Not much renders me absolutely speechless, but that 22-19 Texans Wild Card victory pretty much did just that on Saturday evening. That win was one of the greatest football wins ever in Houston professional history, yet it's just one step towards the ultimate goal. Here are my Harris Hits from the improbable win over the Buffalo Bills.
There were so many heroes, but I'll start with the one that we didn't think we'd see play football again in 2019 - J.J. Watt. When Watt came out of the game against the Oakland Raiders earlier this season, I saw him walk past on his way to the sideline and that doesn't happen often. So, I was a little worried at the time. Our worst fears were realized later that night when Watt said he was gutted that he couldn't finish the season with his guys. He was done. Finished. It was over... until it wasn't, and thankfully it wasn't.
The fact that Watt was able to get back on the field on Saturday afternoon was indescribable. Then, in typical Watt fashion, his sack of Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen lit up NRG Stadium and may have turned the whole game around. The Bills settled for a field goal, but the energy felt in the stadium at that moment seemed to filter through the Texans sideline for the rest of the game. Watt finished with a sack and two quarterback hits playing just limited snaps... for the first half of the game.
When crunch time arrived in the second half and overtime, Watt was on the field as much as his conditioning would allow. It was not one of his all-time stat-stuffing performances, but he was brilliant on a day that many of us thought wasn't possible back on October 27th when he was hurt against the Raiders. It's one I'll remember maybe more than any other when his career is over... hopefully a long time from now.
Watt was far from alone in the hero category on this day. He'll have to share the podium with a few people, and one is the Texans sublime signal caller Deshaun Watson. After a first half that will certainly not end up in the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton (as Bill O'Brien likes to remind us), Watson turned the second half into his highlight show. At the end of the first half, the Texans had 81 total yards. That's right, 81. In the second half and overtime, the Texans racked up 280 yards of total offense and that was against a Bills defense that gave up an average of 295 yards total offense for an entire game.
The play that everyone will remember is the final play from scrimmage prior to the game-winning field goal from Ka'imi Fairbairn. Watson went back to throw and two Bills had him dead to rights in the pocket. Now, I've been down on the sideline for every play Watson has ever run and I've seen him get out of some serious jams, but there didn't seem to be any way that he was getting away from safety Siran Neal and linebacker Matt Milano. None. Yet, they pinballed off of him and somehow, someway Watson escaped out to his right and found... Taiwan Jones.
How improbable was the escape? Very. How much more improbable was it that Jones was on the receiving end of one of the most memorable plays in Houston football history? Beyond improbable. Jones hadn't caught a pass from Watson all season long. But, his performance in the Week 17 game where he totaled 49 yards of offense on 10 touches may have been what got the coaches' attention and gave him the chance to be on the field. Jones said afterward that Watson told him to run a hitch route. So, he listened to his quarterback, made the catch after Watson's escape and then ran like, well, you know. He was upset that someone caught him from behind, but the Watson-Jones connection was enough to set up Fairbairn to nail the game winner.
Watson's escape will be remembered with some of his best in the three years of his career, but this one, man, I can still see it happen live and I can't believe he got out of it. I mean, he got JACKED by both Neal and Milano and they merely bounced off of Watson. Unreal. The Bills hit Watson 12 times on the day and sacked him seven times, but he never lost his cool when the Texans fell behind 16-0. He just never panicked and when Watt made his sack, Watson made sure the offense changed things the rest of the game.
His run for a touchdown near the end of the third quarter? Wow. Just wow. He was hit at about the six-yard line and carried three dudes into the end zone. When he landed in the end zone, that building went to another sound level. The cacophonous din was equal parts excitement that the Texans were back in the game and appreciation for their tough-as-a-$2-steak signal-calling leader.
Going into this game, another hero, DeAndre Hopkins, was a focal point of the discussion due to his matchup with star cornerback Tre'Davious White. Then, after one half of action, Hopkins didn't have a catch. So, with the score 13-0, Watson found Hopkins on the Bills sideline... and he fumbled back to the Bills. Out of hope, perhaps desperation, Marc Vandermeer made as prescient a comment as he would make all day. He said that Hopkins would make up for it for the rest of the game. He did that and then some.
On the ensuing drive, he made a first down catch for 14 yards. Then, a few plays later, he had a first down catch on third-and-8 to set up another first down. Both of those came with White in coverage. Then, after the Texans cut the lead to 19-11, Watson looked up Hopkins again as the First-Team All-Pro receiver beat the First-Team All-Pro cornerback (White) for a huge 41-yard gain. Six plays later, Watson found Carlos Hyde for the go-ahead touchdown. Then, on the key two-point conversion, Hopkins beat White inside for the catch and conversion. Honestly, Hopkins was THAT dude after that fumble, as he made one huge play after another. White is a tremendous, TREMENDOUS player, but over that second half and overtime, Hopkins dominated as he's done often throughout his career.
