BALTIMORE -- The equipment truck just outside the Houston Texans' locker room sounded in need of a tuneup. It chugged loudly and unnecessarily in a tunnel at M&T Bank Stadium, doing its part to drown out the ugly end of a breakthrough season.
But the Texans spoke up proudly about the season that had just crashed to a close, talking of the disappointing suddenness of losing 20-13 to the Baltimore Ravens and falling just short of a trip to play the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.
“Everybody sees the potential that this team has now,” said running back Arian Foster, who sliced through Baltimore’s vaunted defense for 132 rushing yards. “I think we gained a little respect in this league this year and it only continues to grow from here. We have a young team, a talented team and I think the upside is tremendous.”
Still, opportunities like this one are hard to come by and missing out on them fills a team with regret.
In a regular-season loss here on Oct. 16, the Texans saw the Ravens really come after the quarterback. But with rookie T.J. Yates under center rather than veteran Matt Schaub, Baltimore backed off, looking to complicate things with coverage rather than pressure.
And the hosts got what they needed, making the conventional pregame wisdom come true: a rookie quarterback wouldn’t be able to win here.
Yates threw three interceptions that turned into 10 points. The real killer of the trio was No. 3. Houston had the ball at the Ravens’ 38-yard line at the two-minute warning. The coverage showed just a single high safety and that dictated Yates to look to Andre Johnson deep down the right side.
But Yates failed to convince that lone safety, perennial Pro Bowler Ed Reed, to linger in center field. Reed raced to the right side of the end zone, went up and pulled in a pass intended for Johnson.
“You can’t coach a kid enough as a quarterback how good No. 20 is in the middle of the field and he found out the hard way today,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said.
Said Yates: “I learned pretty quickly that just because I read the right coverage, it may not work. Ed Reed makes up for so much. He is all over the place. You may be making the right read, but Reed will make a play anyway.”
It shouldn’t have come down to a single scenario.
After they fell behind 17-3, the Texans really took control of the game. The defense sacked Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco five times and made him very uncomfortable. Cornerback Johnathan Joseph blanketed receiver Torrey Smith, who made one 9-yard catch. The Ravens didn’t break a run longer than 9 yards. Eight times in 15 possessions the Ravens punted after only three plays. The Texans produced a big goal-line stand at the end of the third quarter.
But Houston couldn’t find a takeaway to offset its giveaways -- the three picks and a fumbled punt by Jacoby Jones.
They popped the ball out twice, but fumbles by Flacco and Ray Rice were recovered by the Ravens.
“If they would have just bounced our way I think we would have got a whole other outcome,” defensive end Antonio Smith said.
In time, the Texans will come to appreciate a landmark season. They captured the AFC South crown, earned the franchise’s first playoff berth and won a wild-card round playoff game over Cincinnati before falling just short against the Ravens.
Because of the way it played out, they left town convinced they were the better team that just didn’t play better.
Tired as they may be, they’ll be tossing and turning Sunday night and beyond, running through plays they could have made that would have made things different.
“I’m not going to get a lot of sleep tonight, I know a lot of guys on this team are not going to get a lot of sleep tonight,” said Foster, who traded jerseys with Ray Lewis after the game. “It’s what we do for a living, it’s how we defend our legacy, how we write our story.
“And it matters. It matters to me. It matters to these guys in this locker room. It’s one of those things that’s going to haunt you until you can get that taste out of your mouth Week 1 of next year.”
Players are accustomed to routine and always expect to win. They go about their business expecting the pattern to continue. Everything tells them that Monday morning should be about review and recovery and the start of a plan for what’s next.
But now, nothing’s next.
“It’s weird,” linebacker Brian Cushing said. “I don’t think anyone wants to stop playing football in here and I think that’s a different feeling than we’ve ever had in this locker room.”
Wait 'til next year is the familiar refrain of every talented team that comes up short.
The Texans said it Sunday, still hurting. The sentiment will grow stronger as time passes, putting distance between them and the details of this loss.
“Coming into an environment like this, you have to play clean,” safety Glover Quin said. “We didn’t play clean on offense or defense and they won the game.
“Next year will be different. This game will be at our house.”