Originally posted on Fox Sports Houston  |  Last updated 11/13/11

HOUSTON - NOVEMBER 23: Defensive end Antonio Smith #94 of the Houston Texans jokes in the game with the Tennessee Titans on November 23, 2009 at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas. The Titans won 20-17. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
The Black Ninja, Texans defensive end Antonio Smith, was invisible on Sunday in Tampa, Fla., and not in the stealthy sense ninjas often prefer. Smith suffered a shoulder injury in the first half last Sunday and took only a handful of second-half snaps against the Browns. He missed two days of practice and gutted it out against the Buccaneers, playing in pain while lacking his usually demonstrative flair for making impact plays. This is where the Texans stood. They were bruised and battered, physically and mentally exhausted after playing 13 consecutive weeks heading into their final game before their open week. There was talk about finishing strong, about extending their win streak to four games in advance of some much-needed rest. But talk and action are dissimilar. The Texans (7-3) acted decisively on Sunday. They opened the game with an 80-yard scoring play from Matt Schaub to Jacoby Jones, and later snuffed the will of the Buccaneers with an impressive march on their first possession of the second half. They rolled to a 37-9 win and into their open week on that four-game run and four games over .500. They forced four turnovers. They totaled four sacks. Arian Foster and Ben Tate combined for 147 rushing yards and two touchdowns while Foster added 102 receiving yards that included a gorgeous 78-yard scoring grab. Their offense, hamstrung by the loss of All Pro receiver Andre Johnson, was again breathtakingly efficient. Their top-ranked defense, led by the irrepressible Brian Cushing, validated that ranking. With an injured and infirmed list longer than outside linebacker Mario Williams' arm, the Texans continue to impress. Their physical concerns were numerous yet it didn't seem to matter on Sunday against a team far more desperate and with so much more on the line. The Texans went into Raymond James Stadium and took care of business like professionals. Even the naysayers, those waiting for the bottom of the bandwagon to fall out, are having a difficult time stringing together deriding statements of disbelief. Each win confirms the Texans as legitimate. The Texans won't get Williams back in time for their trip to Jacksonville on Nov. 27. They'll still be without starting free safety Danieal Manning and key reserves Darryl Sharpton and Dominique Barber. But Johnson should make his triumphant return following six weeks on the sideline. Utility back James Casey will be closer to 100 percent after being slowed by a pectoral injury not as severe as Williams'. All the bumps and bruises that were starting to accumulate this last month will dissipate. The path to an AFC South title lays paved before the Texans. When they return in two weeks they'll be relatively healthy for a stretch run that includes games against three teams with losing records: the Jaguars, Panthers and Colts. They close the season at home against the Titans, who they drubbed in Nashville three weeks ago. The Falcons don't look as scary as they did before this season began. The Bengals entered the difficult part of their schedule Sunday with a home loss to the Steelers. If Sunday's roughshod triumph over the Buccaneers didn't make the doubters acquiesce, nothing will. It was, given the circumstances, as impressive a performance as this franchise has mustered. It feels safe to accept these Texans as talented and tough-minded, that this season won't collapse like a house of flimsy cards. What the Texans proved is their challenge for AFC supremacy deserves recognition. There was nothing stealthy about their latest pronouncement. It was done in plain sight for all of Tampa, and the rest of the NFL, to witness. Follow me on Twitter at moisekapenda
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