Forget late-season problems: Houston, we have a great chance

by | CBSSports.com
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HOUSTON -- Save the weary and pathetic "Houston, we have a problem" phrase when it comes to the Texans.

Yes, they are quite aware that their door into their first postseason was pocked with holes during a regular season-ending three-game losing streak that saw the offense manage just four touchdowns while the defense only forced two turnovers. Yes, quarterback T.J. Yates has a separated shoulder (and oh, yeah, he's a rookie) and yes, Saturday's AFC wild card game against the Bengals will mark the first playoff action for all but a handful of players on the roster.

At the end of the day however, they're still the AFC South champs. Their 10-6 regular season mark is now 0-0 along with the other 11 teams vying to punch a ticket to Indianapolis.

"Well, you've got to let it go," coach Gary Kubiak said of the team's late fizzle. "You can come in with a three-game winning streak, and you've got to let it go too."

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The Texans' cleansing of their late-season sins began immediately after Sunday's 23-22 loss to the Titans. Defensive end Antonio Smith, one of only nine Texans players with playoff experience, talked to the team about the mental and emotional preparation that comes with hunting down a professional football title that the city has not relished in since George Blanda, Billy Cannon and Bill Groman brought home an American Football League championship with the then-Houston Oilers in 1961.

"It's a whole new season," Smith said. "If you go in there thinking you are going to ride in on your highs, you are going to get knocked off. The same way with hanging your head, you're going to get knocked off."

Saturday is uncharted waters for the 10-year-old franchise, waters not seen in Houston since the Oilers lost to the Chiefs in the AFC divisional round in 1994, a time when the Internet was in diapers, mobile phones looked like ill-shaped bricks and "reality television" meant breaking news from CNN.

Things change, but the intensity of the playoffs has not.

"Everything is different," said S/KR Danieal Manning, who played in Super Bowl XLI as a rookie with the Bears. "The speed is definitely going to pick up. The game is going to seem like it's longer."

For a team that struggled down the stretch, the Texans didn't sound as such in the locker room, instead focusing on the progress made against the Titans, steps that had them feeling as if they were zeroing in on discovering the style and grit that led them here despite a grocery list of injuries that cost them the likes of franchise anchors QB Matt Schaub and OLB Mario Williams for the season and limited WR Andre Johnson to only seven games.

Sunday was mostly about getting to the wild card intact, which was why Pro Bowlers Arian Foster and Johnathan Joseph and Owen Daniels were inactive and why Kubiak pulled most of his starters in the second half. Johnson, meanwhile, returned (albeit briefly) in time to give the Texans their biggest downfield weapon against the Bengals.

"We have a lot to look forward to," receiver Kevin Walter said.

As does the city, which has followed the lead of the team while providing a home-field advantage that at times have evoked images of Houston's intensely insane "Luv Ya Blue" days when the Oilers reached consecutive AFC title games in 1978-79. It is a (no pun intended) wild card that the Texans plan to grasp hold of Saturday.

"I just want them to know how excited we are as a football team," said Kubiak. "We're looking forward to going to battle with them. That's the key. We're all in this together."

There is no foreboding sense of increased pressure on the Texans; in fact, they can turn their heads east and look at the 2009 Saints as the perfect case study on shrugging off a late-season slump.

All those Saints did was simply exorcise their three-game skid to close out the regular season and then roll to a Super Bowl championship.

While experience does matter, there is also the element of having an unknown variable that comes with arriving to the Lombardi Party for the first time.

"There weren't many guys on that team in Carolina that had played in a playoff game," said backup quarterback Jake Delhomme, who guided the underdog Panthers to the NFC title in 2003, defeating the more postseason-savvy Rams and Eagles, both on the road. "When you don't know any better, to me, that's a great thing. Sometimes, innocence is bliss."

Experience or not, there are still nagging issues that confront the Texans before facing a Bengals team they defeated 20-19 Dec. 11 to clinch their trip to the postseason. The offense has converted only seven of its past 31 third-down conversions, and while kicker Neil Rackers has found his accuracy following a mid-December slump, he is kicking too many field goals when the offense has been in range to score touchdowns.

To say a repeat of their dramatics at Paul Brown Stadium is a ticket to success (and a trip to face the Ravens next weekend) would be dangerous to desire. While the Texans rolled up 412 yards offensively, they also committed four turnovers, five penalties and squandered two red-zone opportunities before Yates airlifted the team with a pair of scoring drives in the final 5:31.

"I can say we were sloppy, but you got to give them some credit," Kubiak said of the Bengals. "They're darn good. They made us play sloppy."

After three weeks of sloppiness, the hour looms for the Texans, providing the franchise and its fans their initial chance to show they have arrived among the league's elite.

"I don't plan on packing anytime soon," said Johnson, the club's most tenured player.

Houston doesn't have a problem.

Instead, it has an opportunity.

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