The Texans built a 17-point lead against Indianapolis at home for the second straight year only to let it slip away.
Sunday’s game highlighted a key difference between the undefeated AFC South champion Colts and a Houston team that has chased them since joining the league in 2002.
The Colts always believe they can win and usually do, especially in building a 15-1 record against Houston.
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The Texans? They’ve improved enough to beat bad teams and play close games with good ones, but they’ve never made the playoffs because of their inability to finish off teams in big games.
“It’s like we are at this hill and we keep getting to the top and we just keep rolling back down,” Andre Johnson said. “Somehow we’ve just got to find a way to get over it and that’s the biggest thing right now.”
Owner Bob McNair’s team can’t blame its struggles on a lack of talent. Now that Houston’s roster is on par with the top teams in the league, his players must learn how to focus at crucial times to win big games.
“The thing that we haven’t developed yet to the extent that it needs to be developed is our mental toughness,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I think that’s what we have to focus on. We have to be mentally tougher, a little more disciplined and then when you get in these pressure situations you still focus on getting your job done.”
Houston’s most recent loss came after two straight games where the team lost by three points after Kris Brown missed field goals of 40-plus yards. Four of Houston’s six losses have been by a touchdown or less.
“You’ve got to change your mindset on hoping and wishing bad things don’t happen to going out there and knowing that you’re going to execute no matter what happens,” defensive end Antonio Smith said.
Johnson, the star receiver who has been with the team since its second season, took the last loss extremely hard. He blamed himself for not making more plays and lamented letting another win get away.
The Texans (5-6) aren’t out of the wild card hunt but would probably have to win each of their five remaining games to qualify for the postseason.
Coach Gary Kubiak said Houston’s third straight heartbreaking defeat was particularly hard for his team.
“A lot of people in this building are working very hard, coaches, people in this building that deserve some success and those players are a big part of that,” he said. “They’re the ones that have to go find it for everybody, so obviously they’re very, very down (Monday).”
This week the Texans finish their AFC South schedule against Jacksonville looking to avenge a 31-24 loss in Week 3 that came after Chris Brown fumbled at the goal line.
Houston had a losing record in each of its first five seasons before Kubiak led it to an 8-8 finish in each of the last two. Each season, Johnson brushed aside talk of personal goals or accomplishments in favor of discussing his hopes of leading Houston to its first playoff berth.
“The leaders have got to be able to identify those situations when they really need to step up and sort of help pull the team up with them during those crucial times,” McNair said. “We’ve been short in that area. We haven’t had the leadership we need to get through those tough periods and we’ve had too many mental mistakes.”
The Texans could learn how to play in big games, Kubiak said, by taking notes on how the Colts responded to being down three scores in the first half Sunday.
“We’ve got to find a way to make the plays when we’re in these close football games to come out on top, and good teams do that,” Kubiak said.
The question is how does a team that has never experienced success learn to win big games?
Kubiak and his players were troubled by the lack of concentration on a play during the Colts go-ahead drive early in the fourth quarter. Dunta Robinson delivered a huge hit on Joseph Addai after a short gain. While the Texans were celebrating that blow, Manning was lining up and hit Austin Collie for a 31-yard gain.
“That’s a great play, but you have to refocus,” Kubiak said. “That’s your job to make those plays. You’re looking at an 11-0 football team, one of their players gets the heck knocked out of them and nobody lost focus.”
While Kubiak has shouldered the blame for Houston’s recent struggles, McNair expressed confidence in his work with the team this season.
“I think Gary has done a good job,” McNair said. “I think his coaching staff has done a good job. I think the morale of the team has been very high, there’s no dissension, everybody’s on the same page, nobody is pointing fingers at each other. That is attributed to two things: the coaches and the selection of players and the type of people we have on the team.”