NRG Stadium, HOUSTON – For the better part of two-and-a-half quarters, the Texans looked dead in the water.
At halftime of their AFC Wild Card showdown with the Bills, Houston had only amassed 91 total yards of offense, and Deshaun Watson had been sacked four times. Meanwhile, Buffalo showed no signs of slowing down with second-year quarterback Josh Allen under center, controlling the clock and momentum. Staring a 13-0 deficit and a second straight first-round playoff exit in the face, the Texans had one message in the locker room.
“Guys were just saying in the moment, ‘You can’t get up, you can’t get down.’ Essentially, we stayed within the equilibrium of our emotions,” said linebacker Whitney Mercilus. "You can’t get caught up in the environment, the distractions and all that. Just play the next play. That’s exactly what guys were doing.”
“We’ve been in situations like that before," said wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. "We came out in the second half and did what we had to do, and that’s clean up some things we didn’t execute in the first half. We knew we were going to have a shot to come out and win this game.”
The script wasn’t flipped coming out of the tunnel after halftime. After a near disaster on the second half kickoff and an uncharacteristic fumble from Hopkins early in the third quarter, the Texans’ playoff hopes were still on life support.
Defensive end J.J. Watt provided the heartbeat.
“We knew all we needed was a spark," Watt said. "We didn’t believe we were out of the game. You add Deshaun Watson to a spark, and you’re going to have one hell of a fire.”
With the Bills threatening to score on the Houston 12 yard line, Watt raced around the offensive line and sacked Allen for an eight yard loss. The Houston faithful erupted along with the sideline. Buffalo settled for a field goal, giving them a 16-0 lead, but the momentum had clearly changed.
The spark of a comeback was ignited.
“We just knew it was a matter of time," Watson explained. “He was going to make a play. It’s J.J. Watt. He’s a Hall of Famer. Eventually he was going to get his opportunity, and he did.”
“We feed off of the type of plays he’s able to make and the type of plays he made today," said linebacker Zach Cunningham. "That makes guys want to keep going and keep fighting.”
“J.J. got the crowd going and he just changes the game by his presence and his talent," said head coach Bill O’Brien. "He draws a lot of attention relative to blocking schemes and things like that, and he’s going to be very critical of what he put on film, but it was great having him back in there.”
Back in October, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year suffered a torn pectoral injury that looked like it would end his season. Nine weeks later, Watt recorded a sack, a tackle for loss, two quarterback hits and multiple pressures in the heat of playoff action.
“That’s why you take the risk," Watt said. "That’s why you put in the work. That’s why you do the rehab. That’s why you do all of it. There were a lot of people that were questioning it or calling me crazy, telling me that I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. Nobody knows what those feelings feel like. Nobody knows what it’s like to be part of a group of guys like we have in that locker room. Quite frankly, I don’t really care what anybody else says. I did it for those moments right out there, and it was a hell of a feeling.”
From that moment forward, Watson capitalized on the momentum swing and took control of the game, completing 20 of his 25 passes for 247 yards and a touchdown. He was also the team’s leading rusher, accounting for 55 yards and a score on the ground, as the Texans scored 19 straight points to take a 19-16 fourth-quarter lead. Houston’s most dynamic offensive weapon delivered when the team needed him most.
“He got out of some major jams and made some huge plays throughout the whole game," O’Brien said. "He’s got a huge heart. He’s been winning his whole life and he knows how to win.”
“It’s the playoffs," Watson explained. "You’ve got to be gritty and just have the will and the guts to go out and do what you’ve got to do. As long as we come out at the end of the game with that winning score, that’s all that matters.”
The Bills did not go down without a fight. Stephen Hauschka’s 47-yard field goal tied the game at 19-all with 5 seconds left in regulation. For the first time in franchise history, the Texans headed to overtime in a playoff game. Watt and Watson had already brought the Texans back from the brink. But while the playoffs are a stage for the biggest stars to shine, they are also defined by unexpected heroes.
Enter running back and return specialist Taiwan Jones.
On 2nd & 6 at the Buffalo 44 yard line, Watson somehow absorbed a hit from two Bills defenders, escaped the pocket and found Jones, a former Buffalo Bill, for a 34-yard gain. It was Jones’ only catch of the night. The spectacular play set up Ka’imi Fairbairn’s game-winning 28-yard field goal, and the Texans punched their tickets to the AFC Divisional round for the first time since 2017.
“I knew I was going to have pressure," Watson said. "I knew the ball was going to have to get out quick, but I was trying to make a play with D-Hop and it just had to be Kevin Johnson sitting over there at the corner spot. He’s been here for five years and knows exactly where I want to go versus his coverage, so he sunk off. By the time I was trying to get it to Taiwan earlier, they were going to be right there. I just kind of braced myself, spun out of it and I knew exactly where Taiwan was going to be at.”
“It was just a great play and call by Deshaun Watson," Jones said. "I just happened to be in the right position. He made the adjustment to give me that route. I don’t know how he got free, but he did. It shows what kind of athlete he is and he was able to throw the ball to me right on point. Whenever my name is called, my mindset is to make plays and be an impactful player on the field.”
All of the creeping doubt and drama from the first 40 minutes of game action had disappeared. The Texans salvaged their season and Watson had his first career playoff win. It’s only the second time in the Bill O’Brien era that Houston has advanced past the Wild Card.
Now they’ll try to do something they have never done: win in the Divisional round.
The Texans will travel to Arrowhead Stadium to take on the Kansas City Chiefs next Sunday. Kickoff is scheduled for 2:05 p.m.