s good. Every week is a test, so I treat every game the same.”