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Texans left knowing their great turnaround under Bill O'Brien isn't enough: No playoff reality stings (for now)

Texans left knowing their great turnaround under O'Brien isn't enough

J.J. Watt Andre Johnson hug Texans
The Houston Texans'  season-closing win had a number of feel-good moments, including J.J. Watt's post touchdown hug of Andre Johnson. But it didn't have a playoff payoff. Photo by Michelle Watson/CultureMapSnap
Brian Cushing Texans Jags
Brian Cushing showed flashes of being able to get back to the player he once was. Photo by Michelle Watson/CultureMapSnap
Arian Foster Texans Jags
Arian Foster's brilliance was a huge part of the Bill O'Brien turnaround. Photo by Michelle Watson/CultureMapSnap
J.J. Watt Andre Johnson hug Texans
Brian Cushing Texans Jags
Arian Foster Texans Jags

It wasn't gruff stoicism that inspired Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien to temper the enthusiasm of his team's seven-win improvement over last season, but rather the sobering reality of the situation.

In the waning moments of their 23-17 victory over the toothless Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday at NRG Stadium, the Texans flirted with the possibility of clinching a postseason berth that appeared unattainable on the heels of a nine-point home loss to the Cincinnati Bengals back on the final day of November. Four wins in five games later, including their come-from-behind grind in their regular-season finale, and the Texans were clinging to the faintest of hopes until the Baltimore Ravens stirred from their perplexingly comatose state and pushed past the Cleveland Browns to clinch the sixth and final seed in the AFC and eliminate the Texans from postseason contention.

That most of this hysteria unfolded simultaneously, with the Texans rallying to overtake the Jaguars while the Ravens posted 17 fourth-quarter points to catch and surpass the Browns, left more than a few nerves frayed on the home sideline. When both games were complete and the Texans were left just short of achieving the improbable, it was difficult to skim feelings of accomplishment from a bowl of anguish.

 "We are relentless. Every game that we've played, the toughness has been there." 

"Like I said, you can't leave it up to other people," O'Brien said. "You've got to go back and figure out the things this offseason that we can do better. If you're depending on two other teams to lose (the Ravens and the San Diego Chargers, who did fall to the Kansas City Chiefs), that's not where you want to be at the end of the year.

"You want to be, at the end of the year, where you have basically seeded. We weren't there at this point, but I do think we made a lot of strides.

"Being 9-7, from where we started in April, I think is a decent start. But again, it's not the ultimate goal. We all know that. Everybody understands that. We don't have to sit here and talk about it. It is what it is, but we ended on a winning note and I thought that was important."

That irrevocable truth will subsist once the sting of what might have been subsides. Think back to where the Texans were last offseason: On the heels of a cataclysmic 2-14 campaign that cost Gary Kubiak and Matt Schaub their jobs and reset the dial on the organization.

In stepped O'Brien and with him followed an ideological shift that warranted patience even in the face of questionable personnel decisions, including the signing of journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and the culling of another class of minimum-impact rookies drafted by Rick Smith.

Fitzpatrick, of course, did not last, first succumbing to poor performance and then a broken leg. His replacement, Ryan Mallett, fell victim to injury (torn pectoral) too, as did his rookie Tom Savage (knee). Case Keenum walking in off the street and steering the Texans to a pair of must-win victories spoke volumes about the resilience up and down the depleted roster and the grit O'Brien aimed to instill from the jump.

But tenacity can carry a team, even an inspired one, only so far. The Texans needed the otherworldly talent of defensive end (and deserved league MVP) J.J. Watt and the bounce-back brilliance of running back Arian Foster. They required a patchwork secondary besieged by nagging injuries to hold the back line of the defense until the defensive line rounded into shape in support of Watt (hat tip to Jared Crick).

The offensive line, warts and all, held firm. The linebackers remained steadfast as Brian Cushing inched toward reclaiming a form befitting his leadership and sacrifice. Randy Bullock and Shane Lechler were solid and sometimes spectacular serving as the foundation for a reliable kicking game. There were points in time during this season that the Texans resembled a motley crew, but the results spoke loud and clear.

"We are relentless," Texans left tackle Duane Brown said. "Every game that we've played, the toughness has been there. I think we've gotten a lot cleaner in the last half of the year. It is tough. It is tough to learn a new system, a new coaching staff, new players. Everyone is trying to gel. It's tough to do that. The first half of the season you kind of see that, us trying to build towards that.

 The Texans appear much closer to another AFC South title than another No. 1 overall pick. What the Ravens managed can't snuff that reality. 

"Everyone bought into the philosophy and the culture coach O'Brien was trying to bring here."

The Texans' lamentable losses came prior to their bye week, from the overtime missteps against the Dallas Cowboys, the 24-point hole against the Indianapolis Colts, and the second-quarter collapse against the Pittsburgh Steelers. It is no coincidence that all three of those teams claimed division titles and corresponding postseason bids. If there were lessons to be learned, the Texans gleaned them from the best.

Texans Quarterback Merry Go-Round

All of those recollections and emotions flooded the Texans on Sunday. Their jubilation was muted, even in the afterglow of victory, simply because the Ravens salvaged their season, the same Ravens the Texans thumped a week earlier.

In the midst of Watt making history, of Keenum tossing his name into the offseason quarterback competition, of the Texans completing just their fourth winning season in franchise history, the celebration stalled. The Texans had salvaged their own season and taken huge leaps forward to resemble a competent team. It sounded foolish to discuss a postseason berth just six weeks ago, but the Texans turned that conservative perspective on its ear. They rallied.

So when Watt was asked to consider it all, to affix a bow on a campaign that opened with rightful reservations and closed with obvious optimism, he did not bull rush into a reply. His response required reasonable contemplation for so much had transpired that a hurried answer would not do this season justice. The Texans have questions to answer and holes to plug, but their progress makes their rebuilding palatable.

The Texans appear much closer to another AFC South title than another No. 1 overall pick. What the Ravens managed can't snuff that reality.

"It was a fairly good turnaround," Watt said. "We didn't completely get back where we waned to be, but in Coach O'Brien's first year, I think him and the coaching staff did a very good job. I think our guys did a good job and like I said, we fought through quite a bit of adversity.

"We were going through quarterbacks at the end, so what we were able to do there at the end was pretty impressive, and I think that it sets a good building block to come."