- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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BALTIMORE -- How many of these games can we watch unfold, predict how they will unravel, and already know what the players will say?
As the Baltimore Ravens ran their 4-minute offense through Ray Rice and got a touchdown to pull away from the Texans in the fourth quarter, anyone who watches the Texans on a regular basis was thinking something similar. They had to be. Or maybe some have grown numb to it by now.
It’s as difficult for the players to say the same sound bytes as it is for the fans to swallow them. Sunday’s 29-14 loss didn’t make any of it less old, less stale, less predictable or less maddening.
“We feel we are a playoff-caliber team, we deserve to be one,” receiver Kevin Walter said. “We go out there and have a hell of a week and practice, but that doesn’t matter. You’ve got to get it done on Sunday, especially against a team like this.
“Baltimore’s been there, every year. They are always in the playoffs. We did it once this year [at home] against Pittsburgh. But we’ve got to go on the road in a tough environment like this and get it done.”
Even after they didn’t, look at the AFC South. The teams are 0-7 over the last two weeks. Houston is 3-3 heading for Nashville and a matchup with the 3-2 Titans. If they don’t get receiver Andre Johnson back for that game, they should get him back a week later. Meanwhile, Jacksonville (1-5) and Indianapolis (0-6) have not won a game between them since opening day.
The Texans have two games with the Titans left on their schedule. Three other games qualify as mildly threatening: at Tampa Bay, against Atlanta and at Cincinnati. The Texans are capable of losing to anybody, of course, but the road map should be one they can navigate.
Even after ugly losses to Oakland and Baltimore over the last two weeks, even with flawed DNA that doesn’t appear repaired and even without Mario Williams it’s hard to emphatically say Houston can’t win the division and break through to the playoffs. At worst the Texans figure to slug it out with the Tennessee, a team with plenty of questions of its own.
How close are the Texans to the Ravens, a team they also lost to last season -- in overtime at Reliant Stadium?
“We’re right there,” safety Glover Quin said. “You saw the game. [With] a five-point lead in the fourth quarter, they made some plays and we didn’t. Are they better than us? No. Did they play better than us today? Yes.”
Is this a conversation we have far too often? Before DeMeco Ryans steps in, allow me to answer: yes.
Said Ryans: “We’re right there, that’s the frustrating part. We have to close the game out on our terms. I don’t know how many times I’ve said that in my career, but it’s the reality of it and it has to be done.”
Numerically, things looked just fine in several key departments. The Texans had two takeaways and protected the ball. They were better on third down. They ran for roughly the same average as the Ravens did.
But they failed to find the big plays like Torrey Smith's 51-yard catch over Kareem Jackson, Anquan Boldin's 56-yard catch over Johnathan Joseph and Rice’s 27-yard run on the final touchdown drive that put the game out of reach.
Maybe it would have been a different story if Matt Schaub had Johnson to throw to, but we’re not here to talk about hypothetical situations. And to their credit the Texans didn’t lean on his absence as an excuse.
“Sometimes it’s all too familiar, especially standing on the sidelines seeing what’s going on and knowing that you’ve been there before,” inside linebacker Brian Cushing said, a bandage on the bridge of his nose where he gashed it last week. “It’s frustrating not being able to close it out.”
All that said, confident professional athletes need to maintain faith. And working a cramped visitors locker room at M&T Bank Stadium, I didn’t hear any wavering there.
“I feel great [about our chances] because I feel it’s still early,” Cushing said. “We’ve got big one coming up next week where we can really control it and take the [division] lead like we’re supposed to …”
“I just wish we could play more consistent as a team. Maybe when we have teams where we want them, go for the kill, go for the win. So far we haven’t been able to do it. But it’s a long season. Hopefully we will be able to do that.”
Outside linebacker Connor Barwin didn’t even use the word “hopefully.”
“There is nothing symbolic about this or anything,” he said. “Today they made the plays and we didn’t. I’m very confident still that we’re going to make the plays in the games to come.”
I don’t want to say it’s a bad thing. It’s what he should say. It’s what you want to hear.
It’s hard, nevertheless, not to wonder, why exactly?