As players cleaned out their lockers on Monday at Reliant Stadium, a mixture of disappointment and optimism permeated the locker room.
Disappointment, because the Texans felt like they gave one away in a 20-13 Divisional Playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens a day earlier. It was a game in which they turned the ball over four times, and a game that ended their season one week short of the AFC Championship.
"It's tough," inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "It's come upon us too early. We were really looking forward to coming in and practicing this week."
Optimism, because the Texans know their future is bright. They have an abundance of young talent – 17 of the 22 players who started against Baltimore are less than 30 years old. They reached the second round of the playoffs despite season-ending injuries to quarterback Matt Schaub and outside linebacker Mario Williams, along with hamstring injuries that sidelined Andre Johnson for nine games and Arian Foster for three.
"The power of team is what I take out of it," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "It's just amazing when you get 53 guys going in the same direction, what they can do. A lot of things that happened to us this year can easily send you in the wrong direction. It made us stronger. It made our locker room stronger. It made the whole group stronger."
Kubiak described the checkout process with players on Monday morning as "extremely positive."
"Our guys are down with what happened yesterday, but they're very upbeat about their football team," he said. "In all my years in this business, I've never been around a group of guys (who) talk more positive about each other, about their teammates, how good a locker room we had, what type of football team we had, how they can't wait to go back and play with that group of guys."
According to just about everyone outside the Texans' locker room, they should have been cleaning out their lockers two weeks ago. Not many observers gave them a chance to make the playoffs, let alone win a playoff game, with third-string rookie quarterback T.J. Yates at the helm.
There was a stretch this season where the Texans lost at least one starter or key contributor to an injury in 11 consecutive games. Schaub, Johnson and Foster played together for less than four full quarters. Yet the Texans kept finding ways to win, all the way to the precipice of the AFC title game.
"It just shows the perseverance of this team and the mental toughness that we have," Schaub said. "It's next man up. You look at the season, you look at how many games 'Dre missed, when I went down, Mario was out, we missed Arian for a few games at the beginning. We're a team.
"We have the right pieces here, and we're going to be right in this position for many years. Our goal and what we see in the near future is to have yesterday's game here at Reliant Stadium."
Schaub will be healthy in time for training camp, possibly for OTAs in the spring, from a Lisfranc injury that ended his season in Week 10. He ranked second in the AFC in passer rating this season, and the Texans averaged 27.3 points per game with Schaub in the lineup.
The Texans have one of the league's best running backs (Foster), best wide receivers (Johnson) and best offensive lines. They have a Pro Bowl quarterback (Schaub) and Pro Bowl tight end (Owen Daniels).
Their defensive is loaded with young talent in the front seven, including linebackers Brian Cushing and Connor Barwin and 2011 rookies J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed. Pro Bowl cornerback Johnathan Joseph and free safety Danieal Manning, both entering their seventh seasons, anchor the secondary. Veteran leadership comes from Ryans and defensive end Antonio Smith.
Smith will be the oldest starter on the Texans' defense when next season starts. And he'll only be 30.
"This team is ready, man," Smith said after Sunday's game. "This is not going to be a fluke year. This team is built for what happened this year. It's not just on accident.
"Our future is bright. Just imagine when we have our full team back, when everybody is here and firing on all cylinders. We're going to be a very dangerous team."
It took the Texans 10 seasons to finally reach the playoffs. From the way players talked on Sunday and Monday, it could be a long time before they miss the playoffs.
"This organization is going to be like a shark tasting blood," tight end Joel Dreessen said. "We're going to be hungry for more. Making the playoffs is going to happen over and over again for this ball club."
Said Foster: "The beautiful thing about this thing that we have in Houston is that it can only go up from here. Houston should be excited about it. I'm excited about it, and this franchise is excited about it. Everybody sees the potential that this team has now. I think we gained a little respect in this league this year. We have a young team, a talented team, and I think the upside is tremendous.
"I'm proud of what we accomplished this year as a team. We had a lot of adversity and we weren't even supposed to be here in the first place. Not that that's an excuse, but next year, watch out."