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Numerous opportunities slipped through the Texans' fingertips Sunday.
From failed fourth down conversions to poor red zone execution, the Texans couldn't deliver when it counted most against the San Diego Chargers.
On the team's final offensive play, quarterback Matt Schaub's pass ricocheted off wide receiver Andre Johnson's knee and into the hands of safety Paul Oliver at the Chargers' nine-yard line. With only 1:19 on the game clock, San Diego kneeled down three times to hand Houston its second consecutive loss in front of a sellout crowd of 70,886 at Reliant Stadium.
"It's tough," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "We're 2-3 at home (this year). You've got to protect your home turf. Obviously, we haven't done that."
The Texans followed a simple game plan: Hand the ball to Arian Foster and get out of his way. In the first half alone, the second-year running back and AFC's leading rusher totaled 99 yards on 18 carries (5.5 avg.) with two touchdowns. His pace tapered off significantly in the second half, yet he still finished with 197 yards from scrimmage.
The Chargers were equally explosive, though, even without their injured Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates. Quarterback Philip Rivers completed 17-of-23 passes for 295 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. He found rookie wide receiver Seyi Ajirotutu four times for 111 yards, including twice for scores. Tight end Randy McMichael also caught a pair of touchdowns.
"We gave up some big plays," Kubiak said. "I told the guys last night that it didn't matter if Gates plays, (Rivers) will throw it to the right guy. It's about defeating coverage and he is going to do that just like the guy we played last week."
The lapses in pass defense aside, Houston could not have begun the game any better. On the opening possession, linebacker Stanford Keglar deflected Mike Scifres' punt, which traveled only one yard in the air. On the next snap, Foster sprinted off the left tackle and was barely touched on an eight-yard touchdown.
After the Chargers bounced back with two touchdown drives in the first quarter, Foster scored again with 10:27 left in the first half on a two-yard run off the left tackle.
With the Texans leading 17-14 late in the first half, Foster appeared to have his third touchdown when he made a three-yard catch falling into the end zone, but the play was overruled when officials determined that he didn't have complete possession. Once he crossed the goal line, Foster hit the ball against the turf and lost control. Neil Rackers kicked a 21-yard field goal on the next play.
"I was trying to use the ball to catch my balance," Foster said. "I was real disappointed because you can't keep getting field goals against a team like that with a high-powered offense."
The Texans missed another red zone touchdown chance on the opening series of the third quarter, when running back Derrick Ward was stuffed on third-and-two from the five-yard line. Rackers' 25-yard field goal extended Houston's lead to 23-14.
From there, San Diego controlled the tempo and limited the Texans' run game to five yards on six carries. Rivers led the Chargers on scoring drives of 74 and 65 yards, respectively, while controlling the clock for 7:21 on those series.
Rookie cornerback Kareem Jackson intercepted Rivers early in the fourth quarter at the Houston 48, but the Texans couldn't capitalize. On third-and-seven from the Chargers' 44-yard line, quarterback Matt Schaub was sacked for a 12-yard loss.
With 3:34 left in the game and trailing 29-23, the Texans drove into Chargers' territory again, but Schaub was stuffed for no gain on fourth-and-two. A play earlier, Schaub was flagged for intentional grounding when he targeted tight end Joel Dreessen near the Texans' sideline.
"It doesn't make any sense to me, but that's (referee) Mike (Carey's) call," Kubiak said. "We had a guy on the corner route so we threw the ball his way…Mike's explanation to me was that the angle that he threw the ball prevented him from getting credit."
Despite that ruling, the Texans still had a chance to win late in the contest. Schaub completed four of his six pass attempts for 58 yards on the potential game-winning drive before his attempt to Johnson was picked off.
Houston (4-4) now travels to Jacksonville next week facing an important AFC South matchup against the Jaguars. Kubiak knows this is a critical juncture of the season.
"We are facing some adversity and it's about strength in people and what we're doing," he said. "I believe in our guys that are doing it. We've just got to keep our nose to the grindstone and keep going."