Saints 40, Texans 33: Five Plays That Got Away

The latest chapter in the long-running series of Texan near misses might have been the most painful.

Sure, there were plenty of positives. The Texans (2-1) proved they were capable of hanging with the NFL's elite on the road. They weren't outclassed.

Looking forward, with Peyton Manning likely out for the season and Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers not on the schedule, the Texans won't play another quarterback with the ability to torch their rebuilding defense the way Drew Brees and the Saints (2-1) did on Sunday.

In addition, the red-zone woes (four field goals) are unlikely to continue. The Texans were one of the best red-zone teams in the league in 2010, and the return of Arian Foster should provide an immediate boost.

But defensive deficiencies and red-zone woes aside, this game belonged to the Texans. Gary Kubiak's group had a chance to prove to the league -- and themselves -- that they belonged on the elite stage.

Like so many a year ago, it then slipped through their fingers.

The Texans were up 26-17 with the ball and 12 minutes to play. They led again, 33-32, with just over four minutes remaining. It got away each time.

Here's a rundown of five plays that could -- and in some cases, should -- have changed everything.

5. Texans ball, 1st-and-10, own 14-yard-line
 Situation: Texans lead 26-17, 12:21 left

The call to throw was a bold one. Nursing a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter, the top priority would seem to be running the ball to use clock. Instead, the Texans opted to go playaction. The downfield options for Matt Schaub were covered and he was pressured, but Tate leaked out of the backfield at the last moment. Tate was uncovered, and likely had 10 yards and a first down at a minimum. Unfortunately, Schaub slightly underthrew the pass, and Tate couldn't bring it in. A drive that desperately needed yards and to have time elapse started on the worst possible note.

4. Texans ball, 3rd-and-9, own 15-yard-line
 Situation: Texans lead 26-17, 11:31 left

Two plays later, the Texans were still dealing with problems posed by previously referenced failure on first down. It forced them into an obvious running situation on second down, and the Saints were ready for it, stuffing Tate and leaving the Texans in third-and-long. Schaub had to move around in the pocket, but he had Andre Johnson curling and open just short of the 30. The throw was high, however, and it went off Johnson's fingertips. Quite simply, it was a throw an elite quarterback has to make.

3. Texans ball, 4th-and-9, own 15-yard-line
 Situation: Texans lead 26-17, 11:26 left

The ensuing punt from Brett Hartmann capped a disastrous sequence for the Texans. Just a minute prior, the Texans held the ball and a nine-point lead. Now, they were punting it back deep in their own territory, with almost no time elapsed following the two incompletions. They desperately needed a long punt from strong-legged rookie Brett Hartmann to stop the bleeding. Instead, it went off the side of his foot and traveled just 34 yards, setting up Brees and the Saints in Houston territory. Five plays and less than two minutes later, the Saints were back within two and the Superdome was rocking. 
 2. Texans ball, 3rd-and-10, own 34-yard-line
 Situation: Texans lead 26-24, 9:15 left

After two more incompletions, Schaub and the offense faced another third-and-long. It resulted in his worst throw of the game. The pocket held up well and Schaub had time to go through his progressions. Instead, he locked in on Johnson, who was closely trailed by Jabari Greer and had help over the top. Making matters worse, the throw was behind Johnson, who had no time to react and even contest the easy Greer interception. Those two offensive series killed the Texans. Holding a fourth-quarter lead and the ball, the Texans went three-and-out once and were intercepted the other. They used only six plays and 1:20 of time combined on those drives. Both times, they gave the ball to the Saints in Houston territory. It set the defense up for failure. 
 1. Saints ball, 3rd-and-10, own 46-yard-line
 Situation: Saints lead 33-32, 2:54 left

The lone defensive blunder to make the list was a big one. The final Saints touchdown drive was different than the others, in that it wasn't set up by the Houston offense. Instead, the defense had time to catch its breath, with the kickoff and ensuing penalty leaving the Saints at their own 7.

A few plays later, they had moved it to midfield and faced a crucial third-and-long. Led by Mario Williams, the Texans were getting pressure on Brees, and it showed. Three of his prior four attempts fell incomplete. Then, inexplicably, Brian Cushing was left in mostly single coverage against Jimmy Graham, an athletic freak of a tight end. Graham had already torched the Texans for much of Sunday, including the 27-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter over the top of Glover Quin. He was Brees's most dangerous receiver.

For whatever reason, the Texans defended him with a linebacker that didn't have the speed to keep up downfield. Graham had separation down the seam, and the help from safety Danieal Manning didn't come soon enough. The pass was completed for 28 yards, and Manning compounded the error with a shot to the helmet that cost the Texans another 15 yards. On the next play, the Saints scored the winning touchdown.

In the end, it mostly came down to offense -- even in a game in which the defense allowed 40 points.

Of the five aforementioned turning points, just one came on defense. For the most part, the miscues on that side weren't shocking. Brees is one of the game's best quarterbacks, and he was constantly given the ball in Houston territory. With the Saints' offensive weapons and playing indoors on turf, it was no surprise to see them find a rhythm.

Unfortunately, the offense -- despite posting 473 yards on the game -- didn't deliver on a pair of possessions with the lead late. Schaub's group didn't come through when it mattered most. They also compounded the errors by putting the defense in positions to fail.

The Texans have another chance at a landmark victory next week, when reigning AFC champion Pittsburgh comes to Reliant Stadium. The Steelers looked quite vulnerable in struggling to a win over the Manning-less Colts on Sunday night.

But led by Troy Polamalu, they still pack quite a punch on defense. For the Texans to win, Schaub and the offense will likely need to make plays in big moments.

They failed on several of those exact occasions against the Saints, and it cost them dearly.

Check out the updated Texans' season game card here.

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