HOUSTON -- The Texans know all too well what it feels like to lose to the Indianapolis Colts. They practically made a living out of it before finally breaking through for a win this past December.
But on Sunday, something was different at Reliant Stadium. A franchise that has been marked by futility suddenly seemed relevant. A public relations staff known for its hospitality didn't have to twist arms to attract the national media because, at least for one afternoon, this felt like a football town again.
Second-year coach Gary Kubiak attempted to keeps things in perspective, but after a 30-24 loss Sunday, even he admitted how big the game was. As his players shuffled into the losing locker room, fullback Vonta Leach shouted to no one in particular, "C'mon, guys, we can do this!"
Kubiak used what was left of his voice to tell his team, "This was not just a game. But you have to really think about it. At best, it would've been three wins. This is a 16-round fight, and today doesn't determine where we finish."
The Texans couldn't have scripted a better beginning to the biggest game in what has been a sad history. After the Colts were offside on the opening kickoff, Texans Pro Bowl return man Jerome Mathis took advantage of his second opportunity. He started up the right side before spotting a gaping hole up the middle and racing 84 yards for a touchdown.
The second-largest crowd in club history (70,765) erupted as the Texans took a 7-0 lead. Unfortunately, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning isn't the best guy to have visiting for a citywide celebration. He methodically led his team on a 15-play, 74-yard scoring drive that culminated in a perfectly lofted pass to tight end Dallas Clark.
Second-year Texans defensive coordinator Richard Smith, who has done a tremendous job with a talented young unit, decided to play safety Michael Boulware at linebacker because he thought he matched up well with Clark. Boulware, a former Seahawk, had his moments, but his failure to redirect Clark in the end zone led to an easy touchdown.
The Colts took a 14-10 halftime lead mainly because they converted six consecutive third downs to open the game. Manning continued his mastery of the Texans, going 20-for-29 for 273 yards and a touchdown. He has averaged 271 passing yards and thrown for 26 touchdowns and only four interceptions while winning 10 of 11 games. His counterpart, Matt Schaub, completed 27 of 33 passes for 236 yards, but he had two backbreaking interceptions, the second coming after rookie Jacoby Jones' 74-yard punt return gave the Texans the ball at the Colts' 18-yard line.
Schaub dropped back and faked left before trying to hit Kevin Walter over the middle. Colts linebacker Gary Brackett was waiting on the ball, and the Colts were able to drive for a field goal that put them up 27-10.
"I should have noticed him doing that and gotten to my third receiver," Schaub said. "Unfortunately, I made the wrong decision and we paid for it."
To his credit, the gritty quarterback led his team on two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter. On the second drive, he was trying desperately to get grass out his eyes before converting a fourth-and-9 pass to Andre Davis.
To a man, his teammates give him much of the credit for the team's new outlook. Tight end Owen Daniels, who had seven catches for 56 yards, was on vacation when the Texans acquired Schaub in a trade this past offseason.
"When I got home, he'd left a message telling me how he was looking forward to playing with me," Owens said.
Some of the longest-tenured Texans marveled at the postgame scene in the locker room. Left guard Chester Pitts has missed only four plays in club history, and he remembers a time when moral victories weren't such a bad thing.
"Moral victory is trash," he said. "It's a sin to say that. That was the [old] attitude and mind-set. It wasn't to win the game -- it was to keep it close. I want to call it disgust. We had four or five opportunities to put points on the board."
Pitts said the buildup to Sunday's game was completely different from anything he had experienced in Houston before. He is used to people asking for free tickets, but last week, he actually found some paying customers.
"More people were trying to get tickets than any game we've ever played," he said. "And they were offering to buy them."
Dressed in a Luv Ya Blue-colored sport coat, 37-year-old general manager Rick Smith stood in the corner of the locker room and took it all in. He hasn't been around long enough to know the Texans aren't supposed to beat the Colts.
Asked whether his club had a different mind-set coming into the game, Smith said of the Colts, "They're not the giants they were before. We're gonna have to find a way to win this game."
The Texans were playing without their best player, receiver Andre Johnson, and his replacement, Jones, left the game with a separated shoulder after his 74-yard punt return. The club's awful ground game (17 rushes for 40 yards) wasn't helped by the departure of Ahman Green with a left knee injury in the second quarter.
But the fact that no one in the locker room pointed to any of those injuries as an excuse might be the most obvious sign of a franchise that may have turned the corner.
Matt Mosley covers the NFL for ESPN.com.