Andre Johnson is almost always the last guy in the locker room. The peerless wide receiver (unless the peer group includes Jerry Rice) takes time to take care of his body after every brutal NFL war and he's often the last one lingering.
On this night, Johnson looks even more alone than usual. Even if J.J. Watt is still sitting in a folding chair all the way across the long locker room.
The Houston Texans' frantic comeback from an embarrassing 24-0 first quarter deficit ends in an all-too familiar seeming heartbreak. And Johnson cannot help but let this one cut apart his insides.
"I think my turnover was probably the biggest mistake of the game," Johnson says. "We had the momentum . . ."
And then, the Texans don't have the ball.
Bill O'Brien's Texans are right there. This isn't a team reeling as much as it's a team regrouping.
Johnson loses it while attempting to make his first cut upfield after another important catch on a night full of them. It matters little to Johnson that J.J. Watt ends up giving the Texans another chance, that quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick actually makes the final fatal mistake in a 33-28 Indianapolis Colts win.
No. 80 puts the loss on himself, just like Arian Foster shouldered the burden of that overtime heartbreaker to the Dallas Cowboys just five days before. Johnson's a little disgusted with himself, but he's not discouraged about where the Texans are.
He's still a big believer in the progress made under first-year coach Bill O'Brien.
That's something that shouldn't go unnoticed in this lost Thursday night. Signs of it are all over the locker room.
There is the heart of the Texans secondary — safety Kendrick Lewis, cornerback Kareem Jackson and cornerback Johnathan Joseph — sitting together, hashing out the breakdowns that led to T.Y. Hilton's too predictable explosion against the Texans. There's Watt looking more determined than down.
At first blush, this loss looks like a lot of the prime time losses of the Gary Kubiak era. Fall into a massive hole, make a valiant comeback that comes up just short, commit a giant special teams blunder. If you blink, you can see that Monday night at Reliant several years ago when Matt Schaub pulls off that amazing rally . . . only to throw an interception on the very first play of overtime.
Sometimes looks are deceiving though.
Clowney To The Rescue
These Texans have gone 3-3 while having Jadeveon Clowney for only the first half of the first game. Now Clowney — clearly the second most talented player on the defense and arguably the third most talented player on the entire team behind Watt and Arian Foster — could very well be back for the Monday Nighter against Pittsburgh in 10 days.
Even after two close heartwrenching — and sometimes compoundingly frustrating — losses in five days, Bill O'Brien's Texans are right there. This isn't a team reeling as much as it's a team regrouping.
Even Johnson can see that through his personal pain.
"I don't think we're in a bad place," the long-time Texans lifeline says. ". . . I think we have a hell of a football team."
After the easiest onsides kick recovery in football history, the Texans still somehow dodge the now typical Thursday Night Football embarrassment.
Even having lost two straight in excruciating fashion, a real sense of confidence is apparent in this Texans locker room.
This is about tweaks not tear downs.
"It's definitely not time to panic," Watt says. "There is no doubt about that. It's not time to panic. The way that this team fights, and the way that these guys battle . . ."
For the second straight game, it becomes apparent O'Brien's built an attitude of resolve this franchise's often lacked in the past.
After 24-0, after a start so disastrous that a Seth Rogen movie would have nixed it as too unbelievable, after the easiest onsides kick recovery in football history — a play O'Brien simply calls "terrible" — the Texans still somehow dodge the now typical Thursday Night Football embarrassment.
Instead they make Andrew Luck sweat and give the prematurely crowned Golden Boy quarterback something to think about.
"Give some credit to our guys, they fought back," O'Brien says. "I am very proud of these guys. They were down 24 nothing. It looked like it was going to be about 50 to nothing."
Andrew Luck and the Colts have already been given the AFC South, just like many have already given Luck the league MVP before the Houston area kid's even put up one superstar level season. The Indianapolis fans who so quickly and eagerly turned their backs on Peyton Manning may be the haughtiest fan base in the entire NFL. They assume so much.
Now they see Luck and their Colts (4-2) holding the early expected lead in the AFC South. But on a night when the Colts run nearly 80 plays of offense, a night when Hilton has more than 200 yards receiving with three minutes left in the third quarter, the Texans still make the Anointed One shiver.
"We managed to weather a storm," Luck says.
Andre Johnson is left with a personal nightmare rather than a team-wide malaise. That's something.
That may say something about the direction the future of this division is headed toward too.