It's remarkable to watch a Texans season supposed to be so different follow a nearly identical script.
Sunday's 34-7 win over the Seattle Seahawks snapped a four-game losing streak and, at least in theory, keeps the Texans (6-7) alive in playoff discussion. But with most reasonable postseason avenues now closed, we're watching an all too familiar scene - Gary Kubiak's Texans making plays they simply could not make when the stakes were higher.
As a result, it's hard to truly enjoy games like Sunday, which on the surface appear like impressive victories. Instead, just like when the Texans won five of six a year ago to finish 8-8 after a disastrous 3-7 start, it all comes back to that one refrain we've uttered hundreds of times in the Texans' existence.
What could have been.
"I guess you could say it's an awakening," said defensive end Mario Williams, who posted two sacks to push his underwhelming season total to eight. "It's crazy that it's the end of the season. We should've had it happen before we got on this little losing streak."
It's the third consecutive season the Texans have been 6-7 after 13 games. In the prior two, they rediscovered that intensity enough to claw back to .500 for a respectable finish. But this is a season where merely respectable isn't good enough.
While Kubiak is a likeable guy and respected by his players, the postgame chatter in the lockerroom was less about the on-field performance and more about pleading for Kubiak to hold his job.
"We feel like we let [Kubiak] down throughout this season, and he just told us about the love he had for us and he just wanted us to come out and play with emotion, and we came out with that intensity we hadn't already had," left tackle Duane Brown said.
"I love Kubiak to death," said Williams, echoing comments from Brown and others. "I think Kubiak is a great coach. I definitely don't want to see anything different here. We had a long talk this week, me and him personally. It meant a lot, the things he said to me and the way he came at me."
Matt Schaub was lights out, going 29-39 for 365 yards and two touchdowns - all but 29 yards of which came in the first half - and Andre Johnson nearly set several club records with 11 catches for 193 yards and two scores.
But many underlying problems remained evident. After roaring to a 24-0 lead in barely over a quarter, the Texans offense remained unable to keep its foot on the gas, scoring three points in the game's final 43 minutes.
Meanwhile, kicker Kris Brown - given a pass by Kubiak despite traumatizing last-second misses against the Colts and Titans that derailed the entire season - missed two more field goals.
The only difference Sunday was that the Texans had an opponent weak enough not to make them pay for those mistakes.
"I would just like to see us run the ball better to be able to help the football team whenever everyone knows we've got to run it," Kubiak said. "And we're just not at that point. It just makes it very difficult in this game when you have to throw it every down. Sooner or later something bad may happen."
It didn't in the first half, when the Texans rolled up offense at a record pace. But for whatever reason, one Schaub interception sent the Texans into their usual shell.
That will work against the Seahawks and the Rams, who the Texans play next week as they look to return to .500. But if they're fortunate enough to still be in playoff contention (no matter how small the odds) entering the final two weeks, it's hard to have much confidence - based on historical evidence as well as recent anecdotal - against the Dolphins and Patriots.
"The last four weeks, I just really don't think our team has given all we've got," said safety Bernard Pollard, who returned an interception for a touchdown in the second half. "I think we beat ourselves. We've got to play at a high level day in and day out."
Sunday was certainly a step in that direction. However, we've seen it all before in December - and usually, it comes too late. Barring significant outside help, that appears to be the Texans story yet again.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.