Houston Strong

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55 years and 7 games later, it happened.

The Astros brought a World Championship to Houston last Wednesday with a win in game 7 of one of the most thrilling fall classics of our time. After a long and prosperous history of baseball in Texas, the state finally has an MLB champion.

On June 30, 2014, Ben Reiter of Sports Illustrated published a story advertised on the magazine’s front page with George Springer and the words “Your 2017 World Series Champs.” While I commend Reiter for his preciseness, it was just a matter of time before this collection of young stars reached the summit.

But the road was anything but easy. It seems like just yesterday that Jose Altuve was cut from the team for being “too short.” Or that Evan Gattis was admittedly depressed and working as a custodian. As for the fans, memories of a 4-game sweep on baseball’s biggest stage at the hands of the Chicago White Sox in 2005 and 100-loss seasons festered their minds.

But this October, all of the built-up frustration and thirst to prove themselves is what I will remember from the Houston Astros. The team was forced to overcome the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers before their demons were put to bed for good. They had to overcome three straight ALCS losses in New York. They had to overcome Clayton Kershaw and the juggernaut that was the 2017 Dodgers.

After 179 baseball games, it all came down to number 180. It was the second game 7 they would have to win, and they wasted no time doing it. After a 3-1 loss in game 6, I must admit I was skeptical of Houston. But the Astros made it very clear in the first two innings just who the best team on the planet was and watched their pitchers work from there.

Five Astro feet toed the rubber in game 7. Lance McCullers Jr. was awarded the start in the critical game and he was followed by Brad Peacock, Francisco Liriano and Chris Devenski in the first five innings. It was Charlie Morton, however, who finished the game and never gave LA a prayer.

Morton gave up 1 run enroute to the biggest win of his career. Despite 5 early runs from Houston, a game 7 is hardly ever out of reach. The Dodgers had opportunities to get right back in it with one swing on multiple occasions, but Morton was locked in for the final four innings and was not to be denied.

Offensively, the 2014 SI cover boy George Springer set the tone early and was named World Series MVP. Springer led off the game with a double into the leftfield corner and scored the first run. He also launched a three-run homerun in the second to put the Dodgers in catch up mode for the rest of the night. These were the final runs the 2017 Astros would ever score, and more than they would ever need.

Houston established early just how bad they wanted it and stayed the course after building what would prove to be a backbreaking lead. They established that it takes a team to overcome seemingly insurmountable hardships, something their fans and the state of Texas have come all too accustomed to over the last few months.

Much like the Chicago Cubs last year, the Astros gave rebuilding teams an idea of when to expect results. In theory, it’s easy to break it all down and watch the game’s top prospects fall into your lap. Still, there comes a time when those players will have to turn promise into reality and projections into results. It takes a manager capable of handling a group of A-list stars as well as a front office willing to bring in names such as Justin Verlander to turn the next big thing into the next championship banner.

It was the first professional sports title in the state of Texas since the Spurs dethroned LeBron James and the Miami Heat in 2014. The Spurs brought a lot of glory to Texas of late with five total titles and the Mavericks did so as well in 2011. As for Houston, it was the first major championship for the city since the Rockets took the Finals in 1995.

Savage is not enough

While baseball reminded Houston of the highs of being a sports fan, week 9 of the NFL season showcased the lows. The Texans lost rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson for the remainder of the 2017 season and were stuck with Tom Savage against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.

If you can’t beat the Colts at home, you’re probably not much of a threat in this league. With Watson at the helm, the Texans were a serious contender in a competitive AFC South. Now, without Watson, J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus, the team is 3-5 and an afterthought — for now.

2016 was meant to be for the Astros, not the Texans. The team’s one agenda item above all else should be getting Watson back and healthy for opening day 2018. They will compete for some games against the lower opponents on the rest of their schedule, but the Texans won’t win much more. The good news is that they can add a high-profile draftee to an already impressive roster.

The will-he-or-won’t-he-play saga of Ezekiel Elliot is getting a little infuriating. Not only do I not care, but also it’s beginning to get to the point where opposing coaches won’t know if they need to be game planning for him. A final decision needs to be made on the ball carrier so everyone is on the same page.

Meanwhile, Zeke was active at home against the Chiefs on Sunday and helped carry the Cowboys over a tough Chiefs team. It was a big win for Dallas, who improved to 5-3 overall. The Cowboys controlled most of the game throughout. They led by 4 at half thanks to a last-second and completely avoidable score by Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill. Dallas pulled away with two scores in the second half and their defense looked effective. The Cowboys forced Alex Smith to throw an interception for the first time this season.

The Chiefs are beginning to fade fast. They started the year 5-0 but have now lost 3 of their last 4 matchups. KC has a better shot than any to prevail in the weakening AFC West, but expect them to be taken less seriously as a contender even if they qualify for the postseason.

Two teams posted more than 50 points on Sunday. The Philadelphia Eagles own the league’s best record and destroyed a vaunted Denver defense. Led by MVP candidate Carson Wentz, the Eagles added running back Jay Ajayi from the Dolphins and he has answered the call right off the bat.

Yes, Philly is for real, will win the East and will possibly have the top seed in the NFC come January. However, the schedule gets significantly more difficult in the second half. Expect them to be good, but look a lot more human before the playoffs start.

Just as surprising in the NFC is the Los Angeles Rams. Also posting 50 points on Sunday, Jared Goff had the best game of his young career as the Rams moved into first place in the NFC West. Granted, they played the New York Giants, but the Rams have been one of the most consistent offenses in the NFL so far. Led by Goff and one of the game’s most dynamic backs in Todd Gurley, LA is abruptly flipping the script on their division and looking to compete in 2017.

The Rams moved into first place thanks to a Seattle Seahawks loss to Washington. Kirk Cousins and company needed to win in order to stay alive in the playoff picture, and that’s exactly what they did. Cousins has his defense to thank for keeping him in the game until the final two minutes, when he had a chance to lead the scoring drive that would send Washington home victorious.

Cousins is far from the perfect quarterback, but the guy has a flare for the dramatic in the fourth quarter. He always has. With Washington at 4-4 and so far behind the Eagles, they will likely need a wildcard berth to qualify for the playoffs. The same can probably be said for the Cowboys. There will be a lot of teams in the NFC fighting for those last two spots, but expect Washington to be right there with a lax schedule the rest of the way. They will also likely have to defeat the Cowboys in Dallas on Nov. 30 if they hope to have any chance.

After starting 0-2, the Saints have suddenly rattled off six straight wins and are suddenly the team to beat in the NFC South. Drew Brees has always been able to put up points and that’s likely never going to change, but the defense has actually been effective for the first time since they won Super Bowl 44. The Panthers made a statement with a win over the Falcons on Sunday, so it might come down to Carolina and New Orleans in the South.

I spent the first 8 weeks or so of this season believing that the NFC is weak. Now, I think I was just focusing on the wrong teams as contenders. Truthfully, the Eagles and Rams weren’t even on my playoff radar and I had the Saints on the outside looking in before the season started. Those three teams, likely along with Seattle, all have a lot to prove and little playoff experience between them. I still expect the Seahawks to eventually rise to the top thanks to that experience, but the conference is even and open for the taking.

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