Even as they stood in the wreckage of a 42-14 loss to the Patriots that clearly disoriented what had been to that point one of the best runs of any team in the NFL all season, the Texans felt like they had a grip on their fate.
If they were shellshocked, it seemed only for that moment.
There were still three games left — two against the Colts, one against the Vikings — and they still had a chance to seal up the top seed, the first-round bye, and home-field advantage.
As ugly as that Monday night game was, they left Gillette Stadium understanding that if they won two of those games, they wouldn’t have to come back to Foxborough.
“If we handle our business,” Arian Foster said, “there’s a very good chance they’re going to have to come to Houston. We know that. They know that.”
But after the loss to the Patriots, a Texans team that looked like a force at the start of the season came apart at the seams. After a bounce-back win over the Colts at home to clinch the AFC South title, they lost to the Vikings, squandering a chance to clinch home field, then went to Indianapolis and dropped their season finale. In a four-week blur, the Texans went from having the inside track in the playoffs to playing in the wild-card round.
For the second straight season, the Texans seemed to fall asleep after clinching their division. Last season, they were 10-3 when they clinched the division, then the wheels started to come off. They lost three straight, ended up with the third seed, beat the Bengals in the wild-card round for the first playoff win in franchise history, then got bounced by the Ravens the next week.
With the situation so similar heading into Sunday’s divisional round matchup with the Patriots, Texans coach Gary Kubiak said he had to get his team to remember how good it had been earlier in the season.
“My biggest thing as a coach was to remind them of all of the positive things they have done, why they’re there, why they’re in this position,” Kubiak said. “Whether we’re 16-0 or a wild-card team, your biggest goal is to be in the final four. And that’s this weekend.
“You’d be playing either way. So they need to understand that, be very proud of that aspect and how hard they’ve worked to be back there. Now let’s go enjoy it and let’s be a better football team down there this time than we were four or five weeks ago.”
If there was any advantage to landing in the wild-card round, it was that no one in the Texans locker room had time to sulk.
“We had a short week and we didn’t have time to really think back to the end of the season,” said linebacker Barrett Ruud. “Once the playoffs come, it is a new season. Everybody wants to have that first-round bye and all that, but once the regular season is done, it’s one week at a time and you have to figure out how to win one game.
“I think the best thing for us is we were able to turn around quickly and play. In all honesty, we weren’t even thinking about the last month. It was, ‘How do we beat the Bengals?’ And right now we have one team we’re thinking about now. So it’s basically trying to focus one game at a time because that’s all you can do in the playoffs.”
Even though they were fourth in the league in total offense and sixth in total defense before the Patriots loss, the 11 wins the Texans had racked up never really passed the eye test for most league observers.
They went to Denver and beat the Broncos, but Peyton Manning was still settling in at that point. They thumped the Ravens, 43-13, in Houston, but Ray Lewis was on injured reserve and Terrell Suggs had just returned from a torn Achilles’. They beat the Bears in Chicago on a sloppy night.
Their other wins came against teams that spent the season in the league’s unofficial race to the bottom — the hapless Jets, the offensively impotent Jaguars twice, the disheveled Titans twice, the Dolphins, the Lions, and the Bills. Getting picked apart by the Patriots, then unraveling at the end, only made the Texans look more suspect.
“In this league, it’s funny how things happen,” Kubiak said. “We could have maybe lost three or four early in the season, then won seven or eight in a row, then the talk is different at the end of the year. What we went through, obviously we didn’t play as good at the end of the year. So we were struggling with some of that.”
In a way, the playoffs gave the Texans a chance to press the reset button.
“It just seems like a brand new [start],” said defensive lineman Shaun Cody. “You feel almost rejuvenated to what’s going on. The seasons can sometimes drag on and get a little grind to it. But once the playoffs start, you find everyone has a new focus. Everyone’s trying to be on top of everything — get your body right, getting extra film — there’s that extra rejuvenation to the season.”
The one point Kubiak tried to get across before his team’s wild-card matchup was that regardless of the hiccups that may come in a game, they had to keep playing. Their 19-13 win over Cincinnati last Saturday was by no means artful, but Kubiak said he saw his team play in a way it hadn’t in the past month.
“I thought after some of the things we went through in the last month, I thought I saw a little apprehension in some things that we were doing,” Kubiak said. “I just think sometimes we weren’t playing as fast as we’ve normally played, so our message last week was about speed overcoming mistakes and cutting it loose, and it’s been the same way this week. For us to win when we go in there, we have to make plays all over the place.”
And they’ll have to forget about the ones they didn’t.
“The playoffs is a new season,” said tight end Owen Daniels. “We knew we had done a lot of good things this season and the only perception that really matters is what we’ve got going on in this locker room.
“We were 12-4, which is pretty darn good. We didn’t end the season the way we wanted to, so we kind of got ourselves into a little bit of a corner playing on the road instead of at home, but we’re still playing in the divisional round, it’s the playoffs, and we’re excited to be in the position that we’re in. So, we’re planning to make the most of it.”