In the big picture, the Texans were playing with house money.
With little playoff experience and on a third-string rookie quarterback, this shouldn't rank high on the list of Houston football collapses. This wasn't the Oilers in Denver and Buffalo, circa 1992 and 1993.
But make no mistake: The Texans were the better team on Sunday, and they let a trip to the AFC championship game slip through their fingers (more precisely, Jacoby Jones's fingers).
They know it.
"It just stings right now," said head coach Gary Kubiak. "We were a couple of mistakes from winning the game."
The Texans left the Ravens bullied and bruised. Wade Phillips's defense executed its plan to perfection, completely flipping the script from when the Ravens wore them down in a 400+ yard effort in week 6.
This time, the Ravens had a mere 227 yards. They went 3-and-out five times in the second half. Joe Flacco was sacked five times. Three fumbles were forced, although all miraculously bounced back to the home team.
This game had all the makings of a 13-3 suffocation, in which Arian Foster (27 carries, 132 yards, one touchdown) should have been able to burn clock and wear the vaunted Baltimore defense down, all while the Texans' unit harassed Flacco into sacks and mistakes.
The Texans controlled both lines of scrimmage all day, beating the Ravens in their own house at their own physical game. It was an incredibly gutsy effort in which any Texan fan can be proud.
"They talk about how tough the Ravens are," said team owner Bob McNair. "Well, I tell you, they ain't as tough as the Texans."
Unfortunately, a trio of unforced errors made it all for naught.
The Bill Buckner-esque muffed punt from Jones practically handed the Ravens seven points. Later in the first quarter, T.J. Yates inexplicably forced a throw to a blanketed Andre Johnson, and that interception led to another seven Baltimore points.
The Texans found themselves in the position they knew they couldn't afford -- down big (17-3) against an elite defense with Yates at quarterback -- and 14 of the 17 Baltimore points came via unforced errors.
"If we didn't turn it over, it's a different game," said Kubiak.
But if there's one thing we know about Kubiak's Texans, it's that they don't quit. They certainly didn't on Sunday. After falling into the early hole, they settled in and dominated Baltimore on both lines of scrimmage for much of the second and third quarters, punctuated by a 12-play, 86-yard scoring drive that ended with a Foster touchdown. That cut the lead to 17-13.
The momentum continued in the third quarter, but a familiar bugaboo returned for the Texans with Neil Rackers's inconsistency on long-range field goals. With the wind at his back, Rackers was short on a 50-yard kick that would've closed the gap to 17-16 and put the Texans within a field goal of the lead.
Instead, they remained down four -- needing a touchdown -- and the missed kick set up Baltimore at its own 40-yard line. Though the Texan defense held with a heroic goal-line stand, the miss was crucial in terms of time and possessions. The Baltimore drive took over four minutes off the clock, and the ensuing Texan drive was doomed from the start, starting at the one with the offense mostly trying to avoid a safety.
After having Baltimore's defense on its heels with a chance to come within one with 5:54 left in the third, the next real Texans possession came at the 13:30 mark of the fourth, still facing a 17-13 deficit.
From there, the Texans had to push the envelope. There likely wasn't time for multiple scoring drives, so they went for big chunks in the passing game whenever possible.
Yates connected on some, but ultimately his inexperience led to two timely Baltimore picks, and the winning score never came.
Though the interceptions weren't strong throws or reads, that wasn't where the Texans lost the game. As the more physical group, it should've been theirs from the outset. But the 14 points off first-quarter turnovers put the Texans in an enormous hole.
Just as they seemed poised to climb out, Rackers's kick clanged off the crossbar and tumbled down.
It was one too many mistakes against a competent opponent.
"Just disappointment," said Johnson. "We felt like we should've won the game."
The good news for the Texans is that of the three culprits (Jones, Yates, Rackers), it's very possible that none are playing come September.
Matt Schaub should return at quarterback, and the Texans will undoubtedly make wide receiver a priority in the draft and free agency, likely replacing Jones.
Kickers aren't tough to find, either. San Francisco's under-the-radar signing of David Akers last offseason proved critical, with the former Eagle keeping the 49ers in several games despite an offense that struggles to score red-zone touchdowns.
If the Texans properly address even two of those three areas, they should be the 2012 AFC favorite to reach the Super Bowl. The Steelers are aging, Baltimore has major quarterback issues and the Patriots have enormous holes on defense.
The Texans, on paper, are the most complete team.
"This organization is going to be like a shark tasting blood," said tight end Joel Dreessen. "We're going to be hungry for more."
But even with the aforementioned holes, the 2011 Texans were AFC championship-caliber, too.
They then beat themselves.
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