Jay Gruden occasionally has to remind people his team is in 6-3 and in first place.
“That's a heck of deal after nine games,” the Washington Redskins' coach said. “But I'm also excited with the fact that we have not played our best yet, and I think the best is yet to come.”
It hasn't been a flawless ride, but when the roller-coaster Redskins host the rolling Houston Texans on Sunday, it'll be a showdown between two surprising division leaders. Washington has gotten into first place in the NFC East alternating strong and weak performances, and Houston has won six in a row to also reach 6-3 and sit atop the AFC South.
Led by veterans Alex Smith and Adrian Peterson, the Redskins come into the matchup motivated by a lack of respect. Second-year quarterback Deshaun Watson and the Texans are full of confidence after digging out of an 0-3 hole.
“Winning helps,” Houston coach Bill O'Brien said. “Everybody has confidence in their ability to go out there and play well, but I also think our team understands that this is a very humbling league. This is a league, it's a short walk. It's a short walk from where you are right now to where you were when you were 0-3.”
It's a very short walk for the Redskins from their best to their worst. A three-game October winning streak and last week's victory at Tampa Bay didn't show their best.
So there's reason why, despite leading the division by two games, Washington isn't getting the same buzz as other playoff contenders. Players are just fine with that.
“Nobody's really looking at the Redskins or anything,” middle linebacker Zach Brown said. “For us, we're just going to keep trying to stack up the wins and see where we can take it. For us, we just need an invite to the dance because you never know what might happen.”
Peterson figures it's too early to think playoffs, but said, “You can definitely have it in the back of your mind and understand how important each and every game is.”
Coming off their bye week, the Texans fully understand the value of every game to their chances of winning a third division title in four seasons.
“We have to win against the Redskins to even keep conversations like that alive,” defensive end J.J. Watt said. “If you start to look that far ahead and you start to think about things like that, that's when you get blindsided.”
Some things to watch when the Texans visit the Redskins:
What a Comeback
Watt and Peterson are top candidates for the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year award after turning in strong performances in their return from two straight seasons that were cut short by injuries.
Watt played just eight games in the previous two seasons because of back surgeries and a broken leg. Peterson missed 19 games in the 2016 and 2017 seasons combined because of knee surgery and a neck injury.
Watt is tied for third in the NFL with nine sacks and tied for first by forcing four fumbles. He also has 16 quarterback hits, 11 tackles for losses and has swatted down two passes.
Peterson is tied for fifth in the league with 672 yards rushing and has scored four touchdowns.
Watt raved about Peterson's comeback.
“He's obviously one of the great running backs of the game,” Watt said. “What he's been able to do in his career, but then to be able to come back the way he has and have the type of season he's having — obviously, I know how difficult it is from firsthand experience to come back from injuries, so I'm extremely impressed by what he's been able to do. I have a ton of respect for his game. It's always a good challenge to play against him and I enjoy the competition.”
Swearinger Revenge Game
Redskins safety D.J. Swearinger, who was drafted by the Texans in the second round in 2013 and cut after the 2014 season, has not been shy to rip O'Brien. He posted on Instagram this week about “unprofessional actions” by O'Brien that led to his release, which his former coach responded to by saying he didn't know what Swearinger was talking about.
“D.J. made a lot of plays for us here,” O'Brien said. “He's a very instinctive, tough, competitive player. He's obviously gone on to Arizona and now in Washington and I think he's a captain there and he's (second in) the league in interceptions, doing a great job, has got excellent ball skills, good tackler, tough, competitive guy.”
Only the Giants' Eli Manning and Cowboys' Dak Prescott have been sacked more this season than Watson. The Texans quarterback said he tries to get back as close to the line of scrimmage as possible so as not to lose yardage on his 30 sacks.
Brown has noticed on film that defenses can force sacks on Watson when they lock down on coverage because the young QB holds on to the ball so long trying to make something happen.
“I think he's just trying to make plays,” Brown said. “He's still young. Eventually he'll get that clock ticking in his head.”