Shaun Cody slides next to Antonio Smith, wearing the grin of a co-conspirator. Both defensive linemen are sporting cowboy hats that Kenny Chesney would appreciate. They look more than a little absurd on these two football standouts who are anything but country, but that's the point.
"This is going to be our traveling uniform," Cody says. "We're cowboys going to Baltimore."
They're the only cowboys left in the NFL playoffs, the only Texas team still alive for the Super Bowl (sorry, Jerry). You'd better believe they're going to have some fun with it. The Houston Texans team that this city's fallen in love with is a rollicking, absurd group that does things like break out cowboy hats as their version of the victory cigar after a 31-10 playoff steamrolling of the Cincinnati Bengals.
When you've delivered the biggest day in Houston sports since the Astros clinched that World Series berth in 2005, you can celebrate however the hell you please. And say whatever silly thing you want.
"It's like John Madden's always said," Smith says, shifting into philosophizing mode of an offense disrupter/ninja/football preacher. "If you want to do something great, you've got to expect to do it."
That applies to defensive end J.J. Watt like no other player. The man who changes the game, turns tense torment into triumph, opens the floodgates on the party, spent all year prepping for the moment. Every practice. Every single time a quarterback dropped back to pass, whether he was friend or foe.
Watt is absolutely obsessed with getting his hands up, with trying to put his big mitts in the way. He lives to tip balls at the line of scrimmage, to wreak havoc on the most carefully-orchestrated offenses, to ruin plays with something as simple as a raised hand.
Former ABC commentator Mark Jackson — the guy who popularized that Hand Down, Man Down saying — would love to coach J.J. Watt on the basketball court. For there's never a hand down when Watt takes the football field.
"You'd think we could work out an endorsement deal," J.J. Watt cracks of Pizza Hut and his delivery driver past.
Just ask Texans backup quarterback Jake Delhomme. Delhomme's played a ton of football in the NFL, brought the Carolina Panthers to a Super Bowl, right here at Reliant. But he'd never seen anything like Watt in 14 years in professional sports.
"I remember when Jake Delhomme first got here," Watt says. "We were going through a walk through and I batted down like three of his balls and I felt terrible.
"He was kind of mad at me. I was just like, 'That's kind of what I do. That's my thing.' "
It's the thing that ends up swinging the game — the thing that allows Arian Foster to punctuate a 153-yard day with a 42-yard touchdown run, the thing that lets Andre Johnson have his moment, which turns into everyone's moment, because what Texans player couldn't help but feel something when No. 80 runs into the end zone?
Raised hands. That's what it takes. Two raised hands.
When Watt gets his up high and plucks an Andy Dalton pass out of the air, almost not even realizing he has the football until he's rumbling toward the end zone, trying not to collapse before he finishes a Pick-6, everything suddenly opens up for these Houston Texans.
A 10-10 game, one the Bengals appear poised to go into halftime leading, knowing they'll get the ball to start the third quarter as well, suddenly flips to 17-10 Texans. The largest crowd in Texans' history (71,725) is suddenly riding a wave, and there's no chance that Watt and Co. will not be taking it all the way to Baltimore now.
It's as big a single play as you'll ever see in a football game.
"We want to get national recognition for our whole franchise," Shaun Cody says. "It was never about just getting into the playoffs."
It's an awfully fitting way for these Texans to grab a game too. With Matt Schaub out with that crushed foot, with Johnson limping through most of the regular season, there is nothing much pretty about Gary Kubiak's team. They must win by grinding down the will of the opposing team, by running at them again and again on offense, by pursuing the quarterback with a relentless intensity on defense, by simply refusing to stop coming.
The Texans don't win in a flurry of highlights. They're not the Green Bay Packers or the New Orleans Saints. They win by annoying the other guys to death. And there's not a more infuriating play in football to a quarterback than seeing a pass knocked out of the air by a defensive lineman.
Watt doesn't just bat it down either. He steals the football, steals the Bengals confidence in one big swoop.
Dalton never looks like the same player again after Watt's acrobatic close-range interception. The rookie from Katy ends up putting it up 42 times as Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jay Gruden completely abandons the run against a Wade Phillips Miracle Defense that refuses to let the Bengals run. Dalton gets picked off two more times in more traditional ways by $70 million in free agent defensive backs — Pro Bowl cornerback Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning both join Watt in the interception column.
This is Phillips' defensive vision come back to life. The 64-year-old does not just inspire his team by returning so quickly from a surgery that would have left most cartoon tough guys crying for their mother. He does it by reminding them all week that getting into the playoffs isn't enough, that he's been there and done that. This team must do more.
And like usual, Wade's Guys lap it all up — and come out snarling.
"We want to get national recognition for our whole franchise," Cody says. "It was never about just getting into the playoffs."
World's Most Confident Underdog
Watt's story of going from a washed-up tight end at minor Mid-American Conference school Central Michigan to a former high school star who ends up delivering pizza back in his hometown, working just so he gets the credits he needs to become a walk-on at Wisconsin — basically a glorified tackling dummy — is a remarkable tale. But Watt carries himself much more like the All-American defensive end he became for the Badgers then the walk-on Pizza Hut delivery driver.
This is one of the more confident athletes you'll come across.
When you've delivered the biggest day in Houston sports since the Astros clinched that World Series berth in 2005, you can celebrate however the hell you please.
He corrects a reporter who notes that his vertical leap was measured at an off-the-charts "36 inches" at the NFL Combine with a quick, "No, 37." When the Pizza Hut story comes up, Watt cracks, "You'd think we could work out an endorsement deal."
You get the idea Watt always believed.
The Texans do not have an elite quarterback, nor anything close with third-string, fifth-round draft pick T.J. Yates forced to start. But they do have a player who brings the mindset of an elite quarterback to defense. When Sports Illustrated's Peter King wrote about the playoffs this week he noted that one thing the Packers' Aaron Rodgers, the Saints' Drew Brees and the Patriots' Tom Brady all have in common is that they play in practice like they play in the fourth quarter of the biggest games.
That is how The Pizza Boy practices every single day, often driving his more experienced teammates insane and delighting an old coach.
"When you do it practice, you'll do it in the games," Phillips says. "We weren't surprised by (Watt's ultra-agile interception). In fact, we were probably more surprised that he hadn't done it earlier in a game because he does it so many times in practice.
"He does it every day in practice."
When the biggest game in Texans' history is over, with Watt dominating it like practice, he gets a text message from his old college roommate.
"You had to outdo me, didn't you?" it reads.
That roommate Louis Nzegwu, who is still a defensive end at Wisconsin, scored a touchdown in the Rose Bowl last Monday. Which prompted Watt to call him and tell him how unbelievable the feat was, to tell Nzegwu how he'd lived "the defensive end's dream."
Then, Watt lives it so much better — just five days later. For Nzegwu's touchdown came in college loss. Watt's completely changes an NFL playoff game.
Time to break out the cowboy hats and let the silliness ensure. These Texans ride on, heading East, hunting redemption.
"J.J. Watt didn't have to say a damn thing," Smith says, still wearing his victory cowboy hat. "He made the play."
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