Emotions ran the gamut for the Texans late Sunday afternoon inside a somber locker room as competing feelings of frustration, anger and a large amount of pride ruled the day.
Ultimately, it was yet another prime opportunity squandered for a 1-11-1 team that keeps finding unique ways to lose football games.
Instead of celebrating a potential upset victory over the heavily favored Dallas Cowboys, the Texans were left scratching their heads at how a disastrous fourth-quarter sequence unfolded. Instead of beating the Cowboys after being installed as a 17 1/2 point underdog and gamely building a lead as a rotating quarterback strategy of Davis Mills and backup Jeff Driskel was an effective gambit designedby offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, the Texans were left to lament their latest setback following an inexplicable red-zone failure and another trademark fourth-quarter collapse. A 27-23 defeat at AT&T Stadium was defined by the final minutes of the fourth quarter as the Texans’ 20-17 lead at halftime and 23-17 lead heading into the fourth quarter were erased by quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott with a dominant game-winning drive that followed the Texans’ red-zone debacle.
“Been too many,” Texans left tackle Laremy Tunsil of the Texans’ latest defeat by a small margin. “We’ve got to capitalize on those. We’re supposed to come out of there with a W. (Stuff) happens, I guess. We’ve got to capitalize.”
The Texans, who are headed toward the top overall pick of the draft with the worst record in the league, lost their eighth consecutive game.
“I know it sucks, man,” Texans wide receiver Amari Rodgers said. “We know we definitely should have won that game. We felt like we had the game won. We competed the whole game. I’m just proud of our team the way that we are fighting even though the record is the way that it is.”
Late in the fourth quarter, cornerback Tremon Smith intercepted Prescott for the second time to give the Texans a first-and-goal at the Cowboys’ 4-yard line. Instead of punching the football into the end zone, chaos reigned with standout rookie running back Dameon Pierce unable to go back into the game due to an ankle injury.
First, veteran running back Rex Burkhead got stuffed for a loss of one yard. Then, the Texans decided not to challenge whether wide receiver Chris Moore scored on a four-yard reception on second down. Burkhead got slammed for a two-yard loss by defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence on third down. The Texans thought an option play by Driskel had a shot and it looked like the Cowboys weren’t ready for it on 4th-and-3. After the Cowboys called timeout, Driskel ran an option play to his right after reverse pivoting as Burkhead went left. The Cowboys were all over Driskel, swarming him at the 2-yard line as defensive tackle Neville Gallimore and linebacker Anthony Barr tackled him.
“It was a play to get out on the edge and they had more bodies out there than maybe we wanted,” Driskel said. “It was fourth down and I tried to put my foot in the ground and get vertical and they beat us on that step.
“It’s tough. Defense gives it to us and everybody on our sideline thought there’s no way we don’t get this ball in. I thought every snap we were going to be able to get it in. I thought Chris was really close. We’ve just got to find a way to punch it in.”
What happened on the fourth-down run by Driskel?”We just didn’t execute it,” Smith said. “We just didn’t execute the way we needed to. Realize at the end we had an opportunity. First-and-goal inside the five, we needed to cash that in for a touchdown. We used the best options we had. We have to figure out how to finish.”
The red-zone failure set the stage for Prescott to engineer an 11-play, 98-yard drive capped by Elliott’s game-winning 2-yard touchdown run preceded by Prescott peppering the defense with passes to tight end Dalton Schultz three times.
Smith acknowledged that not having Pierce available impacted the Texans significantly on the red-zone sequence. Pierce had tried to continue earlier after injuring his ankle, but was clearly hobbled and was taken out for the remainder of the game.
“It affected it quite a bit,” Smith said. “The plan would’ve been a little bit different, but nobody wants to hear about injuries. If Dameon would have been healthy and ready to go, of course he would’ve been in there.
“Tough. The guys played tough all day. Games like that, sometimes you feel like, did we deserve to win? Yeah. Where we are in our season, the guys just keep showing up to play. That part is good, but we have a loss still. We realize that.”
Smith said the Texans contemplated whether to challenge the spot on Moore’s catch because the replays in the booth indicated it wouldn’t have been a successful challenge. Moore appeared to break the plane of the end zone, but it wasn’t conclusive.
“We have people upstairs looking at every different look,” Smith said. “If we’re not challenging something that’s pretty close, there’s a good reason that we’re not.”
Instead of kicking the field goal and having a nearly certain six-point lead with 3:25 remaining, the Texans went for it on fourth down on a high-risk option play.
Smith’s reasoning on the decision one week after offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton called a head-scratching pass to rookie fullback as safety Grant Delpit drilled him in the ribs was succinct.
“No struggle on the decision at all, we were up three,” Smith said. “We were going to go for the touchdown or leave them in a situation where they’re going for three to tie it, and, hopefully, we wouldn’t allow them to score a touchdown. So, no decision. I’d make that 100 out of 100 times and execute where we need to at the end.”
The Texans led 10-7 in the first quarter and 20-17 at halftime for their first halftime lead since a Sept. 25 loss to the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.
“It hurts, said Moore, who caught a career-high 10 passes for 124 yards on 11 targets. “When you’re in close games like that, you want to finish it, especially the way our season is going. We wanted to finish it. It just hurts not to finish the game like that.”
Prescott took over the game after the Texans’ red-zone opportunity unraveled.
Prescott didn’t play to his usual level, completing 24 of 39 passes for 284 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. He was ultra-sharp on the game-winning drive he manufactured, completing 6 of 6 throws for 79 yards to set the stage of Elliott’s touchdown run against the NFL’s last-ranked run defense.
“We got to love these moments,” Prescott said. “Who cares what’s happened these last 58 minutes of this game? We’ve got two minutes to go get a win.”
The Texans’ defense delivered a strong performance until the final drive.
“We were kind of doing what we normally do, we mix it up,” Smith said. “Gave them as many looks as we could. Dak Prescott is one of the best quarterbacks in our game, and he’s going to hit some. I think they kind of showed a little bit of the champion in them.”
The Texans got after Prescott with defensive end Ogbo Okoronkwo sacking him one play before Smith’s interception. He was hit five times, including twice by Okoronwko, an Alief Taylor graduate.
“We all thought we were winning the game the whole time,” Okoronkwo said. “The defense, when it was our time to win the game, we should have put the nail in the coffin. We didn’t, but that’s on us. We are ready to get back to work and get this taste out of our mouth.”
The Texans’ defense did its job until the end, including Smith’s first two NFL interceptions along with the special teams as linebacker Blake Cashman recovered a muffed punt return by Cowboys returner KaVontae Turpin.
The outcome is the same as usual, though.
“It’s bittersweet,” Tremon Smith said. “It would have been way better if everybody could have been here congratulating each other. We’ve got to find a way to win those tough games.”
“I know we’re not winning them, but Lovie would say we’re playing good football. We have to find a way to put it all together at the end.”
Aaron Wilson is a contributor to KPRC2 and click2houston.com