Instead of unraveling late in the game during another epic collapse, as they have already done three times this season, the winless Texans' latest defeat took a different path toward an identical outcome.
The Texans have squandered leads, and fast starts previously in being outscored by a combined margin of 30-0 in the fourth quarter.
During this setback against the banged-up Los Angeles Chargers, though, the Texans nearly overcame a horrible start as they attempted to manufacture a comeback.
Ultimately, the 0-3-1 Texans fell short Sunday during a 34-24 defeat at NRG Stadium as they settled for a field goal after a fumble forced on a kickoff by safety M.J. Stewart recovered by linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Because the Texans' defense allowed Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert to convert a clutch 4th-and-2 situation on the ensuing drive on a pass to Austin Ekeler that set the stage for the all-purpose back's game-sealing touchdown. And that meant the Texans' hopes for a first win of the season were extinguished.
"It hits hard, but it's a part of the game," Texans rookie safety Jalen Pitre said. "Nothing good comes easy. I really trust that. You've got to have faith in the team. Eventually, we're going to see the light."
The frustrations are mounting about crucial errors, including another pair of interceptions by struggling second-year quarterback Davis Mills. There are costly penalties, communication breakdowns in pass protection and in coverage schemes and head-scratching play-calling decision.
Regardless of when the mistakes unfold or how hard the team is fighting to remain competitive, facts are facts. The Texans haven't won a game despite being outscored by a combined margin of 20 points in their three losses preceded by a tie to open the season against the Indianapolis Colts.
"One time in you say, 'Hey, we'll get it right,'" Texans coach Lovie Smith said. "After four games, we can't talk about being close anymore. If you watch the game, we talk a lot about opportunities. It seems like we've done that each game. Not there yet.
"You know, we're not a good football team yet. Good football teams find a way to win at the end, and we haven't been able to get over that hurdle. It was a terrible first half, and we got ourselves in position late."
The Texans' defense only hit Chargers Pro Bowl quarterback Justin Herbert twice, with one sack as he was able to keep buying time to find big wide receiver Mike Williams seven times for 120 yards, including a 50-yard bomb.
“I think we’re real close,” rookie cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. said. “We’ve just got to keep on fighting, we’re going to get it.”
The Texans' defense allowed 419 yards of total offense, yielded 22 first downs, 3 of 5 touchdowns in the red zone and 8 of 16 on third downs.
"It's not where we want to be, simple as that," nickel back Desmond King said. "We know we're better than what we're showing out there. It's not where we want it to be. We got tap in and find out how we can get there."
Ekeler entered Sunday with a 2.5 average per run, but rushed for 60 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries in addition to his late touchdown to put the game away and six catches for 49 yards on seven targets.
Mills sailed a pass intended for wide receiver Nico Collins in the first quarter, getting off to a bad start as the takeaway led to Herbert's touchdown pass to tight end Gerald Everett. Mills completed just 26 of 35 passes for 246 yards and two touchdowns for an 88.5 passer rating. In falling behind 27-7 at halftime, Mills had completed 13 of 16 passes for 76 yards.
Although the Texans scored 17 consecutive points to close the Chargers' lead to three points midway through the fourth quarter, the 12-play, 84-yard march engineered by Herbert couldn't be overcome. Whether it was Mills being sacked and fumbling on a hit by Jerry Tillery as he got past rookie offensive guard Kenyon Green before kicker Kai'mi Fairbairn's 40-yard field goal or a late interception from cornerback Bryce Callahan after Ekeler's touchdown, the former third-round draft pick from Stanford didn't do enough to position his team to win the game.
Mills did throw his first touchdown of the season to a wide receiver, connecting with Brandin Cooks. And he found backup running back Rex Burkhead for another score along with a 58-yard pass to Collins.
"All eyes are on the quarterback, but there was a lot more," Smith said. "We came back. In order for that to happen, our quarterback had to hit some passes. He did. We need to protect better. As far as pushing the ball down the football field, I thought at times we did do that, but we're not where we need to be in our passing game, just like we aren't in anything else. ..
"I like the way the team fought back, but we didn't finish. You also need to finish the game, and we didn't finish the way we need to."
Mills entered Sunday with 14 touchdown passes and one interception in his eight career games at NRG Stadium.
This marked his first two-interception game at home. The Texans' fans booed several times after unsuccessful drives.
"We can't turn it on and turn it off when we want to," Mills said. "When we need to go down and score like we did at the start of the second half, we have to do that the whole game. Continue to find ways to get the ball to the guys out in space and let them make plays.
“First four games are close. Good teams have to find a way to win late in the game, and we haven't done that yet. Just have to keep fighting for it. We still have a long season ahead of us. All it takes is one. Just have to get that one win and start building some momentum, and it will carry on through the rest of the season. Biggest thing is start fast and then finish faster.”
The primary bright spot for the Texans was rookie running back Dameon Pierce rushing for a season-high 131 yards. That included his 75-yard sideline dash for a touchdown behind key blocks from fullback Troy Hairston and wide receiver Brandin Cooks. It's the third-longest run in franchise history and the longest run by an NFL rookie since Miami Dolphins running back Kalen Ballage's 75-yard run in 2018.
“That’s the reason we’re starting a rookie running back,” Smith said. “He can run in between tackles. He can make you miss in the open field. That’s a part of his game that we haven’t seen. Not many running backs can run for 75 yards in the NFL. That’s hard to do. He’s just kind of showing you all the things that he can do.”
The Texans want to build an identity as a smash-mouth, ground-and-pound team. That's what Pierce is all about. The Texans need more performances and players like him to become a winner.
"I feel like I saw a lot of great flashes from our team, especially the second half, of a team that we can be and a team we're capable of being," Pierce said. "That's the kind of football team we could be, and coach Lovie is trying to hone in on that effort, that detail, that intensity that we played with. That's us. That's what we want our identity to be."
What Smith said resonated inside the Texans' locker room. The accountability is there, and, apparently, the camaraderie. The efficiency is consistently inconsistent.
"Completely true," right tackle Tytus Howard said. "We finished the game a little bit better, but we didn't start the game off good. We just got to put a complete game together. We haven't done that yet, so it's not good enough."
Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and a contributor to Sports Talk 790.