HOUSTON -- That the Houston Texans shifted from dread to jubilation in the split second it took Cincinnati Bengals kicker Randy Bullock to miss his last-second field goal attempt was a microcosm of their season -- one filled with ups, downs and white-knuckle finishes.
Bullock pushed a 43-yard try wide right as time expired, touching off a celebration as the Texans clinched their second consecutive AFC South title with a 12-10 win over the Bengals on Saturday night at NRG Stadium.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton engineered a 13-play, 60-yard drive to put Bullock in position to exact revenge against the team that selected him in the fifth round of the 2012 draft and subsequently released him.
Instead, Bullock missed and the Texans (9-6) claimed a postseason bid despite their minus-42 season point differential.
"It doesn't always look pretty, but at the end of the day we're 9-6," Texans coach Bill O'Brien said. "We're 5-0 in the division and we beat a very tough Cincinnati team."
Texans quarterback Tom Savage, making his first career start, twice rallied Houston from behind, including a four-play, 75-yard drive that resulted in the game-winner. He sandwiched completions of 19 and 21 yards to Will Fuller and DeAndre Hopkins, respectively, around an 11-yard scramble for a first down before running back Alfred Blue darted 24 yards for a touchdown and the lead with 8:41 remaining.
Bengals defensive end Margus Hunt blocked the ensuing PAT, setting the stage for Bullock and the Bengals (5-9-1) to need a field goal to secure the victory. But Bullock failed to deliver as Cincinnati dropped to 2-5 since its bye week.
"That was exactly what I wanted," said Bullock, released by the Texans last season. "I did have the opportunity, I just didn't take advantage of it. That hurts for me and this team. Obviously, we wanted to win here, so it was incredibly disappointing."
Savage finished 18-of-29 passing for 176 yards and was sacked four times. Dalton passed for 268 yards with a touchdown and an interception and was sacked thrice.
The Bengals were first to find the end zone when wide receiver Brandon LaFell, like Dalton a Houston native, turned a short slant pass on third down into an 86-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown and a 10-6 advantage with 10:45 left to play.
Texans defensive backs A.J. Bouye and Kareem Jackson collided behind the completion, allowing LaFell to build momentum as he crossed the field to beat the rest of the secondary to the far sideline, where raced untouched into the end zone.
That score represented a stunning turn of events, but the Texans were undaunted. Their defense allowed just 294 total yards and Savage found his rhythm in the second half once the Texans employed a no-huddle attack to spark their offense.
"I thought it was getting into a little rhythm," Savage said of the offense. "Completed some balls. The first half I was just missing some people. Missing some reads here and there and that's unacceptable."
From the start, the Texans were on their heels offensively, unable to protect Savage and therefore inept are generating any semblance of a scoring threat.
Savage was sacked three times in his first five dropbacks, including on consecutive snaps by Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins and defensive end Wallace Gilberry to open the second drive. Houston resorted to a run-heavy attack the remainder of the half, but the results were similar. The Texans mustered 34 yards by the break.
The Bengals weren't exactly prolific offensively, managing 2.4 yards per play on their initial six drives before compiling a 14-play, 67-yard scoring drive late in the second quarter. That march ended with a 43-yard Bullock field goal at the buzzer, giving Cincinnati a 3-0 lead.
When Bullock faced a near-identical kick later, what has happened to Cincinnati for most of this star-crossed season manifested again.
"The way this season's gone, when we've needed to make a play, we haven't been able to do it," Dalton said. "It's not one thing that's caused it. It's just the way things have gone this year. It's kind of been how our season's been, and it's unfortunate it's been that way."
NOTES: After spending the week preparing to return from a right hamstring injury suffered in Week 11, Bengals WR A.J. Green was pulled from a team meeting on Friday and told he will not play the remainder of the season. According to published reports, Green was disenchanted with the news and left Houston. He reportedly has a torn tendon that has not fully healed. ... Texans RB Lamar Miller was inactive with an ankle injury suffered last week against the Jaguars. He had played in 67 straight games and is 26 yards shy of matching his career best of 1,099 rushing yards set in 2014 with the Dolphins. ... Three Texans starters returned on defense: LB Whitney Mercilus (back), LB John Simon (chest) and CB Johnathan Joseph (ribs). Mercilus missed last week's win over the Jaguars. Simon and Joseph were sidelined for four and two games, respectively.