How much has the NFL pecking order in Texas changed over the last two years? On Sunday, Tony Romo and the Cowboys missed their chance to finish with a winning record and get in the playoffs, while the Texans finished 12-4 to repeat as AFC South division champions. But it felt like Houston fans were having a worse day.
Once an 11-1 team with the best record in the NFL, the Texans ceased to be a Super Bowl favorite after New England beat them, 42-14 on December 10. Counting that game, Gary Kubiak's squad finished out the season 1-3, dropping them from the number one seed in the AFC to the number three seed behind the Denver Broncos and New England. This past Sunday's loss to Indianapolis, the only actual "must-win" of the three, clinched it: Houston will host the sixth-seeded wild card Cincinnati Bengals for the second straight year instead of earning a week off.
"The Texans are reeling like no other playoff team," John McLain of the Houston Chronicle wrote, and that is no minority opinion.
"I think they are in trouble," opined Paul Kuharsky of ESPN.com. "On some level, I think they think they are in trouble, too."
"No one is going to be picking us [to win the Super Bowl] now," tight end/fullback James Casey said, as Chris Baldwin of CultureMap reported.
The Chronicle's Nick Matthews noted that this season's "Super Bowl or Bust?" mantra wasn't looking too good.
"Super Bowl? New Orleans seems like a lot further away than a five-hour drive," he wrote. "Bust? Introducing the 2012 Houston Texans."
"The coldest playoff team in the league," Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports called them . Wetzel continued:
Against the Colts, they displayed an offense that can't find the end zone, a defense that can't get off the field and a special teams group that gave up a momentum-changing, 101-yard kickoff return for a score. All of that and way too many penalties. Again.
Meanwhile, the Sony showed Denver and New England cruising; a Peyton Manning touchdown here, a Tom Brady one there. It cost the Texans prime playoff positioning, a first-round bye and homefield advantage against those future Hall of Famers.
"Who doesn’t belong in this group—Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Matt Schaub?," asked Randy Harvey of the Chronicle, while noting that the Texans quarterback doesn’t deserve all of the blame.
At the Houston Press , Ben Dubose saved that for the head coach, headlining his post, "Gary Kubiak-Led Collapse Reaches Fitting Conclusion." This is another way you know that things have changed in Houston. Kubiak's the same guy who won those two division titles after years of no playoffs at all, but anything less than a trip to the AFC championship game this season, and he has failed.
Dubose is not inclined to wait that long to pass his judgment, dismissing those two titles as a lucky byproduct of the Indianapolis Colts' transition from Manning to rookie quarterback Andrew Luck.
"These are Gary Kubiak's Houston Texans," Dubose lamented:
In their biggest game ever, they completed perhaps the biggest collapse in Houston sports history, somehow surrendering 28 points to a Colts team that had under 200 yards of offense until its final drive.
Yes, the '93 Oilers choke was bad. So was that of the '98 Astros. But this collapse was more significant because it encompassed so many areas . . . .
"[T]he 2012 season is over. And in terms of Super Bowl aspirations, every subsequent season is equally hopeless until Kubiak either retires or is shown the door."
The Chronicle's Jerome Solomon also used the "C" word, but ultimately chose to be more optimistic. Sort of:
Gary Kubiak is facing his strongest test as a leader and head coach. The Texans are too talented to have such a long stretch of sluggish efforts. When people say, “Maybe they just aren’t that good,” they are wrong. This team is that good. This team can get it done. And this team can STILL get it done. But it’s on the coach to figure out how to put his team in position to do so. At some point they took their foot off the gas pedal. Good coaches know how to help teams find that pedal again. Kubiak didn’t forget how to coach over the last month or so, but he is facing a task that might require him to be better than he has ever been. Last year, it was easy to write off the team’s finish as a team with little to play for being excited about their position. I knew they would crank it up in the playoffs. This team can’t say that because it had so much to play for down the stretch, but it played as if this were still September. It played like . . . I’m not even going to go there. The Rockets buried Choke City. And the Oilers no longer exist.