A year ago, even though they lost to the Ravens in the divisional round, it felt like a step forward.
Getting within two wins of the Super Bowl for the second straight season, eating a 41-28 loss to the Patriots, only made him think of how precious the opportunities are.
“I feel bad,” said Johnson, whose eight catches and 95 yards felt hollow. “Especially for the older guys, including myself, because we don’t get many shots at this. It took me nine years just to get two shots. It’s frustrating because you work so hard to help this organization, yourself, the team, the city back home. You want everybody to be a part of something special. For it to end like this, it’s painful.”
The Texans could go down the list of missed opportunities. There were six weeks’ worth of them. They had a chance to send a message to the Patriots a month ago, and shriveled on a national stage. They had a chance to sew up a first-round bye and homefield advantage, and squandered it.
They still had chances Sunday to come into Gillette Stadium and steal a win that would send them to their first AFC Championship game. But they let too many opportunities pass them by.
They were set up from the opening kick, when Danieal Manning sprinted 94 yards and set up the Texans at the Patriots’ 12. After a 3-yard run by Arian Foster, quarterback Matt Schaub took two shots at the end zone. The first one went straight through the hands of his fullback, James Casey. The second sailed high and behind Johnson, who was by himself in the end zone.
Plagued by red-zone futility, they watched a chance to seize control slip away. “In this game you’ve got to be able to get 6 there,” said tight end Owen Daniels. “Obviously, that was a pretty big missed opportunity for us.”
They looked at all the plays they left on the field — and all the ones the Patriots didn’t.
The Patriots scored on four of their six trips to the red zone and converted nearly half of their 13 third-down opportunities. The Texans came up empty on 11 of 15 on third down.
“When you miss ’em and they make ’em, that’s the difference in the game,” said Texans coach Gary Kubiak. “They had them, too. They made them, we didn’t. They not only made them, they’ve made them for many years.”
When Shayne Graham nailed a 55-yard field goal that helped the Texans pull to within 17-13 going into the half, Houston’s sideline exploded.
“I thought we were in a dang good football game,” Kubiak said.
They felt like they had momentum. When the Patriots came out for the third quarter and scored in seven plays, they realized how fleeting momentum can be. The loss made the season’s successes feel a little smaller.
“There’s no good landing in this business unless you’re playing a year from now,” Kubiak said. “Other than that, it’s a crash.”
The Texans set a franchise record with 12 wins, but ran into the same playoff wall.
“We’ve just have to keep working and keep banging on that door,” Johnson said. “And hopefully it’ll fall down.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.