The Texans legitimately won nine games. The New York Jets legitimately won seven.
The Texans displayed tremendous heart on Sunday in rallying past a Patriots team playing its starters and remaining aggressive almost throughout, while the Jets were given a handout for a second consecutive week.
Unfortunately, the Texans play in a league where lay-downs like what the Colts did a week ago and the Bengals did last night are met with little concern. As a result, New York will be playing next weekend while Houston will watch from home. See you next September, Texans.
"Usually division foes can beat you twice in the regular season," Texans offensive tackle Eric Winston tweeted after the game. "The Colts found a way to beat us 3 times.... Impressive!!"
After a stunning upset from the Chiefs against Denver, the Texans had playoff hopes entering Sunday night's season finale. Those lasted all of about 10 minutes.
Five of the first six passes from Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer to hit the hands of Bengals receivers were dropped. A pair of options from Jets' wildcat quarterback Brad Smith were run directly at Bengals defenders, who chose not to make any kind of attempt to tackle him. Palmer, a multiple-time Pro Bowl quarterback, played a half and finished 1-of-11 for 0 yards and a pick.
The 10-5 AFC North champions played like a team that would've been blown out 40-0 by the JaMarcus Russell-led Raiders (who, coincidentally, also screwed over the Texans on Sunday). And by the book, it's the Bengals' right to do so. But there's a definite sting and feeling of unfairness to the Texans for having their season end courtesy of a pair of teams who didn't truly attempt to win.
"I'm disappointed in the way Cincinnati played," owner Bob McNair told the Houston Chronicle in the biggest understatement of the day. "I thought there were good odds they might be able to win it, but they left their game at home."
Even so, it's hard to ignore what the Texans accomplished themselves on Sunday. The Texans arguably spotted the Patriots 21 points on Sunday courtesy of two Kris Brown missed field goals, a missed extra point, and the Jacoby Jones dropped pass at the New England 10 that resulted in an interception returned for a touchdown.
They also trailed by 14 early in the fourth quarter and played against Tom Brady for the vast majority of the game, even as most NFL teams (see Cincinnati) in New England's situation opted to rest their starters for at least a half.
And yet, the Texans were still able to overcome the vaunted Patriots -- and even themselves -- to win 34-27, cap a four-game winning streak and post the first winning season in franchise history at 9-7.
"I'm happy," head coach Gary Kubiak said following the game. "I'm very happy. I want to see this place win and it will be nice to get on Kirby today and feel like this football team's got a winner for the first time."
According to McNair, it was enough to save Kubiak's job -- a prospect that seemed uncertain when Fred Taylor scored a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, putting the Patriots up 27-13 and the Texans on the verge of a third straight 8-8 finish.
But Jones redeemed himself by catching a touchdown in the back of the end zone from quarterback Matt Schaub. Mario Williams sacked Brady on a crucial third down. Jones then returned a punt 31 yards, setting the Texans up for the first of unheralded rookie running back Arian Foster's two touchdowns.
"I really wanted to see how [Jones] would bounce back from it, and I think he did," receiver Andre Johnson said. "In past times, I'll go over there and say 'Hey, you need to come back and make a play for us to win the game.' I didn't want to put any pressure on him just because a bad play happened. The way he responded, he did very well."
Safety Bernard Pollard -- a free agent pickup in September -- then continued a spectacular debut season in Houston by intercepting Brady and returning it to the 28. Four plays later, Foster finished the comeback and had Reliant Stadium rocking like rarely, if ever, before.
It may not have ultimately been a playoff-clinching win, but it was a true playoff atmosphere and the kind of game the Texans had given away in Indianapolis and on Monday Night Football against Tennessee. Finally, they punched back.
"I've never seen our locker room like it was after this game," linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "Everyone was excited. The coaches and everyone was into it and that's how it should be. For coach Kubes, having his first [winning] season, it meant a lot to us. We were just elated."
Thanks to the Bengals collapse, the feelings won't all be happy. We'll never forget the missed opportunities, such as Kris Brown's missed kicks and Chris Brown's pathetic rushing attempts from a yard out, and certainly neither will be the Texans.
But this season finished with a converted opportunity and a feeling of accomplishment, the likes of which should give the Texans a legitimate swagger heading to 2010.
"In the grand scheme of things you can see where we're going, and it's pretty exciting to be a part of," Winston said. "Everyone has stepped up and done everything they can to make this work, and we've figured it out."
Click here for a slideshow of the game and the fans.
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