Davis Mills took off on a scramble, hoping to replicate his success running the football from earlier in the game when he took off for a rare touchdown run.
Instead of escaping the defense, the Texans' quarterback ran into trouble as Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark smacked the football out of his hand and it ricocheted off Mills' leg and into the hands of linebacker Willie Gay.
It was an extremely costly mistake as the turnover halted the Texans' chances of pulling off an upset victory against a heavily favored opponent and led directly to the Chiefs' game-winning touchdown. In a 30-24 defeat at NRG Stadium, the 1-12-1 Texans had plenty of opportunities to take control of the game. Ultimately, they were undone by Mills' turnover at the end of one of his top performances of an uneven season, the predictability of the two-quarterback system that was an effective strategy against the Dallas Cowboys a week ago and the excellence of Chiefs star quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
"It's tough, it feels like no matter how hard we try the football gods are against us," rookie tight end Teagan Quitoriano said. "We know we can play with anybody."
The fumble was a play the Texans couldn't overcome and led to yet another loss for a team that has an extremely small margin for error.
“Yeah, it was tough," Mills said. "I figured I could pick up a couple of yards with my legs. Defender made a really good play, punched it out and it was a fumble. Obviously, got to protect the football there. Very critical situation in the game when all you need is a field goal down in overtime and after the defense made a big-time stop to get them off the field and get us the ball back.
"So disappointed, but I thought our guys fought hard and put us in the situation to win the game, offense, defense and special teams. We just have to find a way to finish it. It's always the guy who you don't see who is going to make a play on it. I just have to protect the football better.”
Ball security wasn't the only reason the Texans lost the game as the 11-3 Chiefs celebrated their latest AFC West division title behind a game-winning, 26-yard touchdown run by running back Jerick McKinnon. He sprinted untouched into the end zone one play after Mills' fumble.
"I don't know at this point, man," Texans left tackle Laremy Tunsil said. "We had so many games come down to the wire like this and we didn't finish. It gets tough. For sure, emotional."
Although Mills passed for two touchdowns, ran for another on a 17-yard scramble and passed for 121 yards, the two-quarterback system of Mills and backup Jeff Driskel that clicked a week ago skidded to a halt.
One week after Driskel ran for a touchdown against the Cowboys, he was limited to eight passing yards on four throws and eight rushing yards on four carries.
Texans offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton had Driskel run the football on a failed red-zone shot, throwing off the rhythm of a prime scoring opportunity even as Mills was heating up.
Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo adjusted his defense to account for Driskel.
"They had a different plan than maybe Dallas did last week," Driskel said. "It wasn't as productive as it was last week, but that's part of it. The more film that gets out there, the more adjustments defenses will make. We know that going in. There were some close plays when I was in the game and trying to create the spark I'm asked to be."
The Texans lost their ninth consecutive game, their longest losing streak since losing the final 14 games of the 2013 season.
As hard as the Texans play, one truth defines them: They don't finish games and they're deficient in the fourth quarter and overtime.
“That team out there today has won one game, but they're not playing like that," Texans coach Lovie Smith said. "They're showing up every day, taking coaching, trying to get better. They're coming to the games and giving ourselves a chance to win it at the end. We still haven't finished a game the way we need to get a win, but we're building."
Mahomes was masterful, completing 36 of 41 passes for 336 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 117.1 passer rating. He was complemented well by rookie running back Isiah Pachecho, who rushed for 86 of the Chiefs' 189 rushing yards. Tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster combined for 20 catches and 193 yards on 20 targets.
The Texans built a 21-16 lead after cornerback Tremon Smith, starting with Steven Nelson out with a foot injury, forced Smith-Schuster to fumble with an instant replay challenge determining a recovery. That led up to Mills' 12-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jordan Akins.
The Texans had several leads, including scoring the first points of the game on a Mills touchdown pass to Quitoriano.
And defensive end Mario Addison's forced fumble on Pachecho in the second quarter led up to Mills' touchdown run for a 14-7 lead.
Despite playing without rookie standout running back Dameon Pierce, starting corners Nelson and Derek Stingley Jr., wide receivers Brandin Cooks and Nico Collins and first-round offensive guard Kenyon Green due to injuries, the Texans had a chance to win the game.
There were some debatable decisions. That included a decision by Smith to punt late in the first half while holding a 14-7 lead. The Texans had a 4th-and-1 situation at midfield, but opted to play it safe rather than try to convert. Mahomes engineered a 13-play, 97-yard touchdown drive.
"We had a lead, thought we were playing pretty good," Smith said. "I liked the position we were in. Backed them up a little bit. I would do the same thing again in that situation, too.”
Following a 51-yard missed field goal by Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker wide right, Mills took a knee with eight seconds remaining in regulation. The Texans were roughly 15 to 20 yards away from getting within kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn's range.
“Did you see how the game ended?” Smith said. “That’s exactly the position that we wanted to be in. There, right at the end, with an opportunity to make a play there at the end to win the football game. We can live with that.
The Texans began the game with offensive plays that had Mills and Driskel both on the field with Mills lined up outside at receiver. They did it for a few series before scrapping the gambit. The rotation of Mills and Driskel worked on the third drive for the Texans capped by the touchdown to Quitoriano.
"Wanted to start out switching up the looks and kind of get a gauge of how the defense was going to respond to it,” Mills said. “Then, once we had a good idea of how they were going to treat it, we would advance accordingly.”
In another second-half reed zone sequence, Hamilton inserted Driskel for a first-and-goal quarterback run. He was tackled for a loss of one yard followed by two Mills incompletions before Fairbairn's 26-yard field goal that led up to going to overtime. Driskel produced 16 yards of total offense on four runs and four passes. The offense was much more productive with Mills.
“The thinking is get the ball in the end zone. it's as simple as that," Smith said. "Hindsight is always a lot better. But the thinking down in the red zone is Jeff gives us more options while we're down there on that play. We had opportunities mixing both quarterbacks in. I wish it was just as simple as that."
Why did the Texans keep using Driskel?
“We thought we could get that average up is why we did it,” Smith said “I can see the numbers right now. There’s always a chance when you haven’t had success that you could break one later on, so we stayed with our game plan. Our game plan gave us an opportunity. The guys we played when we played them, if we don’t turn the ball over there at the end, we have an opportunity to win the game. So you can’t fault the game plan too much.”
Ultimately, the fumble was the primary reasons for the loss.
'He played well," Tunsil said. "It happens, man. You got to shake it off."
The Texans are headed into an offseason where they'll have several key decisions to make, including the future of the coaching staff, whether to draft a quarterback first overall and how to spend in free agency. This game was a microcosm for the entire season. The Texans are close, but not there yet. They haven't learned how to win games.
“We're looking for some positives," Smith said. "We're not going to the playoffs. We realize that. The last couple of weeks, the two teams we played, I think both of them have a chance to win it all.
"So, for us to see this year where we are, but to see what we can be. We have some injuries. I really like the guys that stepped up, two corners. Our receivers aren't playing. There are some positives to build on. That's what I expect the guys to do. I expect them to show up and fight like that throughout. Eventually, you’ve got to get over the hump.”
Aaron Wilson is a contributor to Sports Talk 790.