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Finale gives Texans shot at first winning season, playoff berth

HOUSTON -- The Houston Texans enter the last week of the regular season in an unfamiliar position.

For the first time in franchise history, they are still in the playoff hunt.

They'll need some help to get their first playoff berth, but a win over New England will give this long-struggling franchise its first winning record.

"I'm excited for our players," coach Gary Kubiak said. "That's what you work for, to be sitting here with the last game of the season and we walk out of here Sunday it means everything to our team and it means having a winning record for the first time. There's just so much for us to play for."

The Texans won their third straight game Sunday to improve to 8-7. Kubiak knows his team must stay focused on beating the Patriots (10-5) and can't worry about playoff scenarios.

"We're going to have to beat the top franchise in football to get to that point," he said. "So it's a great challenge for us as coaches, as players, and I think that's the way it's supposed to be. If we want to get there some day, these are the types of people we've got to be able to compete against. So we've got to be as good as we can be this weekend."

Even with a win, the Texans would still be competing with the New York Jets, Baltimore and Denver for that elusive first playoff berth. To get in, they'd need the victory and two of those three teams to lose.

Though their chances of getting the final AFC wild-card spot are a long shot, to even be in this situation is a milestone for a franchise that began play in 2002. Houston has gone 8-8 in each of the last two seasons, but needed a win in each finale simply to reach .500.

Kubiak is proud of his team for not falling apart during a four-game losing streak that preceded their current winning stretch and one that had many wondering if he would still be around to coach next season. The Texans lost those four games by an average of 4.75 points.

"I just think we stayed focused," Kubiak said. "I don't think we were playing bad football, I think we were doing some good things and we lost some tough games. I think they kept that in perspective and just kept working and got a few breaks along the way."

The Texans have been propelled back into contention on the strength of their high-powered passing game. Andre Johnson leads the league in yards receiving with 1,504, his second straight 1,500-yard season. Matt Schaub hasn't missed a game for the first time in his three-year tenure in Houston and tops NFL passers with 4,467 yards.

"It's pretty special," Kubiak said. "They've come a long way together. These two guys got a chance to hopefully play together for a long time and be successful."

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The defense continues its improvement after ranking near the bottom of the league through the first three weeks of the season. Houston has been helped by the development of rookie linebacker Brian Cushing, who leads the AFC with 128 tackles. He also has four interceptions, four sacks, two forced fumbles and a safety this season.

He has been bothered by numerous injuries over the past few weeks, but has not missed any playing time. Kubiak expects that to continue this weekend despite Cushing fracturing one of his fingers against the Dolphins.

The Texans will have to shuffle their safeties again this week after Dominique Barber injured a hamstring on Sunday and will be out this week. Houston was already without safety Eugene Wilson.

Kubiak will be looking for a bigger contribution from Mario Williams against the Patriots after the 2006 top overall pick didn't have a tackle against Miami. He's got 41 tackles, eight sacks and has forced two fumbles this season.

"He needs to factor more in the game," Kubiak said. "He played hard, he did some good things, but he could have factored a lot more in the game. We're going to all have to take it up and he's part of all of it."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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