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Golden: Osweiler finally finds Hopkins, to Texans’ delight


Highlights

In his first stint as the starting quarterback, Brock Osweiler struggled to connect with DeAndre Hopkins.

This time the pair led the Texans to a 27-14 playoff win over the Raiders.

Brock Osweiler, meet DeAndre Hopkins.

DeAndre, this is Brock.

After watching these two in the regular season, it was almost as if the Houston Texans’ two most visible stars not named J.J. Watt were far from a football love connection.

That was before the Derek Carr-less Oakland Raiders arrived at NRG Stadium wounded and there for the taking Saturday.

While far from being a Steve Young and Jerry Rice type of combo, the Oz-Hop pairing was plenty good enough to help get the Texans their first playoff win since 2012. They hooked up five times for 67 yards and a touchdown in the 27-14 win. With Lamar Miller giving the team some solid run production, Osweiler finished 14 of 25 with 168 yards, a TD throw, a TD run and no turnovers in what might have been his best all-around game in Houston.

It was a day of firsts: The Texans franchise’s first playoff win since 2012, Bill O’Brien’s first playoff win as a head coach and Osweiler’s first playoff win as a starting quarterback.

“I thought it was our best game,” O’Brien said. “The trick is, can we do it again?”

It all came about against an Oakland team that was without the key cog in its engine, Carr, who broke his leg in Week 16 against the Indianapolis Colts. The Raiders knew coming in that there would be offensive problems sans their MVP candidate. Meanwhile, the Texans were forced to start Osweiler after Tom Savage, who had replaced him in the 14th game, was unable to go because of a concussion.

Osweiler just got a new lease on his football life. Plus, it’s obvious he watched Savage during his brief benching. In his first career start, Savage targeted Hopkins a season-high 17 times with an 80.9 passer rating. That was a different groove from what we witnessed for most of the season from Osweiler, who threw 15 touchdowns and 16 interceptions without establishing any rhythm with Hopkins, a real game-breaker. He had a brutal 72.2 passer rating, which ranked 29th among starters.

Add to that, it just didn’t pop between Oz and D-Hop during the regular season, and it was reflected in the numbers of one of the league’s top wideouts. In 2015, Hopkins hauled in 111 passes for 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns from non-Pro Bowl quarterbacks Brian Hoyer, T.J. Yates, Ryan Mallett and Brandon Weeden, but he suffered a dip in 2016: 78 receptions for 954 yards and four touchdowns.

Houston General Manager Rick Smith signed Osweiler to a four-year, $72 million contract after the quarterback opted not to return to Denver for a reported $16 million a year. It was thought to be a win for the Houston brass; that is, until Osweiler started misfiring on the regular. Checkdowns to the tight end were his preferred method of operation as the season progressed, while speedy wideouts Hopkins and Will Fuller spent a lot of time running routes but not catching balls.

Osweiler was particularly shaky when throwing it in Hopkins’ direction, completing only 53 percent of his attempts with four touchdowns and nine interceptions. The nine picks were tied with San Diego’s Philip Rivers and Tyrell Williams for the most in the league for a quarterback-wideout connection.

This win was set up on a platter by the football gods, and O’Brien did his best to stay out of the way. It was obvious from the beginning that he knew 20 or so points would be enough to beat Oakland and its rookie quarterback. If that meant being even more conservative than usual — and O’Brien isn’t a riverboat gambler by any stretch — then so be it. On their first possession, the Texans stalled at the Oakland 37-yard line, but the coach decided against a 54-yard field-goal try from Nick Novak and instead punted to the Raiders’ 7-yard line.

The defense got its three-and-out, and the Texans turned the field position into the game’s first touchdown.

Osweiler was the better quarterback in the first round, and Oakland’s 23-year-old rookie Connor Cook will see better days after throwing three picks in his postseason debut. As the scene shifts to either New England or Kansas City, O’Brien will stick with Osweiler as the starter against what will be a tough matchup either way.

And if Oz has learned anything, it will be to get the pill to the team’s best game-breaker as often as possible.



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