SAN DIEGO — Matt Schaub could feel the Texans’ comeback coming on in the third quarter. Andre Johnson had absolutely no doubt Houston would rally from three touchdowns down to win its season opener.
Many San Diego Chargers fans must have felt exactly the same way.
A team that blew five halftime leads last season did it again Monday night in Houston’s 31-28 win over San Diego. While the Texans got an early character-building test in a season with Super Bowl aspirations, the Chargers were reminded they can’t ever let up if they hope to shake their underachieving reputations.
“We knew we could do it,” said Houston linebacker Brian Cushing, who returned an interception for his first career touchdown to tie it with 9:30 to play. “We felt the momentum. We had no business winning the game ... (but) we felt like we could do it the whole time. We never got down on ourselves. We were just able to make that comeback.”
Randy Bullock kicked a 41-yard field goal as time expired after Schaub engineered a late drive for the Texans. Their cool under pressure erased a brilliant start for the Chargers under new coach Mike McCoy, the offensive guru hired to revitalize a stagnating franchise.
Five reasons why Houston is rolling and San Diego is reeling after just one week of play:
QUICK START STALLS: The Chargers led 7-0 just 15 seconds into McCoy’s first game. Schaub’s first pass was tipped and intercepted by Cam Thomas, and Philip Rivers threw a 14-yard TD pass to Ryan Mathews on San Diego’s first snap for the fastest offensive touchdown in team history.
San Diego gained momentum from that lucky burst, going up 21-7 at halftime and taking a 28-7 lead with an 80-yard drive right after the break. Rivers already had his first four-TD passing game since November 2011.
And then the Chargers grinded to an utter halt, managing just 10 more yards all night. San Diego didn’t suddenly forget how to play, but Houston’s cranked-up defense took charge while the Chargers curiously stayed away from the run.
“You lose this way, and it stings a little more,” Rivers said. “It’s disappointing we didn’t finish the game, because we had control. You’ve got to play all four quarters.”
SECOND-HALF SURGE: The Texans’ strong contingent of red-jerseyed fans behind their bench celebrated wildly, but the players’ excitement was tinged with the knowledge they shouldn’t have waited so long to get going.
Houston didn’t look sharp on either side of the ball in the first half despite outgaining the Chargers 220-173. The Texans repeatedly failed to finish drives, took four penalties for 46 yards, and allowed San Diego to convert on five of its eight third downs.
The Texans recovered in plenty of time, but other opponents might not be so forgiving.
“I expected us to be in a dogfight,” Houston coach Gary Kubiak said. “I’m disappointed with the way we played early, but we did not give up. ... We were mature enough to hang in there and get the win, so we have to be mature enough to know that we didn’t play very well.”
PRIMO CUSH: Cushing picked a fine time to score the first touchdown of his career.
The Houston linebacker dived to intercept Rivers’ pass, bounced back up and rumbled 18 yards to the end zone for the tying touchdown with 9:30 to play. Cushing capped his five-tackle game with a brilliant individual play at the perfect moment.
The Southern California product was playing in his first game since missing most of last season with a knee injury. He signed a six-year, $55.6 million extension with Houston last week.
Cushing’s heroics aside, the Texans’ vaunted defense was just as powerful as advertised, even with J.J. Watt held without a sack.
Houston also got field-position help from a successful fake punt just three plays before Cushing picked off Rivers’ under-pressure throw.
SCHAUB SHAKES IT OFF: Schaub wasn’t rattled by the Texans’ rough start, answering critics who question his big-game poise with another gritty effort.
The 11th-year pro finished 34 of 45 for 346 yards, getting sacked twice. He threw all three of his touchdown passes to tight ends Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham, while hooking up with favorite target Johnson for 12 catches and 146 yards.
“Once you put a score on the board, then another, and the defense gets a stop, the big turnover, it just builds,” Schaub said. “Momentum keeps building, and you can feel that energy, and it’s contagious.”
KID KICKER: Bullock was the first kicker drafted by the Texans last year, but he missed the entire season with a groin injury.
Kubiak handed the job to Bullock outright earlier this year, not even making him compete in camp — and Bullock has rewarded his fellow Texas A&M Aggie with stellar work.
Bullock missed his first career attempt from 51 yards late in the first half, pushing it barely wide left.
When he got another opportunity with the game on the line, the former Lou Groza Award winner didn’t miss.
“I might have put the last three points on the board, but the fight they have was pretty impressive,” Bullock said. “I’m proud of these guys.”