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A maddening series of squandered opportunities cost the Texans a chance to make the playoffs for the first time, but at least they couldn’t argue that a lesser team deprived them of a hoped-for breakthrough on the final night of their eighth season.

“If it’s got to be somebody, I’d like it to be the Jets,” middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans said several days ago. “They beat us straight up. We beat ourselves in the other games.”

Indeed, the Jets overpowered the Texans 24-7 in the season opener at Reliant Stadium, a victory that provided the tiebreaker advantage 16 weeks later when both teams finished 9-7. New York earned the trip to Cincinnati on Saturday the Texans so badly coveted by thumping the already crowned AFC North champion Bengals at home 37-0 Sunday night, negating Houston’s heartening 34-27 come-from-behind triumph over the New England Patriots earlier in the day.

Needing help on two fronts, the Texans got half of what they wanted when the 4-12 Kansas City Chiefs improbably routed the Broncos 44-24 in Denver. But the suspense was short-lived when the largely incentive-less Bengals proved no match for the NFL’s stingiest defense. Having already profited last weekend from a matchup that was similarly meaningless to AFC South champion Indianapolis, the Jets led 24-0 by halftime and kept piling it on.

“When Kansas City won, I started to get really excited,” Texans owner Bob McNair admitted. “I thought that might be the toughest one. I thought Oakland had a shot. (The Raiders lost to Baltimore, which claimed the AFC’s other wild-card playoff spot.) I’m disappointed in the way Cincinnati played. I thought there were good odds they might be able to win it, but they left their game at home.”

But McNair praised the Texans’ effort against the Patriots.

“I’m pleased with the way we played,” he said. “We fought through adversity, experienced a growing process and showed a lot of mental toughness.”

Added head coach Gary Kubiak, who McNair confirmed will return for a fifth season in 2010 : “Obviously, we wanted to get in. I feel good about the way we finished and the steps the team took to get us closer to where we want to be.

“We beat a great team in the Patriots. They wanted to win. This was a step in the right direction.”

Team records fall

The Texans can certainly find solace in the 4-0 finish that produced their first-ever winning record after consecutive 8-8 finishes. Also, they set team records in points scored (388), yards gained (6,129), fewest points surrendered (333) and fewest yards allowed (5,198).

Kubiak’s offensive expertise clearly benefited quarterback Matt Schaub, who has emerged as one of the NFL’s most prolific passers since the Texans made a trade with Atlanta for his services following the 2006 season. Schaub started all 16 games for the first time and passed for 4,770 yards, the sixth most in NFL history.

Sunday marked the ninth time he surpassed 300 yards in a game this season, tied for second all-time, and he threw his franchise-record 28th and 29th touchdown passes against the AFC East champions. The Patriots, like the Bengals, had little at stake.

“We ended our season on a positive note after a kind of disappointing first 12 games,” Schaub said in a telephone interview with the NBC broadcasters at Giants Stadium while Cincinnati-New York was in progress. “We were in a lot of games and kind of lost at the end of them. But we battled back from adversity and were able to win the last four.”

Big-time rally

The Texans’ winning script against New England, which won Super Bowl XXXVIII in its previous visit to Reliant Stadium five years ago, required a fourth-quarter rally from 14 points down. They scored three unanswered touchdowns in the final 9:41, two by rookie running back Arian Foster in his first NFL start.

Foster’s game-winner was set up by defensive end Mario Williams’ hit on Tom Brady, which produced an errant pass intercepted by strong safety Bernard Pollard. Pollard had already recovered a fumble in the end zone for his second touchdown as a Texan. He became an instant catalyst in the defense’s recovery from a horrid start after being signed off the street in early October.

The Chiefs had waived him at the end of the preseason, a blow he hadn’t seen coming.

“A lot of people don’t get second chances,” Pollard said. “I was blessed. I’m going to take full advantage of mine.”

After losing six arguably winnable games, the Texans found themselves desperate for a collective do-over, too. And Pollard’s former Kansas City teammates would come through for them, if not the Bengals. Not yet knowing his team’s fate, right tackle Eric Winston had said, “If we can figure out a way to get into the playoffs, I don’t think there are a lot of teams that are going to want to play us.”

None will have to. The Texans will clean out their lockers today . “It’s crazy,” cornerback Dunta Robinson said. “But this is the hole we put ourselves in.”

Winston was philosophical.

“In the grand scheme of things, you can see where we’re going,” he said, “and it’s pretty exciting to be part of.”