After absorbing a 28-13 beating at the hands of the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, several Texans players said the game was a wake-up call.
It was the Texans' first loss since Oct. 16 at Baltimore, some two months and eight games ago. It came a week after they clinched their first-ever division title with a comeback victory at Cincinnati, and it came at the hands of a 4-9 team at home.
"It is a wake-up call, and it's up to us as leaders to let our team know what exactly this game is," defensive end Antonio Smith said. "I wouldn't say it has to happen, but if it does happen, it's needed for you to be battle-tested in a situation like this, for us to grow as a team. You got to take your knucks. You got to take your hits on the chin.
"It's like I told 'em last week at halftime (when the Texans trailed the Bengals 16-3): 'We gonna get hit. You ain't under the radar no more. Teams are not surprised by what we're doing no more. And when you become 'the team,' just like when we face teams that people give high praises, you got the underdog coming to knock you right off the pedestal.'"
Smith, a team captain, speaks from experience – an eerily similar experience.
Smith played for the Arizona Cardinals from 2004-08. In 2008, the Cardinals clinched the NFC West title in Week 14 – Arizona's first playoff berth since 1998. In their next game, they lost 35-14 at home to the Minnesota Vikings. They were outscored 28-0 in the first half. The next week, they lost 47-7 at New England after getting outscored 31-0 in the first half. They rebounded by winning their regular-season finale, then won three playoff games to earn a spot in the Super Bowl.
The Texans were outscored 21-0 in the first half at home on Sunday, one week after clinching the AFC South title and their first-ever playoff berth in Week 14.
"I've been in this exact situation," Smith said. "I keep saying it's almost like déjà vu. I'm kind of glad a game like this could happen before the playoffs, because you come against a team like this in the playoffs, there is no tomorrow… This would be about the time you want it to happen. This is what is called being battle-tested, and I would rather be battle-tested before the playoffs than get in the playoffs and you're in that same frame of mind and ooh, you're going home."
Through 12 games this season, the Texans trailed at the end of the first quarter and at halftime only once. It has now happened in both of the last two games.
After averaging 16.7 points in the first half of their first 11 games, the Texans have scored a total of 13 points in the first half of their last three. This was the second consecutive game in which they've buried themselves in the first half with turnovers, defensive lapses and a missed long field goal.
That emerging trend was somewhat obscured by the Texans' seven-game winning streak and emotional division-clinching victory last Sunday.
"We've gotten away with it," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "Like I said last week, I was disturbed last week. I was obviously happy for the team, but I was very disturbed at how we played, especially in the first half as a team. And I told them that after the game, 'That's going to come back to bite us. You're not going to get away with that stuff.' The team got beat today. We got beat soundly.
"You don't want that kind of positive, but I will tell you one thing: It is a jolt. It's a humbling game. For several weeks now, we've been feeling really good and having some really good talks in here after the game. There is a very humbling experience in that locker room. They know they can't play that way or they're not going to like the way the season ends. I have to find a way to stop it."
Fortunately for Kubiak and the Texans, this loss happened in December and not January. They have a chance to regroup, find out what's going wrong and fix their mistakes before the postseason begins.
The same can be said for rookie quarterback T.J. Yates, who finally looked like a rookie in his third-career start. After getting serenaded with chants of "T-J, T-J" from the home crowd in Week 13, Yates heard the Texans get booed as they left the field at halftime on Sunday. He threw two interceptions, doubling his season total.
Kubiak said Yates wasn't as sharp in his reads and needs to play better. Yates said the game was a learning experience. It's one that could prove to be invaluable come playoff time.
At 10-4, the Texans are still in contention for a first-round bye. They're tied with the Baltimore Ravens for the second-best record in the AFC, one game behind the New England Patriots. The 10-3 Pittsburgh Steelers face the San Francisco 49ers on Monday Night Football.
A short week awaits with a Thursday night game coming up at Indianapolis. That's just fine with Texans players, who are eager to get the taste of Sunday's loss out of their mouths.
"We got beat," linebacker Brian Cushing said. "We got beat up physically, we got beat up as a football team and we lost the game. That's something we're going to have to respond to. This is something tough to swallow but it's humbling, and this team is going to be motivated. There's no question about it. It's a good thing that this week's short, because this team's going to be ready."