Football coaches are trained to be the most myopic of people. But after his team was dressed down on one of the biggest stages it had ever played on, Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak felt compelled to take a bigger-picture view with his players.
The truth is, the road back to Foxborough -- and another shot at the aggressors that night, the New England Patriots -- started right there in the postgame locker room, with the sting of the 42-14 beatdown only starting to burn.
"I said it to them, 'Hey, the place you just walked into tonight, that team's got a lot of trophies, and that's what it takes. But if we get our chin up and go back to work, we're gonna get there some day,' " Kubiak recalled, as he walked to a meeting through the bowels of Reliant Stadium on Wednesday. "I think we've done that. We've had some bumps along the way, but we've battled back, and I'm looking forward to this weekend."
Over the last two seasons, the Texans have done plenty of growing, making the playoffs last year for the first time in club history -- even after losing two quarterbacks and having to roll with a rookie carrying a fifth-round pedigree -- and this year entering the realm of the elite by starting the season at 11-1.
That validated Texans owner Bob McNair's patience with Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith through five non-playoff seasons, as the two men methodically deconstructed, rebuilt, tinkered with and solidified a roster and staff that they expected to be championship-caliber.
And then, on that drizzly night at Gillette Stadium, so much of that foundation seemed to be shaken.
A club that always had the appearance of being business-like and even-keeled looked out of sorts and out of its league in front of a national audience. Going into that evening, 10-year Texan Andre Johnson called it the biggest game in franchise history. Even now, he stands by that statement, which is why the loss was so crushing for Houston.
"I don't think it was a bad thing to say, because it was. As far as regular season, it was probably the biggest game we've ever had here," Johnson said, by his locker the other day. "And it all makes sense, just listening to what Coach Kubiak said. You have to beat a team like that. It was on a big stage, and people were looking to see how we'd respond. And we didn't respond well."
Kubiak's prophecy that night -- essentially, that to win a championship they'd have to go through teams like the Patriots -- comes true on Sunday.
The trouble is that, in the time between then and now, the Texans haven't exactly raised their game to that level their coach told them to take note of. After bouncing back to beat the Indianapolis Colts in Week 15, Houston blew two chances to lock up the No. 1 seed, had to play last weekend as a result and looked pretty underwhelming in beating the Cincinnati Bengals, 19-13.
The Texans must play better to give themselves a chance in Sunday's divisional-round finale. The good news is they know it, because they have a pretty good reference point. And it's not hard for the guys to decipher the meaning of it, with memories from that night still sharp in their minds.
"Everyone knew," quarterback Matt Schaub told me. "We didn't play well as a team, across the board, and I think what (Kubiak) was trying to say was what you just went through, what you saw, what you witnessed, that's the type of level we need to get to, to win a championship. That's a championship team. And you look at the last 10 years, that team's been at that point at this point of the season, year in and year out.
"And there's a reason for that. Everyone took notice. If we want to get to that point as a football team, that's where we need to be."
So now, the Texans have a chance to prove that they're there, and render null and void that terrible evening and the uneven month that followed.
This is the next logical step for Kubiak and Co. While it is Schaub's first road playoff game, the majority of the Texans now have three playoff games under their belts. They've won consecutive division titles, and dealt convincing losses earlier in the season to both clubs in the other AFC divisional bout.
As Kubiak told the team back in December, this is their shot to show, once and for all, they belong.
Another ugly defeat, on the other hand, will serve as a referendum on this regime and its program, now in Year 7. For the first time, maybe in franchise history, the Texans really aren't playing the up-and-comer with nothing to lose.
Maybe that best explains why Kubiak's message was so needed. Now, the Texans believe they're much better equipped to go on to a big stage like this with the weight of the world on their shoulders. And if indeed they are, then it just comes down to the football game.
"It's important, the process we've been going through to change the culture here and create a winning football team, one that has a chance every week," Kubiak conceded. "And one that now hopefully has a chance to win a championship. There's been a lot of work involved. We've stayed the course, and we took a step last year. No doubt in my mind we're taking another step this year. The stage just gets bigger.
"We understand there's another level for us to reach if we're gonna go in a place like this and get it done. We're excited about our opportunity."
And the feeling in his locker room is that, for five weeks now, they've been ready for it, too.
Players on the spot
Seattle Seahawks DE Bruce Irvin: Losing Chris Clemons will hurt Seattle for obvious reasons on third down, but the impact might be greater on early downs against the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons. Irvin goes in at the Leo position full time and, for him, that means a) having to play the run more consistently and b) carrying a heavier snap load. Irvin's ability to handle that, and produce into the fourth quarter, could have an impact at the wire for Seattle.
Baltimore Ravens S Ed Reed: The 34-year-old has battled injuries for much of the year, and the team has been waiting on him to make a big play in a big spot, like he would in the old days. So in addition to not getting beat over the top by Peyton Manning, and forcing the Denver Broncos to earn their yards, the Ravens will need the old Reed back for a play or two to mitigate some of the matchup problems they're faced with.
Houston Texans QB Matt Schaub: This one's self-explanatory. Entering the season, there was simple logic for making Houston a Super Bowl favorite: Since the Texans made it to the divisional round last year with a third-string quarterback, Schaub's return would push them over the top. So here they are, and Schaub is coming in with a 1:4 TD-to-INT ratio going back to the Patriots' Dec. 10 massacre. Pretty simple: This is a week when he needs to be a difference-maker for Houston.
Coaches in the spotlight
Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers: Capers plugged the leaks last week against the Minnesota Vikings, with his emphasis on fundamentals and playing to the whistle leading to a (relative) slowing of Adrian Peterson. This week, the Green Bay defense gets another shot at redemption, facing a San Francisco 49ers offense that rolled up 186 yards rushing (at 5.8 yards per clip) in the season opener. Capers and Co. have to force San Francisco to lean on Colin Kaepernick as a passer, and that means corralling Frank Gore the way they did Peterson. This dynamic extends to the option game, as well, getting a hat on Kaepernick early and often.
Houston Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips: J.J. Watt officially hit Tom Brady three times in December -- and unofficially was in his face more than that -- but he didn't register a sack. Watt told me he needs to "get after him and make sure he knows I'm there," and close on the QB better. Part of that will be on Phillips. "How Houston counters to free (Watt) up to be more disruptive will be interesting," one AFC executive said. "They need to move him around, stem him, shift and counter the help and scheme the Patriots run at him." In other words, Phillips needs to be creative to maximize his best player.
Seattle Seahawks' defensive backfield: The "Legion of Boom" secondary has been the bedrock for Seattle's defense all season, but this challenge is a little different, as the Falcons boast a big receiver group capable of standing up to the physicality of Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. How those two handle, and harass, Julio Jones and Roddy White at the line will be key. And with Harry Douglas in the slot, Seattle's depth will be tested on the back end, as well.
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.