We’ve just got to make more plays, they said.
It’s a blanket, clichéd and too-easy solution to a loss like this one, five weeks after a 42-14 drubbing here at Gillette Stadium.
In many ways, the 2012 Texans maxed out, and here they finished at the same stage as last year’s team, an overachieving bunch that lost several key players to injuries and rallied behind a third-string rookie quarterback.
It’s the nature of an NFL player to defend his teammates and to believe his locker room is filled with the ingredients needed to be a championship team.
“We’ve got the guys right here in this room capable of getting the job done,” cornerback Johnathan Joseph said. “We got the job done all year to win 13 ball games. There a lot of teams out there that won three, four ball games. Of course we’re capable of doing it. It’s just about doing it all the time. I have no problem with the people we have here on this team.”
Hopefully, coach Gary Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith will see more need for change than Joseph does. The Patriots aren’t going to come back to the pack in the AFC. Houston has to hunt them down. And with these two losses the Texans simply proved they don’t have enough, in scheme or in personnel, to do so.
To catch and pass the Patriots, they don’t need cosmetic surgery, they need genetic alterations.
On offense, the Texans have developed a power running game that comes out of the zone-blocking scheme and a play-action passing game that plays off of it. But they bog down in the red zone and need a receiving threat or two that can present an option in the end zone. Houston, too, needs to alter a generally conservative mindset. Sunday, it allowed for Matt Schaub, taking a snap from the New England 1-yard line in the fourth quarter with time running out, to throw a quick pass to Andre Johnson short of the end zone that allowed him to be tackled for no gain.
Defensively, the Texans need more quality depth at linebacker and in the secondary to match New England’s variety and depth of weapons. And the Patriots' attack rarely makes mistakes and typically scores a lot.
New England can simply rotate through different pieces on offense to present problems. In the regular-season game, Houston did nice work limiting Wes Welker but got clobbered by Aaron Hernandez. This time Welker turned eight catches into 131 yards while Hernandez was also an issue again.
Houston struggled with the combination of pace and personnel the Patriots weave together.
“The hurry-up, again we weren’t fully prepared for some reason,” said outside linebacker Brooks Reed, who didn’t play in the first matchup because of a groin injury. “It’s extremely hard to get the call in and line up when they are going hurry-up. They’re not going to wait for you. They’ve got plays planned out and one audible and they’ve got their play ready. Whereas we’ve got to get the call from the sideline, get lined up, recognize the formation.
“It takes us a lot more time to get lined up than they do. That’s the challenge and again that’s what kind of got us today. And making plays too, it’s them making plays not just them hurrying up. I think we could have been a little bit more prepared. We knew that was going to happen. We saw it on film, them lining up quick and defenses not being ready. We didn’t think it was going to be us and in some cases today it was.”
And questions about mental toughness will linger in the offseason. At 11-1, they controlled the AFC. They blew a first-round bye and home-field advantage and a chance at a deep run with a 2-4 finish.
Like Joseph, though, Kubiak didn’t talk of change but of staying the course.
And owner Bob McNair didn’t help with his immediate reaction, saying at least three times in his conversation with reporters that the Texans are close. (If you’re that close and you get every officiating break in the game, you should win, shouldn’t you?)
Schaub put up 343 yards in a come-front-behind effort, but was uneven. He has the continued unwavering backing of Kubiak and the franchise.
“I’ve got a ton of confidence in him. I think he’s one of the top quarterbacks in football,” Kubiak said. “You don’t get over that hump unless you’re willing to keep going back there and keep getting yourself in that position. It’s very, very difficult. I do not take anything for granted for where we are tonight; it’s very hard to get there.
“We’re going to continue to push him to a new level as a player. And that’s all of us. But he’s definitely the one leading the way.”
Schaub was asked if he belongs on a list with the quarterbacks who will be playing next weekend -- Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers, Matt Ryan of the Falcons, Joe Flacco of Baltimore and Tom Brady of the Patriots.
Logic at this point says Schaub does not, or he’d have advanced as they did.
“No doubt I belong,” he said. “I think I belong up there with every one of them.”
I don’t think he’s delusional, just well-programmed in what he believes a confident quarterback is supposed to say. I hope when he and his coaches review this game, that is not the conclusion they come to. They have to address the sense of panic that creeps in at moments like the middle of the third quarter, when flushed to his left from the pocket Schaub simply dropped the ball as he ran and had to dive on it for a 9-yard sack.
I’m not sure the panic problem is completely fixable. He can improve still, but he’ll be in his 10th season next year, and that deep into a career most players have become what they will be.
The Texans need to surround him with better players, particularly on the right side of the offensive line and at receiver beyond Johnson, to maximize his chances and theirs.
There is only so much they can do with the roster given salary-cap constraints. While they’ll be looking to chase the Patriots, they’ll also need to hold off Indianapolis in the AFC South, and the Colts have plenty of money to spend as they look to build on a breakout season.
After the playoff loss in Baltimore last season, defensive lineman Antonio Smith and his teammates made a pact to get to the Super Bowl this year.
“This was not an achievement to any of us,” he said of finishing a second season in a row on the road in the divisional round. “It’s the biggest disappointment you can have.”
“It’s always a gut-check, proving the naysayers right.”