They were up 17 points with less than four minutes to go. Reliant Stadium was having a good ol' time, whooping it up at Peyton Manning's expense. The fans a were loud and jubilant football stew, simmering in a broth of St. Arnold's beer and frozen margaritas. It didn't look, didn't sound, and certainly didn't feel like a city that had just been ravaged by a hurricane a few weeks ago.
The Houston Texans were on the verge of convincingly winning their long-delayed homecoming against the AFC South Champion Indianapolis Colts in front of 70,000 fans that probably needed a welcome and happy distraction from the news of rising death tolls and steep insurance claims. Quarterback Sage Rosenfels had stepped in and performed admirably for Matt Schaub all afternoon. Schaub, we learned later in the day, was in the hospital the night before with a viral infection. Rookie running back sensation Steve Slaton had scored two touchdowns and was shredding the Colts front 7 like they were top secret Pentagon files.
Meanwhile, Mario Williams and the Texans defense harassed Peyton Manning all day long, sacking him twice, hurrying him on multiple occasions, and probably taunting him endlessly about losing an Oreo lick race to his brother.
Today was a day to celebrate in Houston a glorious homecoming, and a world-class ass-kicking of an elite-level team. It was a day not to count the Galveston Dead or the damage done, but to celebrate life, the living and the passion of a community coming together for fun, football and fellowship.
Four minutes later, Sage Rosenfels became the new Brad Lidge.
First, with about 3:13 left to go in the fourth quarter, Rosenfels attempted to go airbourne to pick up a first down when he clearly should have slid. He was belted in mid-air, spun around, and the ball was knocked loose. Colts linebacker Gary Brackett scooped up the ball and rumbled 68 yards for the touchdown.
After the ensuing kickoff, Rosenfels dropped back to pass and left the ball curiously dangling in his throwing arm. Colts defensive end Robert Mathis alertly knocked the ball out of his hand. The Colts recovered the ball. Peyton Manning connected with Reggie Wayne for the touchdown.
The Colts had been behind 27-10 with eight minutes to go and 27-17 with about three minutes to go.
A minute remained. The Colts were ahead 31-27.
Rosenfels tried in vain to get the lead back, hustling the team down the field. Thirty seconds left, he threw the ball to where and to whom I'm not quite sure. There wasn't a blue jersey anywhere. Literally. Looking around for a blue Texans jersey was like looking for another horse when Secretariat was up by 30 lengths at the Belmont.
Rosenfels tossed the interception, and the game was over. Texans fans tossed their collective cookies, and wanted to toss Sage Rosenfels off a cliff afterwards. The Texans played the first 57 minutes of football flawlessly, and it was all ruined by one man in the final three.
I've never known Houston fans to be the vindictive sort. After all, Houston's the same city that tried to cheer Brad Lidge back to health after he was bombed back into the pitching Stone Age by Albert Pujols. Houston fans tend to be pretty supportive about their guys. In many ways, they are unlike the fans of Philly and Cleveland who throw their guys under the bus at the first signs of trouble.
This will be different, though. I fear Sage Rosenfels won't get the kid gloves treatment on this one, but rather the Steve Bartman Special. Rosenfels may very well manifest himself as the scapegoat for all of Houston's mounting frustrations. Galveston has an unknown death toll right now. FEMA, by all accounts, has been their usual, incompetent selves. Many more residents fight a daily battle with the insurance companies who, of course, want to shell out as little as possible to help fix the most devastated areas.
Rosenfels' troubles may come to symbolize Houston's current problems, and I'm afraid he may just become the city's very own martyr. Although this seems rather harsh, I don't see any alternative for the Texans but to cut him right now. Not really for the team's sake really, but for his. I'd almost think that Rosenfels would probably prefer anonymity at this point anyway, and God knows there are enough places for a journeyman QB to latch onto anyway. In his defense, Rosenfels is better than just about all the QBs that Kansas City, Detroit and Minnesota currently have on their roster. Incidentally, that's an awful statement about the quarterbacking situation in the NFL right now. When a QB that single-handedly blew a 17-point lead with three minutes to go is a better option than Tyler Thigpen, Tavaris Jackson or Dan Orlavsky, you know those teams are completely worthless.
But the fans won't let him forget about it. The media won't let him forget about it. And if he steps in for Matt Schaub ever again, I fear the boos will be so suffocating to the point that it will be a detriment to the team and the individuals at large.
Today was supposed to be a day of celebration for Houstonians, not another test of faith. Sunday's loss isn't the end of the world, obviously. But for people who needed something to cheer about, Sage Rosenfels certainly didn't give anyone hope for something better.