I got a little worried early in the game as the Texans couldn't capitalize on possible Josh Allen mistakes. On the second drive of the game, Allen hit Texans cornerback Bradley Roby right in the chest with a potential pick-six, but Roby couldn't hang on. Then, a few drives later, Allen scrambled for a first down, but he lost the ball. Whitney Mercilus picked up the rock and ran down into Bills territory. But, unfortunately, Allen was ruled down a half second before he coughed up the football. Allen has a few mistakes in him most nights and I worried that those were ones that the Texans would rue not taking advantage of in this game.
However, Allen did have one major mistake in him and Mercilus made one of the plays of the game as a result. Allen went back to throw and Mercilus closed in to make a sure tackle for no gain and force a punt. But, Mercilus' left hand, maybe just a few fingers, struck the ball. Allen lost control of the rock and Jacob Martin picked it up for the Texans. That turnover led to a Fairbairn field goal that cut the lead to 16-11. The pass rush really picked up in the second half with the way Mercilus, Watt, Charles Omenihu and Martin got after Allen. But, Mercilus' forced fumble was massive for the Texans defense and, in turn, the Texans offense.
When the Texans had a 19-16 lead late in the game, the Texans pass rush went to a level it's rarely gotten to this season. The pressure was unrelenting and finished with a Martin sack on fourth down that sent NRG Stadium into hysterics.
The Texans finished with 11 quarterback hits, one less than the Bills.
Going back to Mercilus for a quick minute... after Hopkins' fumble, the defense ran back out on the field and it would've been understandable had the Texans defense just walked out on the field after that gut punch turnover. It was 13-0. The defense had been on the field for a LONG time already that day. Yet, as I looked out there before the drive started, I saw Mercilus and Benardrick McKinney imploring their teammates to get out on the field and make some plays. It was on that drive that Watt got his sack that seemed to turn the momentum of that game. I'm convinced that the defense's will carried it through that difficult time and it held strong for the rest of the game.
One play that will get overshadowed in the aftermath of that Watson-to-Jones huge play was Duke Johnson's 18-yard catch on third-and-18 on the final drive. Watson bought some time but couldn't find anyone down the field so he checked it down to Johnson who then sprinted up field for a MASSIVELY-important first down. Johnson knew that he was going to get nailed at the marker, but he powered through get 18 yards and a couple of inches for that first down.
The other play Johnson made that will resonate was his two-man block on the first two-point conversion. He was out in front of Watson as Watson headed for the end zone. Johnson stayed on the first block to allow Watson to turn the corner and then peeled off to pick off Tremaine Edmunds. Watson then dove for the pylon and picked up the two.
Unfortunately, safety Jahleel Addae went out of the game with an injury in the first half, but long-time veteran Mike Adams stepped in and did a solid job. He also came up with one of the key plays of the game with a tackle for a loss on second-and-10 prior to the two minute warning. On the next two plays, the Texans forced an intentional grounding and a Martin sack that nearly ended the game. Either way, Adams was ready for his opportunity when pressed into duty.
Zach Cunningham finished the game with nine tackles, but two of those came in overtime in a key spot. He tackled Allen on a quarterback run for a short one-yard run on a play that had 15+ yards written all over it. That whole side got wiped out and it appeared Allen had the corner turned, but Cunningham ran right through all that and stopped him for a short one-yard gain. Then, on an Allen scramble on third-and-9, Cunningham chased Allen down well short of the first down. A blindside block on the play moved the Bills back 15 yards and on third-and-24, Bills receiver Duke Williams dropped a quick throw that was designed to get the Bills back in possible field goal range. Either way, Cunningham was outstanding in the second half and overtime.
McKinney led the Texans with 10 tackles and had a hit on the quarterback as well. To say it was valuable to have him back may have been the understatement of the year. He went out late in the win over the Titans on December 15 with a concussion. So, he'd not been on the field since then and he was much needed on this day, as usual.
There were so many heroes on this day that I'm sure I missed a bunch of them. The offensive line found itself in the second half and took the game over. Ka'imi Fairbairn was perfect on all his kicks and, of course, hit another memorable game winner. Justin Reid flew around all day. Gareon Conley has a number of pass break ups. Darren Fells made one of the most important catches of his career just prior to Hyde's touchdown catch. Hyde's retribution on second-and-goal to take the lead was just awesome. Bryan Anger punted expertly. Kenny Stills made key catches again for this team as he's done all year long. Martin was a maniac rushing the quarterback. Total team effort.
This one we'll remember for a long time, but we can wax nostalgic after the season is over. It's time to head to Kansas City to meet the Chiefs, yet again. See ya then, everyone.
Houston Texans take on the Buffalo Bills at NRG Stadium for the first game of the 2019 NFL postseason.