It's been a long time for Brian Cushing.
Three years too long.
The inside linebacker's back in the playoffs for the first time since January of 2012, when he and the Texans took the franchise's first journey into the postseason. They beat the Bengals at home in the Wild Card Playoff and fought the Ravens tooth-and-nail in a Division round loss at Baltimore.
He was the MVP of that squad in 2011, and was off to another dominant start to the 2012 regular season when a Jets offensive lineman dove at his legs in a Week 5 win at New York. Cushing hobbled off the field that evening, and was a spectator for the rest of that 12-4 campaign that culminated in a second round exit at the hands of New England.
A guy who's been described by head coach Bill O'Brien as a "heart and soul" member of this squad, will be amped up emotionally on Saturday when the Texans kick off against the Chiefs in the playoffs.
"Any time you get in an environment like I'm sure it'll be this Saturday, it kind of takes over," Cushing said. "You almost have to bring it down a little bit and play within the game and remember your assignment and remember your job and don't get too fired up."
The knee injury of 2012 was followed up by another one in 2013. Last season was a healthier one for Cushing, but he admitted this summer that he wasn't truly himself. 2015 saw him start all 16 games and
lead the defense with 110 tackles. For defensive end J.J. Watt, it's been good to see Cushing play more like the guy who was such a force in 2011.
"You see him flying around, especially as the year's gone on," Watt said. "He's gotten better and better. You always want to have that full season where you can just let your hair down and fly. I think he's been doing that this year."
Cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who's played with Cushing since 2011, said he and the Texans benefit from the emotional and physical intensity the linebacker provides on gameday.
"He's really extreme out there," Joseph said. "And I think that kind of is what makes him a really good player. He plays hard from whistle to whistle. He gives us great energy to feed off as a team."
It's an energy that's gone a long way toward pacing the Texans defense to new heights in the last nine games. Cushing and company have allowed an average of 12.7 points per game in that span, and Houston's won seven of those contests. In those victories, the defense has only given up 8.1 points per game.
But a new challenge awaits in the Chiefs, and Cushing said the Texans will be tested like they were in the Week 1 loss to Kansas City, but also in other ways.
"It's going to be an interesting matchup," Cushing said. "We'll definitely look at the first game film, but like I said, we're pretty different from that first game and I think they understand that. Like I said, I think they are too."
Kickoff for Cushing and the Texans against Kansas City is set for 3:35 p.m. CT at NRG Stadium on Saturday.