The Texans have played in plenty of season finales that didn't mean anything. This one had a different twist.
Instead of being eliminated from the playoffs before Week 17 like in so many years past, the Texans were locked into the No. 3 seed in the AFC. Whether they won or lost to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday at Reliant Stadium would have no effect on their playoff seeding.
The Texans rested running back Arian Foster, cornerback Johnathan Joseph and tight end Owen Daniels, and they lost quarterback T.J. Yates to a minor shoulder injury after one series. With Jake Delhomme under center the rest of the way and backups playing for most of the second half, the Texans still almost beat the Titans but lost 23-22 on a failed two-point conversion attempt in the final seconds.
"After the game, I said, 'Guys, whatever disappointment you have, I got it. It's mine. You should not be disappointed,'" Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "We played extremely hard. We played with a lot of people. We wanted to win the football game.
"It was important. It was important to those guys that were playing in the second half. I'm proud of their effort, like I said. But now we got to move on and we've got a very, very big football game for this city and this football team, and they deserve to be as healthy as they can going into it and I think for the most part, we did that."
The Texans will face the Cincinnati Bengals at Reliant Stadium next weekend in the first round of the playoffs. The Bengals clinched the No. 6 seed in the playoffs on Sunday. Houston enters the playoffs on a three-game losing streak but with plenty of confidence.
"All we need to be focused on is what's coming, and that is the playoffs," said defensive end Antonio Smith, who sacked Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck twice in the first half on Sunday. "You can't take the ups and downs of the past with you into the playoffs. It is a whole new season."
In their final game of the regular season, the Texans almost pulled off a dramatic victory. Delhomme threw a five-yard touchdown pass to Bryant Johnson on third-and-goal with 14 seconds remaining.
The Texans decided to go for two points, but tight end Joel Dreessen was flagged for a false start to push them back five yards. They still went for two, but backup center Thomas Austin's snap went over Delhomme's head and was recovered by the Titans.
"You would never go for two there in any other situation, but where we were physically today, at the end of the game, I had a tight end (Garrett Graham) playing Sam linebacker," Kubiak said. "For our football team, I had to get them to next week, so my mindset the whole way was to try to win the football game. Obviously, you don't want to jump offsides and try to do it from the seven, so I was disappointed."
The Texans' starters played for the entire first half. In the third quarter, reserves like inside linebacker Tim Dobbins, rookie outside linebacker Bryan Braman, fullback James Casey, running back Derrick Ward and Bryant Johnson played extensively. Braman left the game with a neck stinger after recording a sack in the third quarter. Rookie offensive tackle Derek Newton left with a hip injury in the third quarter.
Yates was injured on the Texans' first play of the game when he was sacked by two Titans players. He finished the series, leading the Texans 90 yards in 13 plays for a four-yard touchdown run by Ben Tate.
Yates went to the locker room after the opening drive and did not return to the game. Delhomme finished 18-of-28 for 211 yards and a touchdown with a passer rating of 99.0.
Titans kicker Rob Bironas made a 21-yard field goal early in the second quarter. Titans wide receiver Donnie Avery, who played at the University of Houston, caught a one-yard touchdown pass on third-and-goal with three minutes left in the first half to put the Titans up 10-7. The score came after Delhomme was sacked and stripped by defensive end Dave Ball at the Texans' 33-yard line.
Texans kicker Neil Rackers made a 52-yard field goal with 1:09 left in the second quarter to tie the game at 10. Bironas gave the Titans a 13-10 halftime lead with a 42-yard field goal on the final play of the second quarter.
Tate ran for 56 yards on the first play of the second half, setting up a 37-yard field goal by Rackers that made it 13-13. The Titans took back the lead with yet another field goal, this one from 33 yards, after a 55-yard pass from Matt Hasselbeck to wide receiver Nate Washington.
Delhomme then led the Texans on a 12-play, 76-yard drive keyed by two passes for 26 yards to Casey. But on third-and-three from the 4-yard line, Delhomme threw an incomplete pass into the end zone and the Texans had to settle for a 22-yard field goal.
With 2:32 left to play, the Titans took a 23-16 lead with a 23-yard touchdown catch by Washington. It proved to be the deciding score as the Texans wound up one point short.
Tate finished with 16 carries for 97 yards (6.1 average) and four catches for 24 yards. Casey, who played at tight end and fullback, finished with a game-high seven catches for 91 yards. Safety Quintin Demps and nose tackle Earl Mitchell led the Texans with six tackles.
Wide receiver Andre Johnson returned from a hamstring injury that kept him out of the last three games. He played 15 snaps and caught two passes for 21 yards.
"Nobody is disappointed," Johnson said. "Of course we wanted to win the game and come out on top, but there's next week. Some teams don't have next week. We have next week, the start of the playoffs, and we're excited about it. We're doing everything we can to get ready for it."