Unpredictable. Stressful. Thrilling.
One day, this is how the Houston Texans' 2018 season will be remembered.
After a much-anticipated return for Deshaun Watson, J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus and other starters, the Texans won their third AFC South title in four years under head coach Bill O'Brien. Houston became the first team to begin a season 0-3 and win a division title since 1992.
"I give all of the credit to the players," head coach Bill O'Brien said. "I do think we have a very experienced coaching staff that helps in late-game situations, but I think all of the credit goes to the players. The players play hard, they believe, they believe in each other, they never feel like – even if something bad happens – that they're out of a game. There were some bad things that happened in the game. Our guys kept fighting back. We talk about answering the bell. I think our guys did a good job of that for the most part, but there are a lot of things that we need to improve on, but our guys, they fight hard."
The Texans rallied to put together an incredible nine-game win streak on their way to an 11-5 regular season record. The turning point came in Week 4 at Indianapolis. After taking a 28-10 lead, the Texans found themselves headed to overtime following a comeback by Andrew Luck and the Colts. Both teams traded field goals in overtime, but it was Johnathan Joseph's pass breakup on fourth down to set up the game-winning score. Ka'imi Fairbairn's 37-yard field goal sealed the 37-34 overtime victory for the first win of the 2018 season.
The following week on Sunday Night Football, DeAndre Hopkins had a highlight-reel worthy catch-and-run against the Dallas Cowboys in another nail biter. The All-Pro spun his way around multiple defenders for a 49-yard gain to set up another game-winning field goal in overtime. In their 19-16 win, the Texans defense held Ezekiel Elliott to just 54 yards rushing while intercepting Dak Prescott twice.
"They came together as a team and they were doing the things that we needed to do to win games," defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel said. "Not give up big plays, not give up touchdowns, make the opponent work for whatever they get. When you give up big plays, it's just too easy for the offense."
Watson, injured late in the win over the Cowboys, faced a dilemma two weeks later when the Texans were heading into Week 7 game at Jacksonville. Between a collapsed lung and broken rib, Watson could not fly with the team. After exploring all the options, Watson decided he would take a bus to get himself there. The second-year starting quarterback took care of business and drove off with a dominant 20-7 win.
"That's a story that I'll never forget," Watson said. "(To) be able to tell people the things that I had to go through to be on the field with the team and be able to perform and try to get a win, but we talk about it in the quarterback room, in the locker room, whenever situations come up. At the end of the day, it was cool being able to find a way to get down there and help the team win."
Houston continued on its red-hot winning streak for the next two months. However, in the midst of a wildly unpredictable run, the organization suffered a tragedy. The Texans Founder, Senior Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Robert C. McNair passed away on November 23, 2018 at the age of 81. Three days later, the team honored him on Monday Night Football with a resounding 34-17 win over the Tennessee Titans at NRG Stadium.
"Every game really is for the McNair family," Deshaun Watson said. "I know he's watching over us, and we're going to make sure that we make him proud."
Lamar Miller scored on a 97-yard touchdown run, the longest run in franchise history. In his first home game as a Texan, Demaryius Thomas caught two touchdown passes.
"I think these players, even the younger guys who really didn't have a chance to know him very well, I think everybody understood from the veteran players what Bob meant to this organization," O'Brien said. "They handled it the right way. That was a good win and a tribute to Bob McNair. We gave the game ball to Cal (McNair), because we felt like as a team that win was for Bob right there."
During the nine-game stretch, Houston played its best complementary football, from forcing turnovers and converting them into points to improving field position and stopping the run. Houston pulled out five consecutive road wins and earned a playoff spot after Week 16. In the regular season finale, the Texans clinched the AFC South title with a 20-3 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars at home.
This season, four players were named to the 2018 Pro Bowl: DeAndre Hopkins, J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Benardrick McKinney. In just his second season, Watson became the first quarterback to record at least 4,000 passing yards, 25 passing touchdowns, 500 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns in a single season in NFL history.
But the Texans have more work to do, heading into the fifth postseason in franchise history.
"We've done a lot of good things over the course of those games since we were 0-3, but we have to make sure we do what we need to do to make sure that doesn't all go to waste," Watt said. "All the work that we put in over the last couple of months, we have to make sure that we make all of that work count."
The Texans finished the 2018 season 11-5 overall, 6-2 at home, 5-3 on the road and 4-2 overall against the AFC South. Houston will host the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Wild Card game on Saturday. Kickoff is set for 3:35 p.m. CT on ESPN/ABC-13 and SportsRadio 610.
Check out the best Week 17 images from Texans team photographer Zach Tarrant. Presented by Houston Methodist.