2009: The Houston Texans lead the league in passing and possess the #4 offense in the league. The defense, while not great, does clock in at 14th. Most importantly, the Texans finally break-through and log their first ever winning season. Coming into the final week of the season, the Texans even have an outside chance at securing their first ever playoff berth. Unfortunately, Houston would have to wait for another year before breaking through to playoff glory.
While the Week 1 loss to the Jets, which beat out the Texans for that playoff spot, loomed large, there are other key points. In a one month stretch, from early November to early December (throw in a bye), the Texans played 4 straight games against division opponents: @IND, TEN, IND, @JAX. The Texans came into that stretch 5-3. They left it 5-7, having to rely on a 4 game win streak just to get over .500. When you have close margins like that, counterfactual outcomes are just begging for exploration.
At this point in franchise history, Indianapolis is the super-villain. The Texans only beat the Colts ONCE in franchise history to this point. They never won in Indy, and its usually wasn’t close. When the game kicks off, it is looking like another Indy blowout, as the Colts jump to a 13-0 lead. However, the Texans keep the game within striking distance, going into the half down 13-3. They score the next 14 points in the second half and hold a 17-13 lead in the 4th quarter. Unfortunately, the Texans can’t hold off Manning and the Colts, as Joseph Addai plunges into the end zone to give the Colts a 20-17 lead. A 42-yard FG to force overtime goes wide left and Houston drops another one.
Potential Turning Point:
With just over 2 minutes left in the 1st half, the Houston Texans were on a long drive certain to end in points. They were at the Colts’ 10 with 2:15 left in the half. Schaub dropped back and found a wide open Ryan Moats on a swing pass. He had plenty of space to run towards the end zone, but the Colts closed quickly and stopped him short of the 2 yard line. The Texans then lined up, but with the clock ticking, the team decided to wait for the 2 minute warning, and snapped the ball after the break. However, as Moats was being tackled, he fumbled the ball. Initially ruled down, the ball came out of his hands and it stayed in bounds, with a Colts defender grabbing the ball in the end zone. As the Texans waited for the clock to wind down, multiple commentators asked why the Texans did not snap the ball. Since it was before the final two minutes, the Colts had the option to challenge. If the Texans could get the snap off before the Colts could react, the chance is gone. Yet, the delay by the Texans gave Indy the time to review and challenge. They won the challenge, and got the ball back at the 20 yard line.
Granted, the Texans got the ball back on a Pollard interception of Manning with under a minute left and setting up Chris Brown for 52-yard field goal at the end of the half, but the Texans lost a chance for a TD. In a game that was decided by 3 points, the loss of a near certain 7 is hard to stomach.
A Monday Night duel between two rivals. In a back and forth affair, the Titans, on the foot of Rob Bironas (who else), get the go-ahead FG and escape Houston with another win and Houston drop[ed to .500.
Potential Turning Point:
Midway through the 4th quarter, the Texans and Titans are tied at 17, but the Texans are inside of Titans’ territory. They face a 3rd and 10 at the TEN 47. In a play somewhat similar to the play at IND, the Texans clear out the middle of the field, and RB Steve Slaton is wide open over the middle, with a great chance to run for the first down after the catch. However, he doesn’t make the catch part, and the Texans go from a near-certain 1st down to a drop and forced the punt. The Titans would score the go-ahead field on the subsequent drive. Houston had one final chance to again force OT, but Brown missed another end of game FG.
While it is not certain that Slaton gets the 1st down or that Houston would make a FG, or possibly drive further down the field to score a clinching TD, the drop is as close to a turning play as could be found in this game. Likely the Texans score on the drive, and then force Tennessee to match. If the Texans get the 1st down, that is just more of the clock that bleeds down, leaving the Titans with less time and fewer playbook options. Chris Johnson was brutal on the Texans, to include a major 22 yard run on the drive after the Texans’ punt. Likely the Titans still use the draw play, but with less time, they might have to rely more on Vince Young’s arm, which could win games, but likely the Texans would take their chances on the passing game vs. Johnson’ devastating running ability.
A short week didn’t seem to hurt the Texans too much, as they once against jump out to a multi-score lead to open the game. Going into the 4th quarter, the Texans hold a 20-14 lead. However, the Colts explode for 21 points, and while there is no dramatic Rosencopter to blame, the team still blows another home lead to Indy and they are back under .500.
Potential Turning Point:
Houston, who once led this game 17-0, now trails in the 4th quarter 21-20. The Texans have the ball with 8:17 left in the game, facing a 2nd and 10 from their own 20. Schaub is attempting to rally the team, drops back to pass, throwing into tight coverage. However, the ball finds a Colts’ defender. 27 yards later, the Colts get a pick-six and expand the lead to 28-20. They would go on to win the game 35-27.
Converting a 2nd and 10 is no sure thing in the NFL, but the pick-six all but ended the Texans’ chances to regain the lead and win the game against the Colts. Instead of competing for a strong position in the Wild Card and outside shot at the division, the Texans fell back to under .500 with the loss. This would not be the last pick-six in Schaub’s career. However, for this game, it had shades of the 2008 game against Indy at Reliant. While Schaub didn’t have as memorable a play as the Rosencopter, he would suffer the same back-to-back turnovers that felled the Texans the year before (Schaub would be strip-sacked on the next drive). While a completion for a 1st down doesn’t assure victory, the pick-six did secure the defeat.
Whereas Houston jumped out to a big lead the previous week, it is a role reversal for the Texans. Jacksonville dominates the first half and enters the locker room with a 20-7 lead. Houston manages to outscore Jacksonville 11-3 in the second half, primarily when Schaub comes back after leaving the game for a spell after a shoulder dislocation, but that is not enough to make up the difference, and Houston is on a four game losing streak that would all but sink their hopes for a playoff berth.
Potential Turning Point:
With 8:36 left in the game, and the Texans down 23-10, they drive to the Jags’ 5 yard line. Here, the Texans decide to call up a little trick-er-ration. A halfback pass from Chris Brown is the call, but the closest target to the pass (if you can call it that), is a Jacksonville defender. Thus ends the red zone threat. While the Texans manage to force a 3 and out, scoring a TD on the next possession, the wasted possession burns them, as the Jags run out the clock and the Texans fell for the 4th straight game.
Four games. All division rivals. All winnable. The pain was only slightly mitigated by the 4 game win streak that clinch the first winning season in franchise history. If the Texans flipped the script on just one of those plays in these games, 10-6 would have gotten them their first wild card berth. If they managed to run the table for these games, they could have finished 13-3 (presuming that all else remains the same in this timeline). With 2 games in hand against the Colts, the Texans would have clinched the division, and with it, home-field advantage. While that would seem highly unlikely, a shift of just these four plays could have made it happen.
2009 was a great season for the team. However, but for four simple plays, it could have been so much more.