Matt Schaub missed Houston's 2011 playoff run with an injured foot.
Now the Texans quarterback is healthy and looking forward to his first playoff start Saturday against the Cincinnati Bengals.
The wild-card playoff game offers Schaub a chance to redeem himself after he threw two interceptions in last week's loss to Indianapolis, which kept Houston from getting a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
He knows he has to do more in preparation this week after a tough December in which he threw three interceptions with just one touchdown pass as the Texans lost three of four games.
"I've got to play better," he said. "Our whole team, everyone across the board has got to pick their game up, especially this time of year, but I definitely do."
Schaub was playing some of the best football of his career last season before his injury and had led the Texans to four straight wins. Houston was left with third-string quarterback T.J. Yates in last year's playoffs when backup Matt Leinart was injured in the first game after Schaub was lost for the season.
"I think we do forget this is his first time to step on the field in the playoffs, and he's a nine-year player," coach Gary Kubiak said. "He's worked really hard. We were in the playoffs last year because of him, too. He put his team in that position and obviously T.J. took over. But Matt had a lot to do with why we were playing last year. This is a big opportunity for him."
This season Schaub has 4,008 yards passing with 22 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He threw eight touchdown passes with three interceptions in the three games — all wins— before his recent slump.
Kubiak knows Schaub needs to improve this week, but he's quick to point out that his quarterback can't play better if the rest of the offense doesn't step up, too.
"We've been in some tough situations playing from down a bunch three out of the last four weeks so that's been difficult," Kubiak said. "I know there are some things he can do better, but we can obviously all help him, too."
PHOTO: Houston Texans' Matt Schaub (8) throws during the first half of an NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
Houston Texans' Matt Schaub (8) throws during the first half of an NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
Kubiak said he didn't say anything different or give Schaub any special advice this week, despite it being his first playoff game.
"I just want him to be himself," Kubiak said. "I've always been proud of how he prepares, how he gets ready to play games and how he goes about his job. And I just want him to do it again this week."
A key for Schaub and the offense to improve Saturday will be finding a way to start fast. The Texans have been outscored 28-6 in the first quarter in their last three losses.
Schaub's recent struggles have coincided with an increase in the number of sacks Houston has allowed. The Texans gave up three or more sacks just once through the first 13 weeks, and have given up three or more in each of the last three games.
Schaub knows that many factors play into how many sacks a team gives up, and he is confident that the Texans will limit the amount of times he's taken down this week.
"Those guys, they work their tails off," he said. "They're on top of their assignments. We've played some pretty good pass-rushing football teams, but we've been pretty good in not allowing sacks around here, so we've got to get back to that scenario."
It won't be easy this week against a Bengals team that has 46 sacks — fourth-best in the AFC.
"They have a great front seven," Houston left guard Wade Smith said. "Really, they're pretty much two deep everywhere across the front. Then they have Pro Bowlers up front (and) a great linebacking corps. They're a really good defense, sound all the way around, but at the same time we feel like we're a good offense."
Schaub rarely shows much outward emotion and seems like one of the most low-key players on the team. But he admitted that he's a bit more amped up for his first playoff game.
"It's an exciting time of year to be a part of this to get ready to play in a playoff game, especially here at home in front of our home fans," he said. "I'm definitely looking forward to it, but the thing that's going to help us win the game are the same whenever you're playing, wherever you're playing. That's playing smart, clean, good football."