HOUSTON – What started as another step on the march to home-field advantage throughout the playoffs turned into fear and loathing in Southeast Texas.
The fear came late in the Houston Texans' embarrassing 23-6 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday as star running back Arian Foster left the game in the third quarter with what head coach Gary Kubiak said was an irregular heartbeat.
"He is doing fine," Kubiak told reporters after the game. "That's why we took him out of the game. But he is doing fine."
Through a team spokesman, Foster said: "I'll be fine. I'll be okay. It's a very minor situation, so I'll be okay."
The Texans' medical staff was not made available for comment, despite repeated requests.
Symptoms of an irregular heartbeat range from palpitations to dizziness to chest discomfort. Although an arrhythmia could be a troubling sign that calls for "lifestyle changes," according to WebMD, it does not necessarily require treatment or even medicine. There's also Athlete's Heart Syndrome, in which the heart is enlarged because of heavy physical activity. AHS is usually not considered serious.
The Texans themselves were mostly in the dark about Foster's condition. "I'm not sure what's going on with him," running back Ben Tate said after the game. Asked if he was concerned, fellow rusher Justin Forsett said, "Yeah, definitely. He's like a brother to me."
"I thought he hurt his shoulder," Forsett continued. "He was sitting on the bench and put a towel over his head. Just sitting there, grimacing a little bit."
Wide receiver Andre Johnson was one of the few who spoke with Foster. "It's something he's dealt with before," Johnson said. "It happened once in practice. He was more just frustrated that he couldn't be in there."
Asked if he was worried Foster might miss next week's season finale in Indianapolis, Johnson looked up and said, "I don't know what's gonna happen."
As for the loathing, that became quite clear as the Texans walked off the field to a barrage of boos. Never mind that they are division champions for the second year in a row. Never mind that they have only three losses.
"Too predictable," blurted one front-row fan. "What happened?" yelled another.
The Texans weren't all sympathetic to the fans' frustrations.
"I would have thought our fans would have more class," linebacker Bryan Braman told Yahoo! Sports. "I'd hope they wouldn't be so quick to fall off the bandwagon."
Houston probably deserves a break – it can still clinch the AFC's No. 1 seed with a win next week or losses by the Broncos and Patriots. However, Sunday's outing was the second bad one in three games. The Texans had 11 first downs, one third-down conversion, 187 total yards and 34 net yards rushing against Minnesota.
"That's not very good," tight end Owen Daniels said.
It's been chronicled how suspect the Texans' pass defense has been, but Sunday brought unexpected weakness in the offense, which looked for most of the season like one of the most balanced in the league. Johnson was his usual self on Sunday, with 97 yards, but quarterback Matt Schaub looked antsy in the pocket throughout the game. The most egregious example came when the Texans drove down to the 1-yard line in the third quarter and couldn't punch it in for a touchdown. Schaub ended up taking a terrible sack.
"We were able to force Schaub out of his comfort zone with blitzes," said defensive lineman Jared Allen, whose Vikings defense recorded one sack.
Houston scored six points total, but it felt like a shutout. The boos came down from the rafters as early as the end of the first half.
"We're stunned," said Texans wideout Kevin Walter. "We didn't anticipate coming in here and not getting it done.
"I'm not sure exactly what happened."
Worse still, the Texans seemed dazed from the opening of the game. MVP candidate Adrian Peterson, also limited later because of an ailment, burst through the left side of the line for a 20-yard gain on his very first touch. Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder deftly blended run and play-action pass. In the words of Texans safety Danieal Manning, "we were pretty much kind of trying to play on our heels, and we should have been more prepared."
The Texans' record of 12-3 says Super Bowl contender, but a look at their record against the NFC North says something different: They got shellacked by the Packers, beaten badly by the Vikings, and taken to overtime by the woeful Lions on Thanksgiving Day. (They also eked out a road win in Chicago.) That doesn't scream contender.
And while the Texans have shrugged off earlier losses and come back strong the next week, this seemed to sting more than most. It's December, after all, and Ponder is not Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers.
"We were horrible on offense," said Johnson. "We just didn't make any plays. It's concerning. We never found a rhythm or anything [Sunday]."
So a rest-your-starters scenario in Indy now turns into what could end up being a wheels-falling-off situation. Texans fans came into Reliant Stadium anticipating up to two more chances to see their team win here. After a nightmare game and a health scare to their all-world running back, they have to at least wonder if the playoff run will be a short-lived one ... accompanied by more boos.
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