Not long after the final seconds ticked away on the play clock and the Houston Texans walked off the field in Nashville with a win, Whitney Mercilus joked about his 86-yard interception return.
"Yeah, I'm still tired."
After picking off a pass that was tipped by Justin Reid, the starting outside linebacker ran almost completely down the length of the field before he was pushed out of bounds at the Titans 12-yard line. Head coach Bill O'Brien said he heard the play, before he actually saw it.
"Between series, I go over to the bench and get with Deshaun (Watson) and Timmy (Tim Kelly) and just look at the pictures, just kind of decide what we want to do the next series," O'Brien said. "So, I have the defense on the headset in case they need me for something. So, I just heard the reaction and then I turned and saw Whitney running. It was a great play. Really a great play by Justin (Reid) and Whitney did a nice job getting us down there on that 80 however long he ran, 80-plus yards. It was a great play."
In a matchup with a blocked field goal, a fake punt and multiple touchdowns and sole possession of the AFC South on the line, O'Brien called interception return "the play of the game." Not only did the defense force a turnover, it took away Tennessee's opportunity to score on first-and-goal. Instead of taking a lead, the Titans found themselves trailing 7-0 just a few plays later after Watson threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Stills.
"Usually, you would hope to try to alter some of that momentum and force them to kick a field goal right there," Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said after the game. "That can be deflating, and then I'll talk to the defense, and we'll try to look at that. When they return something like that, they have a huge momentum change in play that if we're able to force them to a field goal right there, you kind of settle down a little bit."
Mercilus said he wanted to finish the play with a touchdown himself, but his hamstrings tapped out on him. His teammates definitely had fun watching him try though.
"Even though it's Whitney, you expect him to score," DeAndre Hopkins said. "But, he made a big play which helped us score."
"As soon as he picked it up," Johnathan Joseph joked, when asked when Mercilus might have been out of gas. "I was shocked he got that far. But, that shows the type of athlete he is."
"That was big, that was huge," Stills said. "I can't believe he got ran down from behind. Somebody should have blocked for him. That was a big play for us that shifted momentum, and we were able to get points on the board after that."
Mercilus didn't seem to mind the good-natured fun. He admitted it had been a while since he even had to attempt running that distance at top speed.
"Whew, probably not since training camp," Mercilus said. "It was just complementary football on that play. It gave us a spark for the offense to turn it into points so sure enough, as soon as that happened, we were on a roll from there."
Mercilus now has two interceptions on the season, including his career-first in Week 1 at New Orleans. His 86-yard return was the third longest interception return in the NFL this season and tied for fourth-longest in franchise history.