INDIANAPOLIS – A Sony Bravia LCD television hangs just outside the visiting locker room of Lucas Oil Stadium. Sunday afternoon, after Indianapolis had dismantled Houston 28-16, giving the once high-flying Texans their third loss in four games, the TV was set on the NFL's RedZone Channel.
It was the ideal (or perhaps less than ideal) way for the Houston players who stopped to grab some lunch for the flight home to see spinning scoreboards in Denver and Foxborough and have their new, self-created reality get pounded home.
The once white-hot, 11-1 Texans, a shoo-in for top seed in the AFC and a Super Bowl favorite, are now the coldest playoff team in the league.
Against the Colts, they displayed an offense that can't find the end zone, a defense that can't get off the field and a special teams group that gave up a momentum-changing, 101-yard kickoff return for a score. All of that and way too many penalties. Again.
Meanwhile, the Sony showed Denver and New England cruising; a Peyton Manning touchdown here, a Tom Brady one there. It cost the Texans prime playoff positioning, a first-round bye and homefield advantage against those future Hall of Famers.
"Yeah I'm mad," defensive end Antonio Smith said as he stood in a near-deserted Texans locker room. "I've been mad the last three, four weeks."
It was back then that Smith sensed a change in everything. Houston had clinched a playoff berth early and had all but wrapped up the AFC South. Still, things weren't perfect, including close games against lousy opponents such as Detroit and Jacksonville. All the winning, Smith said, led to complacency, and complacency led to the Texans being incapable of matching the intensity of their opponents, who were now gearing up to attempt to knock off one of the best teams in the league.
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Houston was good enough, and Detroit and Jacksonville bad enough, to survive for a while. But when the Texans traveled to New England in Week 14 for what was dubbed the biggest game in franchise history, they got exposed, 42-14.
They haven't recovered yet. There's been just one touchdown in 10 quarters and the fading play of Matt Schuab, who has just one TD pass against three picks in his last four games.
"I could feel that out on the field, a whole other intensity," Smith said of recent weeks. "We have to match what is coming at you if you're going to win. Everything is not going to go your way.
"Complacency can be a little bit of human nature," he continued. "Like you set a goal and you work so hard to achieve it, even if you have more goals to go, once you achieve it it's like you take a deep breath.
"I wouldn't say it's the end of anything or you can't get it back," Smith said. "I think clinching it early, achieving a goal that you set too low, you take a breath. You are playing with the same intensity but guess what, it gets hard."
And it will get harder. Where Houston once thought it could sit as the No. 1 seed and watch New England and Denver knock each other off and then host the survivor in its rowdy, retractable-roof stadium, now everything is gone.
Houston fell to the No. 3 seed, has to host a dangerous young Cincinnati team and perhaps travel to Foxborough and Denver where the weather can whip everything up. Suddenly that Super Bowl trip down Interstate 10 to New Orleans is a lot longer than it once seemed.
"As we sit here right now, we are disappointed," Schaub said. "Four or five weeks ago seem like forever."
Sunday was a microcosm of everything that's going wrong. Houston led late in the third quarter before giving up an untouched kickoff return. Then, trailing 21-16 and in need of points, Schaub took a terrible sack to force a long field goal that failed.
On the ensuing possession, the Colts were forced into third-and-23 only to have quarterback Andrew Luck hit T.Y. Hilton for an inexcusable 70-yard touchdown pass.
Now desperate, but still with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Schaub led Houston to the Indy 30 only to telegraph an out-pass that would have been a pick-six if the throw wasn't so comically off target.
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Given that reprieve, Schaub promptly overthrew Andre Johnson by 5 yards in the end zone for his second interception on the day. Indianapolis then ran 9:46 off the clock with a 17-play drive that ended with Luck in victory formation, the defense unable to stop the Colts.
If there was ever a fourth quarter to not build off of going into the playoffs, that was it.
"I told them we can get it flipped and going the other way if we believe we can, and we work on doing that," coach Gary Kubiak said. "Struggles in life are given, but there won't be any misery."
That much Smith and the players agreed. The dream season has taken a detour, the easy days of everything working are gone.
"Yeah it's been made tougher," Smith said. "And it's going to get tougher."
Just outside the locker room, the television kept flashing highlights saying as much.
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