HOUSTON — Texans linebacker DeMeco Ryans dropped a cardboard box in front of his locker and started packing, while his mind was still on the team's missed opportunity in Baltimore.
Houston's historic season ended in a 20-13 loss to the Ravens on Sunday, a game that the Texans felt they should've won. Instead, Baltimore advanced to play New England in the AFC Championship, while the players in Houston were left reaching for positives after the sobering finish.
"It's come upon us too early," Ryans said. "You look back, it was a good season for us, but still, (we're) not satisfied with the way it ended. We expected more out of ourselves."
By most other measures, the season was an unprecedented breakthrough for a franchise much more accustomed to losing since entering the league in 2002.
The Texans won their first division title and first playoff game, and a midseason 7-game winning streak was the longest in team history. Running back Arian Foster earned a second straight Pro Bowl invitation and the defense, under first-year coordinator Wade Phillips, made one of the biggest turnarounds in NFL history, going from 30th overall (376.9 yards per game) in 2010 to second (285.7 yards per game) in 2011.
Most remarkably, Houston won a franchise-record 11 games despite major injuries to several key players, including receiver Andre Johnson (left and right hamstrings), outside linebacker Mario Williams (torn chest muscle) and quarterbacks Matt Schaub (right Lisfranc fracture) and Matt Leinart (broken left collarbone).
Rookie T.J. Yates, a fifth-round pick, guided the Texans to victories in his first two starts to help clinch the AFC South, while the team formed a tight bond.
"It's just amazing when you get 53 guys going in the same direction, what they can do," coach Gary Kubiak said. "A lot of things that happened to us this year can easily send you in the wrong direction. It made us stronger, it made our locker room stronger, it made just the whole group stronger."
Kubiak met with each of his players on Monday. He tried to encourage receiver Jacoby Jones, who fumbled a punt return in the first quarter to set up Baltimore's first touchdown.
Jones, who signed a three-year contract last July, apologized to his teammates for the gaffe.
"It's something I've got to live and learn with," he said. "It's a decision that I made. I've got to grow up and learn from it. It's a mistake I made with being a football player. Some people don't understand."
Yates shares some responsibility for the loss in Baltimore, throwing three interceptions and looking overmatched for the first time since taking the starting job in early December. The 24-year-old Yates had not thrown an interception in three previous games.
"Our defense was playing amazing," Yates said Monday. "Just that fact that a couple things that I did, personally, could definitely turn the outcome of the game is the thing that hurts the most."
Yates is resigned to the fact that he'll give up the starting job to Schaub, who walked through the locker room on Monday morning with a protective boot. Schaub says he'll be fully healed in time for offseason workouts in the late spring.
"It's a process with the foot with all the wait and all the stuff you got to do moving around side to side, laterally, but it will be fine," Schaub said. "I'm not worried about the rehab process. We're going to just jump right in and continue to progress as I have already."
Across the room, Jake Delhomme pondered retirement. The Texans signed the 37-year-old Delhomme in late November to help groom Yates.
Soured by his experience in Cleveland in 2010, Delhomme says he found the ideal final stop of his career in Houston. He played most of the Texans' regular-season finale against Tennessee and his last throw turned out to be a touchdown pass to Bryant Johnson.
"For me, to come to a place like this, where everybody's on the same page and to see the way these guys work, it's been great," he said. "If I've left this game, I've left it on a high note. My last pass I've ever thrown, if this was, was a touchdown, so that's kind of cool."
One of the big offseason priorities for Houston is deciding the future of Mario Williams, the much-ballyhooed first overall pick in the 2006 draft. Williams moved to outside linebacker before the season and was off to a strong start before tearing a chest muscle in Week 5.
Williams is an unrestricted free agent, and with the emergence of Connor Barwin and rookie Brooks Reed, the Texans must decide if Williams is worth the hefty salary he'll command.
Kubiak says he'll leave that and other decisions for another day.
"I'm strictly in an evaluation process right now for me and the coaches, looking at players, trying to put a pecking order basically in how we think our football team finished the season," he said. "As far as Mario, obviously Mario is a tremendous player. He's done a great job here. Those things will work themselves out."