HOUSTON -- Texans owner Bob McNair and an entourage of sour-faced men marched through the bowels of Reliant Stadium and on to the field to witness the final moments of his team's colossal collapse to the Colts, which could also be described as a wake for Houston's playoff chances.
The three-point loss to Indianapolis earlier in November was tough. The follow-up, three-point failure to AFC South rival Tennessee on Monday Night Football was punch-to-the-gut painful. This 35-27 loss was enough to throw the final can of fuel onto speculation of Gary Kubiak's job security as coach, Matt Schaub's viability as a big-time quarterback and the entire organization's ability to generate more than mediocrity with what seems like two dozen top-20 draft picks.
Besides losing to a team that was without its best defensive player, Dwight Freeney, the Texans also spoiled a chance to capitalize on a rare day when Peyton Manning was slightly off his game with two interceptions and fewer than 250 yards passing. Houston blew a 17-point lead to entrench itself amid the not-up-to-the-playoff-task crowd that, at the moment, also includes the Dolphins, Giants and Jaguars.
They've lost three in a row to fall below .500 and likely won't get into the postseason as a wild card, even though they're mathematically in the hunt. The remaining schedule isn't a buzzsaw, but there are games against the Jaguars, Dolphins and Patriots that could finalize this slow death. Denver, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Tennessee seem like much more viable wild-card playoff options, with Jacksonville even having an edge on the Texans.
"Three weeks ago we're sitting here at 5-3 feeling very good, but we knew what type of stretch we were fixing to enter," Kubiak said. "This league boils down to how you play. We've been in some very good football games but we didn't find a way to win them. ... There's no excuses. Like I said, it's my job to find some consistency in the group."
It was noble of Kubiak to assume the blame, especially since he's going to get it anyway. He could have put it on Schaub, who had three second-half turnovers after a stellar first half, or on his penalty-prone squad (10 for 129 yards). There was a multitude of blame to go around.
This phrase, however, "We're sitting here at 5-3 and feeling very good," explains why Houston is fading like an anchor dropped in 200 feet of water.
The Texans embrace things that don't really matter, like a winning record at midseason, a big play, a 17-point lead or the fact that the 20-7 halftime lead was its biggest mid-game edge ever against Indianapolis.
The Colts, Patriots, Steelers, Saints, Vikings ... they embrace perfection and attention to detail. In saying perfection, Indianapolis' and New Orleans' unbeaten records are byproducts of the constant effort to not make mistakes and to capitalize on the teams that do.
Despite clinching the AFC South title in November and making this the seventh consecutive season they've won at least 11 games, the Colts weren't happy they had to fight back from such a huge deficit Sunday. They weren't pleased that they had to rally in the fourth quarter to win for an NFL-record fifth straight game, even if that is an incredible testament to resiliency.
"Our guys have grown accustomed to traveling with what we call our little 'packet' of poise, confidence, pride and passion," Colts coach Jim Caldwell said. "It's the largest margin of victory we've had in a couple of weeks, so I do think I should smile a little bit, right?"
The turning point of Indianapolis' victory also emphasized the difference between these two teams; one mediocre, one superior. On the Colts' go-ahead drive early in the fourth quarter, running back Joseph Addai caught a short pass from Manning and got rocked by cornerback Dunta Robinson.
While the Texans and their fans marveled at the replay of the big hit, Manning ran the next play on a quick count and hit wide receiver Austin Collie for a 31-yard gain. One team was happy with the small stuff; the other was about taking care of business. Six plays later, tight end Dallas Clark hauled in a 6-yard TD pass to put the Colts up 21-20.
That happy time following Robinson's hit on Addai wasn't so spectacular anymore, was it?
"I felt like they were excited, maybe celebrating a little bit that play so we quick-snapped them and went deep on them right away," Manning said. "That's the thing. You've got to play every play. We know that."
As much as Houston is to blame for its inability to maximize all its talent and to get that talent to play smart and disciplined, the Colts also are to be given credit for taking each game so seriously and respecting what winning in the NFL is about.
This is the second time in three weeks Indianapolis came back from a 17-point deficit. The first time came Nov. 15 against New England in the infamous fourth-and-2 game in which the Patriots failed to convert deep in their own territory. As controversial as the call was, Indianapolis made the stop on defense and scored on offense. There are about 24 teams in the NFL that wouldn't have found a way to make it happen on both sides of the ball in that situation.
It wouldn't stun anyone if Indianapolis struggles and loses to Tennessee next week and maybe even drops another of its final five games. Winning every week in the NFL is hard, especially when you're playing with a fleet of backups and you're getting pushed by teams whose season could gain increased merit by beating you.
Plus, the regular season doesn't mean that much to the Colts anymore. They've won 20 straight regular-season games going back to last year and are using Sundays to figure out their strengths and weaknesses, so once the postseason arrives they can make all of what they've done from September to January worthwhile.
To note, the Colts are about to get healthier. Freeney (abdominal injury) is expected back as soon as next week, as is cornerback Kelvin Hayden. Wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez also could return before the end of the season. Indianapolis could actually be getting better, which might be what it needs to get deep into the playoffs.
San Diego, the Colts' postseason nemesis, is a team nobody would want to face. Cincinnati, New England and Denver could be rounding into form as well, although there is more football to be played.
The fact that there are five more games could be a good or bad thing for the Texans. They are talented enough to win out and get to 10-6. They're also vulnerable enough to lose more than they win, not make the playoffs and possibly be in the market for a new coach next season.
In speaking with an NFC general manager before the game, his opinion of Houston was that once it earns a comeback victory in the waning moments, where players remain composed, the switch will go on. It's not easy and one time doesn't mean they have the discipline to do it a second time. But it would be a start.
That's what the Texans need right now -- a solid finish that demonstrates a little mental gumption.
"I haven't felt that way in the past but being honest with you, I felt that way today," Kubiak said about his team being mentally fragile when faced with adversity.
If Kubiak feels that way in any of the next few games that means things aren't going well, again. And that means Houston still hasn't figured it out.