Instead, the Texans (11-5) won their next nine games and 11 of their last 13, capped by Sunday's 20-3 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, to clinch the AFC South title.
"We have a lot bigger goals," J.J. Watt said. "I have a lot bigger goals but it's good. Especially after starting 0-3 and everybody writes you off. Guys in the locker room believed. Guys in the locker room never gave up."
The Texans will make their fifth playoff appearance after winning the division for the fifth time in franchise history. Houston returns to the postseason for the third time in four years after bouncing back a 4-12 campaign in which Watson and Watt suffered season-ending injuries.
"The way we started out, it's a testament to the players in that locker room," coach Bill O'Brien said. "They've always hung tough. And to go from 0-3 (and then) go 11-2 in this league is pretty tough to do. Give credit to the players."
Houston built a 14-point lead in the first half behind rushing touchdowns by Watson and Lamar Miller and made it 20-3 on a 24-yard field goal with about 11 minutes left. The Jaguars had a chance to cut the lead later in the fourth quarter, but Blake Bortles was intercepted in the end zone by Andre Hal.
Jaguars owner Shad Khan said in a statement that his director of football operations, Tom Coughlin, has decided to retain coach Doug Marrone and general manager Dave Caldwell -- even though the team finished in last place a year after playing in the AFC title game. Khan said he agreed with the decision.
"We get judged on wins and losses," Marrone said. "Obviously, this year, I didn't do a good job. Period. I'm never going to step away from that. I'm happy with the faith because I do believe I will get this right."
The Jaguars (5-11) returned to Bortles as starter after benching the quarterback following a loss to Buffalo on Nov. 25. But he did little to get Jacksonville's offense going, with the Jaguars managing one first down in the opening half and finishing with six. Bortles was 15 of 28 for 107 yards.
Watt sacked Bortles 1 1/2 times to finish with 16 this year. Watt has four seasons with 15 or more sacks, second most in NFL history to Reggie White (five).
The performance by Hopkins gives him 1,572 yards receiving and 115 receptions this season, both career highs. His catch total tied Andre Johnson (2008) for the most in franchise history.
"A lot of guys have amazing seasons, but their team isn't where it should be," Hopkins said. "So I think everything I've been doing has correlated to my team winning, which is even better."
The Texans faced a third-and-6 late in the second quarter when Myles Jack deflected a pass and Hopkins grabbed it for a 13-yard gain. Miller ran 7 yards for a touchdown on the next play, dragging two defenders into the end zone to make it 17-3.
Fournette, who was inactive because of foot and ankle injuries, and Yeldon were caught by TV cameras sitting on the bench and chatting while the offense had the ball. They were clearly disengaged with teammates and coaches.
"I am disappointed in the behavior today from T.J. Yeldon and Leonard Fournette," Coughlin said. "They were disrespectful, selfish and their behavior was unbecoming that of a professional football player."
Hopkins is the fourth player in NFL history (Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison and Brandon Marshall) to have at least 100 receptions, 1,500 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns in multiple seasons. He had 111 receptions for 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2015.
Watson, who ran for 66 yards on Sunday, is the first player in NFL history to throw for at least 4,000 yards (4,165) and 25 touchdowns (26) and rush for 500 yards (551) and five touchdowns in a season.
ANDRE AND DEANDRE
Hopkins brought Johnson to the podium with him after the game, and the retired receiver raved about his protege.
"One thing that I appreciate about him is when he first came into the league he asked me about things he needed to do to better his game," Johnson said. "He took that to a whole other level. To see what he's accomplished, what he's doing out on the field, it's amazing."
Jaguars: Jacksonville was without starting cornerback A.J. Bouye (toe injury).
Texans: Starting cornerback Johnathan Joseph sat out with a neck injury.
Jaguars: Jacksonville must decide what to do with Bortles before next season. Most believe he won't return in 2019 after going 24-49 as a starter in five seasons. The third overall pick in the 2014 draft also is due to count $21 million against the salary cap, and the Jags can save $9.5 million by cutting him with a post-June 1 designation.
Texans: Will host the winner of Sunday night's Colts-Titans game next weekend, barring a tie between those teams.
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