FOXBORO – After starting the season 11-1 and winning a franchise-record 12 games, the Texans ended their 2012 season just like their 2011 season – with a road loss in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, two games short of the Super Bowl.
Last season was the first time the Texans made the playoffs in team history. This season, they had their sights locked in on hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans on Feb. 3.
"It's the ultimate disappointment," defensive end Antonio Smith said in the visitors' locker room at Gillette Stadium, still digesting the Texans' 41-28 loss to the New England Patriots. "I think that this was not an achievement to any of us who (were) here last year. We all made a pact. We all made an agreement, I know internally with each and every player, that we wanted the Super Bowl or nothing. So it's the biggest disappointment you could have."
For much of the season, the Texans looked like a team that could be Super Bowl-bound. They had the best record in the AFC through 15 games, but losses in three of their final four – including both of their last two – dropped them from the conference's first seed to third.
Had they held on to the No. 1 seed, they would have had home-field advantage and hosted the Baltimore Ravens at Reliant Stadium this weekend instead of traveling to Foxboro.
"It's tough to swallow right now, but we fought hard all season, all day today," tight end Owen Daniels said. "One team has a smile on their face at the end of the season, and it's not us this year."
Defensive end J.J. Watt, who had four tackles, 0.5 sacks and a quarterback hit on Sunday, described the end of the Texans' season as "frustrating – extremely frustrating."
"We've been here before," Watt said. "You don't want to get back to where you were before. You want to move on, you want to get better, you want to move forward, and we didn't do that. We're gonna look at it, we're gonna figure it out and we're gonna come in next season extremely strong. I can't wait to get back to work."
Running back Arian Foster was asked what the Texans can take away from losing in the Divisional Round for the second consecutive season.
"I don't know yet," Foster said after a brief pause. "Get back to you tomorrow on that one. We've just got to play better in these games. We're right there. We feel like we can compete with anybody in the league. It's just… you've just got to make plays when the opportunity presents itself."
Wide receiver Andre Johnson has been with the Texans since 2003, the franchise's second season. The 31-year-old, a six-time Pro Bowler, toiled through eight seasons without a playoff berth until 2011. Like the rest of his teammates, and perhaps even more, Johnson left Gillette Stadium with the stinging disappointment of a potential Super Bowl season gone by.
"I feel bad, especially for the older guys including myself," Johnson said. "You don't get many shots at this. Me and Kev (wide receiver Kevin Walter, a fellow 10th-year veteran) were just sitting here talking about it at our lockers. You don't get many shots. It took nine years just to get two shots.
"We just have to keep fighting, keep working and keep banging on that door. Hopefully, it'll fall down."