It was worth the wait.
In the first playoff game in franchise history and first playoff game in the city of Houston since 1994, the Texans trounced the Cincinnati Bengals 31-10 in front of a record crowd of 71,725 at Reliant Stadium. They will play at the Baltimore Ravens in the Divisional Round next Sunday at noon CT.
"It's a special day," said Texans head coach Gary Kubiak, a native Houstonian who is now 1-0 in playoff games. "I was sitting in my office all day today leading up to the game and looking outside, thinking, 'Holy – the Texans are in a playoff game.' It felt good. I'm just very proud of all the guys and the job they did, and hopefully there are more to come."
The Texans' defense had four sacks, three interceptions and one touchdown – a 29-yard interception return by rookie defensive end J.J. Watt – against Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton. Texans running back Arian Foster ran for 153 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries, and wide receiver Andre Johnson had five catches for 90 yards and a touchdown in his long-awaited playoff debut.
The noise level at Reliant was so loud that Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko said he and his teammates could hardly think.
"The atmosphere that they had today in the stadium was awesome," Johnson said. "When a crowd is pumped like that, the team feeds off it, and that is a tribute to (fans). They also helped contribute to this win."
After falling behind 7-0 midway through the first quarter, the Texans went on a 31-3 run the rest of the way. They outrushed the Bengals 188-76 and won the turnover battle 3-0.
All from a team that entered the playoffs on a three-game losing streak.
"We played the football that we had been playing when we were winning, and that's what we were after," Kubiak said. "I told the guys I really thought we kind of needed to go through our last three weeks… needed to kind of be humbled from the standpoint of what we're not going to be able to get away with if we're going to win during this month. I think it really helped us.
"We came back, played error-free football from the turnover standpoint, got turnovers and ended up running the ball well before the day was over. It was the key to us winning."
The Bengals scored first with a one-yard touchdown run by Cedric Benson with 7:34 left in the first quarter. It was set up by a 52-yard pass interference penalty on Texans safety Glover Quin on a deep pass from Dalton intended for rookie wide receiver A.J. Green.
The Texans responded with a six-play, 80-yard drive to tie the game. Foster scored on an eight-yard touchdown run on first-and-goal, then celebrated by doing the "Dream Shake" in the end zone as a tribute to Houston Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon.
"I'm just elated, excited and happy to bring this city a playoff win that's been thirsty for a playoff win for years," Foster said. "To be part of that, it just feels good."
The Bengals and Texans traded field goals in the second quarter. Texans kicker Neil Rackers' 39-yarder made it 10-10 with 1:48 left in the first half.
Three plays later, Watt made the play of the game. He jumped behind the line of scrimmage and snared Dalton's pass, then tucked the ball away and ran 29 yards to the end zone.
"I think it changed the momentum completely of the game," Texans linebacker Brian Cushing said. "Going ahead like that, 17-10, really getting fans into it – that was the first turnover of many, and it sparked a lot of excitement."
The second half was scoreless until late in the third quarter. Texans rookie quarterback T.J. Yates was almost picked off by safety Chris Crocker on second-and-six from the Houston 49. Two plays later, Yates hit Johnson for a 40-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline after Johnson made cornerback Adam Jones fall down with a double move.
"When I broke down and saw him of out of the corner of my eye, I knew I had him because he bit all over it," Johnson said. "It was a big play in the game."
On the next drive, the Bengals went for it on fourth-and-three near from the Houston 47. Dalton was pressured by Watt, Reed and Connor Barwin into throwing a desperation pass, and former Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph came down with an interception at the 25-yard line.
Texans free safety Danieal Manning made a spectacular interception near midfield on the Bengals' next drive. On a pass intended for Green at the right sideline, Manning caught the ball at the peak of his jump and just barely came down with both feet inbounds.
Three plays later, Foster ran for a 42-yard touchdown on third-and-seven. He burst around the edge on an outside zone run to the right, then tossed aside Crocker at the 20-yard line as he tiptoed down the sideline on his way to the end zone.
"Jacoby Jones had a good block, staying square a good 15 yards downfield, and I just made a play," Foster said. "I guess he (Crocker) just thought I was going to go out of bounds, but I didn't."
Now the Texans will face the Ravens at M&T Bank Field on Sunday at noon CT. They lost 29-14 there in Week 6, then went on a seven-game winning streak to clinch the AFC South. The Ravens were 8-0 at home this season.
"I hope this (victory over Cincinnati) validates us a little bit nationally," Texans right tackle Eric Winston said. "I know a road win will do that as well. We have our hands full. Baltimore is a tough team, especially up there. I'll tell you what, if we can play mistake-free like this and we can run the ball, I like our chances against anybody."