BALTIMORE — "Sure you don't want to talk to J.J. Watt?" Jacoby Jones asks the reporters jostling around his locker, the TV cameramen and the print guys trying to fight each other for position.
Jones' question hangs in the air. A Houston Texans PR rep just announced that Watt would be taking questions at the podium. But no one moves.
The Texans defense should not have to explain this 20-13, missed-opportunity, playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens. The Texans' defense wins the fight. They absolutely throttle the Ravens, grabbing a playoff game by the throat just when it appears headed for the door.
The Texans will not allow themselves to go meekly out of the playoffs like Tim Tebow. Wade Phillips' defense will not be humiliated. Hell no.
In defeat, the Texans show they have the best defense in the NFL. You can call that crazy. But there's indisputable visual evidence.
It can be seen in Watt's relentless push on Joe Flacco's pocket, in a goal-line stand for the ages, in the fire of a unit that refuses to give in when logic says that the game already should be gone. Houston trails 17-3 in a road playoff game, with a rookie third-string quarterback throwing up wild ducks for them, with all of Baltimore sensing blood.
If there's ever a scenario setup for an embarrassing blowout, this is it.
But the Texans D will not play that. They will not allow themselves to go meekly out of the playoffs like Tim Tebow did in Foxboro Saturday night. Heck, like Green Bay does in Lambeau later Sunday.
Wade Phillips' defense will not be humiliated. Hell no.
"We just kept telling each other on the sidelines, 'Tighten it up. Tighten it up,' " Houston defensive end Antonio Smith says. "That's all we really said. We knew we matched up well with that offense. We knew that's all we needed to do."
The Texans tighten it up all right. They almost squeeze the playoff life out of a veteran Ravens team that knows it's Super Bowl or never this season. They should have ended the Ravens' season. Flacco, Ray Rice, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and all the rest of Baltimore's big-name players are lucky to be going to New England next weekend.
And you get the sense, they know it.
"That was probably the best defense I've seen all year," Rice says. Rice, who gained more yards from scrimmage than any other player in the NFL this season, is rendered a non-factor on a 80-yard day. The Ravens punt nine times. They go three and out nine times, including five times in seven second-half possessions.
This is one of the more dominant defensive performances you'll ever see in the playoffs. It's a joy to watch the all-out effort of these Texans defenders — if you're not one of the purple-clad souls freezing his butt off in the M&T Bank Stadium. But if you don't have a rooting allegiance . . . well, it's hard to imagine many casual NFL fans who tune in not pulling for this Houston D.
This self-dubbed Bulls On Parade defense will go national next season. Of that, there's little question.
If Jones only runs away from a bouncing punt like football players are taught from the Pop Warner level. If T.J. Yates only connects on one of those downfield prayers, or better yet, doesn't make them. Bulls On Parade is close to seizing the nation's attention these playoffs.
Tom Brady is more than a little lucky that he does not have to go through them. Does that sound crazy? Absolutely. It's also true.
"I'm disappointed that we weren't able to get that final score for our defense," Texans Pro Bowl tailback Arian Foster says. "I'm disappointed that we weren't able to get them their true due.
"Did you see that defense? They played incredible."
The Other Side
If Watt, Smith and Connor Barwin could play against Yates, the Texans win this one in a runaway. Yates plays for Houston though. The rookie fifth-round pick did much more for the Texans this season than they could rightly expect, but on this day he's lost, flinging up passes for the taking.
In defeat, the Texans show they have the best defense in the NFL.
And the Ravens take — three interceptions worth. When Matt Schaub is back as the starter next season, hopefully healthy for the playoffs, everything figures to be different for these Texans. Teams had better beat them now. This is a franchise on the move, one thinking in terms of Super Bowls.
But that's talk for another day. On this one, the locker room is eerily quiet. When it's over, the Texans throw all their equipment bags into the center of the aisles, making the cramped visitor's locker room a minefield of dirty jerseys and discarded helmets, turning the postgame interviews into a near nine-clowns-in-a-car situation with no one quite sure where to step.
It's impossible to block what's been lost though. No matter how much stuff is piled all around.
"We were so pumped up, so prepared for this game," rookie linebacker Brooks Reed says. "We felt so confident as a defense. I mean . . . I feel honored just to play with these guys."
It's that kind of day. The Texans desperately want to hold onto the season, but everything's being packed away. The NFL equipment trucks wait for no man.
"We'll be taking this game into the offseason," wide receiver Andre Johnson says. "Guys are hurt."
And yet, there is an unmistakable sense of pride in the losing locker room too. Especially among the defensive players. When the Ravens need only a few inches on fourth down to put the game away in the third quarter, the Texans turn them back.
It's not even close either. There's no need for a measurement. Rice doesn't get an inch.
With Wade Phillips back on the sidelines for the first time since the surgery that would have ended another man's year, the Texans D takes the Ravens to the final 11 seconds of the game, almost cause Lewis to choke on that Super Bowl ring he brings out for this playoff occasion.
Fittingly, there's one last Next Man Up hero too. For who makes the tackle on fourth and inches? Who crushes Rice, makes one of the NFL's top offensive stars feel like he's caught in a human boomerang?
The Texans desperately want to hold onto the season, but everything's being packed away. The NFL equipment trucks wait for no man.
None other than Tim Dobbins, a journeyman linebacker who had 12 tackles all regular season.
"I'm so happy for Dobbins," middle linebacker Brian Cushing says. "He's a hell of a player. I really believe that. He just needs more of a chance."
These Bulls on defense all love each. This is a unit with one collective man crush. It all starts with Phillips and runs from there, but it has to stop. For now.
"We were just determined to keep holding them, to give us another shot to win the game," Smith says. "The heart is there."
The help is not. The best defense in the NFL is packing up for the season. But the Ravens know. Even the ultra-proud, ultra-stubborn Lewis and Ed Reed have to realize it deep inside. Things are turning. They're no longer the most fearsome unit in the league.
See you next year? With this Texans defense, of that, there's no doubt.
The best defense in the NFL is taking a forced sabbatical. Everyone else — Brady, Lewis, Eli Manning, Vernon Davis and all the rest — had better make the most of it.