Steelers at Reliant next week
NEW ORLEANS — It ended with a desperation fourth-and-21 fling from their own nine-yard line, a pass into thick coverage that never had a chance.
The Houston Texans' vision of starting 3-0 for the first time in franchise history, of showing the NFL that they're here for real this year, dissolved into an all-too familiar heartbreak: A defensive implosion. Wade Phillips' revamped unit — the No. 1 rated defense in the league through two weeks — gave up 30 points in the second half.
Houston would end up the loser in a frantic, bizarre 40-33 game Sunday afternoon, unable to stem the onslaught of Drew Brees and company. And now the Texans (2-1) are looking at the real possibility of a 2-2 beginning with the defending AFC Champion Pittsburgh Steelers heading to the Bayou City for a game next Sunday.
What a difference a few plays makes. What a wild afternoon of football at the Superdome. What a big disappointment for the Texans.
"We've got to find a way to make a play," Houston linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "We didn't make a play in crunch time when we needed to. We have to make a play."
Houston led 16-7, 26-17 and 33-32 with 4:13 left. Once again, no lead was safe with the Texans' defense.
"We tried a lot of different things against them," Phillips, the defensive coordinator/two-game savior, said. "But it didn't seem like any of them worked . . . I'd like to see a little tighter coverage."
The Texans' defensive players would blame themselves for not being able to get off the field on third down. The Texans' offensive players would blame themselves for not turning more of those red-zone opportunities into touchdowns. Don't look now, but the visitors locker room at the Superdome suddenly had the tone of a number of Texan locker rooms from 2010.
"You find ways to win and certainly you can find ways to lose," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "It's just not dumb luck."
No, it's Texans' luck. Even on a day when Gary Kubiak's team benefited from one of the weirdest plays in franchise history.
"We tried a lot of different things against them," Phillips, the defensive coordinator/two-game savior, said. "But it didn't seem like any of them worked ..."
The ball hung in the air, bouncing off hands and bodies . . . until it settled right into Kevin Walter's hands. And just like that, a young franchise that sometimes seems cursed (see the entire 2010 Houston Texans season) yanked the lead back after having fallen down 32-26 in the fourth quarter.
"It happened too fast to think about it," Walter said. "I was running my route and saw the ball bouncing. I thought I'd just go catch it."
Call it the Texans' version of the Steelers' Immaculate Reception. Though there wasn't nearly that much controversy around this one. Walter clearly caught the ball after it ricocheted off Texan tight end Joel Dreessen's hands and a New Orleans Saints' defender. And Houston clearly had another comeback.
It's second comeback of the second half. The Texans would need a third though with Brees, who threw for 246 of his 370 yards in the second half, taking aim at Houston's cornerbacks. After Brees was done, the Texans never came close to that third comeback.
On a day when a former fifth-round draft pick played unlikely superstar, a day when both of Rick Smith's big free-agent pickups took temporary residence in a Super Bowl-winning quarterback's head, a day when the Big Easy turned momentarily queasy, the Houston Texans thought they had finally shown their fans it's safe to believe.
But 3-0 remains as elusive as good secondary coverage. Houston's started 2-0 before. Last year's 2-0 hope crumbled into a 6-10 season. Now, everyone waits to see what happens to this season's 2-0 already turned 2-1.
With Texans quarterback Matt Schaub (373 yards and three touchdowns) and Andre Johnson (seven catches for 128 yards) making sweet music, with third-thought fullback James Casey (Rice's own) making huge plays (a 62-yard catch-and-run to set up one score, a diving, fully extended touchdown catch for another), with Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning both picking off Brees, it looked like Houston would have enough for much of the afternoon.
A Rolling Start
The Texans' first drive could hardly have started worse. Danieal Manning took the ball out of the end zone, despite catching it five yards in — and got stuffed at the 13-yard line. The Texans committed a false start on the first play from scrimmage with the Saints' crowd howling. Schaub had to run for his life before flinging the ball out of bounds on the next play. Ben Tate ran into a wall of Saints and got nothing on the next play.
Suddenly, Houston faced third-and-14 from their own nine-yard line and seemingly a sure punt.
Think again. Schaub hit Johnson underneath and No. 80 did the rest, getting 15 yards when the Texans needed 14. Suddenly, the Texans were rolling. Schaub rifled a 32-yard pass to Johnson, running free in a huge gap underneath, on the very next play. He found tight end Owen Daniels for a 14-yard touchdown pass.
From potential disaster to a nine-play, 87-yard opening statement.
On the Texans' second possession, they turned another drive seemingly going nowhere into points. This time, while under pressure, Schaub flicked a pass to his safety value, fullback James Casey. Rice's Texans' connection only turned that little pass into a 62-yard run down the sideline. Houston would end the first quarter leading 10-0, having out gained New Orleans 185 yards to 29.
The Texans' couldn't build much distance between themselves and the Saints though. After that impressive opening drive, Schaub and company kept turning prime opportunities into three points. Despite drives of 83 and 71 yards — and a Joseph interception inside the New Orleans' 30 — Houston only added three field goals.
A possible 21 points in play — only nine secured.
"We have to do less worrying about what we have to do and just put the ball in the end zone," Daniels said. "To be successful down there (inside the opponents' 20), we've got to be able to run the ball."
This would be the first game in which the Texans clearly felt the loss of Arian Foster, their all-everything game changer from last season who's been an injured non-factor through this season's first three games. Second-year tailback Ben Tate finished with 82 yards on 19 carries, but for the first time his impact was minimal.
When the Saints took the second half kickoff and drove down the field, with Brees finally settling into a passing rhythm (thanks in part to rookie tight end Joey Graham), those missed opportunities and missing Arian loomed large. The Texans found themselves trailing 17-16 in a game in which they racked up 301 yards of offense in the first half.
Houston came back to retake the lead on its next possession though. Even if it was another field goal. And then, Manning stepped in front to pick off Brees. Then, it was Casey time. Again.
And time for a wild, heartbreaking finish. Again. That 3-0 start will have to wait for another year. Again.
"It is what is," Ryans said. "But nah, it's not the same as last year. Last year is over. This is a much better group."