HOUSTON -- J.J. Watt, the 11th overall pick in last April's draft, had 48 tackles and 5.5 sacks during the regular season and was a central reason the Texans were able to sustain the Week 5 loss of star pass-rusher Mario Williams. For most of the first half of the Texans' first-ever playoff game, though, Watt was quiet, and as Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton dropped back to pass with a minute left in the second quarter and the game tied 10-10, it seemed as if he would remain that way. Mike McGlynn, Cincinnati's right guard, was yielding to him no ground. Dalton zipped a pass toward fellow rookie star A.J. Green, and that pass happened to be directed in the airspace above the 6'5", 288-pound Watt's head.
Watt, occupied by McGlynn no more than five yards away from Dalton, instinctively thrust both hands into the air. What happened next changed the course of the game, setting the Texans on a path to a 31-10 blowout and a divisional round matchup at the Baltimore Ravens. The ball hit the leaping Watt's gloves, and then, he said, "It happened to kind of stick." Watt had been a tight end at Central Michigan, where he caught eight balls for 77 yards in 2007 before transferring to Wisconsin and switching to defense full-time, but he hadn't scored a touchdown since high school. A touchdown, after a 29-yard ramble, was what he scored now. "My first touchdown, and it was in the NFL playoffs," he said. "That's pretty cool."
Yes, certainly, but it was not surprising to his teammates and coaches. "He's been doing that since training camp, in practice," running back Arian Foster said of Watt's close-range interception. "Like, consistently. At least one time a week." After Watt finally did it in a game, though, Dalton -- who had to that point played beyond his years (he had completed 13 of 17 passes for 120 yards) -- wouldn't recover. Watt ended the first half by chasing Dalton across the field and sacking him. "Once you get a quarterback rattled," Watt would say, "it's tough for him to get unrattled."
This year's NFL playoffs opened with what was billed as its least-compelling matchup, as it featured two teams whose playoff histories were either thin (the Bengals) or non-existent (the Texans). Moreover, neither had been playing well (the Texans had lost three in a row, the Bengals had lost three of five), and both were starting rookie quarterbacks -- one of whom, the Texans' T.J. Yates, was the first rookie drafted in the fifth round or later to start a postseason game. By game's end, though, the Texans had made a compelling statement that despite their history and the injuries they sustained this season -- including to their first- and second-string quarterbacks -- their old-fashioned style of play, one predicated on playing stingy defense and running the football in a pass-happy league, has made them a legitimate contender.
Houston's swarming defense -- coordinated by Wade Phillips, who was coaching from the press box, still fragile after having his gall bladder removed several weeks ago -- held Bengals running back Cedric Benson to just 14 yards on seven carries, and the team to 76 yards rushing in total. That forced Dalton to throw 42 times, and he stayed rattled after Watt's play, as he was intercepted twice more in the second half.
While the Bengals were required to ask Dalton for more than he could deliver, the Texans needed Yates only to stay within himself. He threw just 20 passes, completing 11 of them for 159 yards, a quarter of that total coming on his penultimate throw of the game -- a beautiful 40-yard touchdown bomb with 1:18 left in the third quarter. On the receiving end was Andre Johnson, the star receiver who finally seemed more or less healthy after struggling with injuries to his hamstrings since Week 4. "I've been waiting on this for a long time," said Johnson, the longest-tenured Texan, of his first postseason win.
That touchdown seemed to be the death knell for the Bengals -- it made the score 24-10 -- and to bury them the Texans relied on their best shovel-wielder, Foster. Demonstrating the unique combination of size, speed and fluidity that has made him one of the NFL's preeminent running backs, he finished what J.J. Watt had started with a 42-yard touchdown run with 5:15 left in the game. Bengals safety Chris Crocker seemed sure to tackle him along the right sideline, but somehow missed, and as he ran into the end zone, Foster (153 yards on 24 carries) turned his head around, as if surprised that he was still running. "I guess he thought I was going to go out of bounds," Foster said. "And I didn't."
Foster and the Texans will travel to Baltimore to play the second-seeded Ravens next Sunday. The Ravens were 8-0 at home in the regular season, but struggled to win when defenses bottled up tailback Ray Rice, forcing them to rely on the arm of a seemingly regressing Joe Flacco. In their convincing victory on Saturday against the Bengals, the Texans showed what the likely result will be when they force a team to abandon its running game, and to rely on a quarterback who can be rattled.