Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press
Not all that long ago, the Houston Texans were dead in the water—an 0-3 team coming off a 4-12 season that had just lost at home to a bad New York Giants squad.
The Texans were done. Through. Finished.
Now, after downing the reeling Miami Dolphins 42-23 on Thursday night, the Texans are one of the hottest teams in the National Football League. A team with an explosive offense and a punishing defense. Winners of five in a row, the Texans are all alone in first place in the AFC South and look like the clear class of the division.
It’s amazing how much things can change in just over a month.
And what a difference it can make for Houston to have its two biggest stars back in top form.
On defense, there’s no question who the leader is—Justin James Watt.
The three-time Defensive Player of the Year suffered through injury-marred seasons each of the last two years. But in 2018, Watt is healthy again and wreaking his usual havoc. The 29-year-old entered Week 8 tied for fourth in the NFL with seven sacks, and it didn’t take Watt long to tie for the NFL lead with his eighth.
.@JJWatt coming in HOT with a sack! #Texans #MIAvsHOU
📺: @nflnetwork + @NFLonFOX
📱+💻: https://t.co/DJUityQHC9 https://t.co/O0Lv7yTYYa
For the record, Dolphins tackle Ja’Wuan James was called for holding on that play—for all the good it did him.
For the game, Watt finished with four tackles, two tackles for loss, that sack and a pass defensed. But even that robust stat line doesn’t tell the whole story of the effect he has on games. At his best, Watt completely changes an opponent’s game plan. If you don’t double him (or at the very least leave a back or tight end in to help), your offensive tackle winds up looking like James.
It’s one less blocker that can be committed to Jadeveon Clowney or Whitney Mercilus. One less safety valve in the passing game as a beleaguered quarterback flees for his life. Watt disrupts offenses even when he isn’t in on the play—just by being J.J. Watt.
Watt—with all due respect to Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald—is the most dominant defensive player of his generation.
Tim Warner/Getty Images
While speaking on the NFL Network’s postgame show, Watt credited those injury-marred seasons for helping him navigate Houston’s rocky start to this season.
“You start off 0-3,” Watt said, “and outside the whole world is falling in. But inside, we knew what we had. We knew the guys we had. The thing is, a lot of the guys, like myself, have been through adversity—injuries, stuff like that. So, we know what it’s like to be down, and we also know how to climb back out of it.”
As great as Watt was Thursday, he may not be the Texans’ most important player—just as he wasn’t the biggest star against the Dolphins.
For the first time since taking the NFL by storm last year before suffering a season-ending ACL tear, Deshaun Watson looked like—Deshaun Watson. He was a highlight reel with legs, making one big play after another after another.
Like a quarterback who can extend a play with his legs before finding an open man in the end zone—on fourth down, no less?
Sporting News @sportingnews
Deshaun Watson finds Jordan Thomas for the TD!
@HoustonTexans 21, @MiamiDolphins 10: https://t.co/L9wBQ2hsC3
Elementary, my dear Watson.
Prefer a good old-fashioned 73-yard laser for a walk-in six?
We’d say that Will Fuller has had a pretty good night 🔥
(via @thecheckdown) #Texans #TNF @Will_Fuller7
Again, not a problem.
For the game, Watson completed 16 of 20 passes for 239 yards and five touchdowns and had a passer rating of 156.0—less than three points shy of perfect.
That’s right. He had fewer incompletions than touchdown passes.
In news that should terrify every defense in the AFC South, Watson told Erin Andrews of Fox Sports after the game that the Texans offense is only getting started.
“I don’t even know how explosive we can be,” Watson said. “Top-notch. We’ve just gotta keep working. Today we showed just a little bit, but we’re only going to continue to get better and improve each and every week.”
Tim Warner/Getty Images
That shriek you just heard came from the Jacksonville Jaguars—and they’re in London.
Watson got contributions from just about everyone in Houston’s offense. Tailback Lamar Miller peeled off 133 rushing yards with a score on 18 carries—his second consecutive 100-yard effort. Wide receiver Will Fuller V caught five balls for 124 yards and that long touchdown. Tight end Jordan Thomas found the end zone twice.
Oh, and DeAndre Hopkins (a superstar in his own right) scored two touchdowns and made the greatest catch that didn’t count in the history of the NFL.
The (dubious) flag on that play should have been picked up on general principle.
Most importantly, a beleaguered Houston offensive line that had allowed 26 sacks and a jaw-dropping 70 QB hits though its first seven games gave up zero sacks and a single hit. That was beyond huge for a young quarterback who couldn’t fly to Jacksonville in Week 7 because he was so beat up.
The Houston offense averaged 5.4 yards a carry Thursday and almost 12 yards per pass. That’s what you call explosive. The defense did give up 23 points and 370 yards, but Miami’s two touchdowns were set up by a blown call and a fluke play. Miami converted just four of its 13 third downs in the game.
The Texans just keep getting better and better, and in Week 8 they looked like a team that can beat anyone in the AFC—including the Patriots and Chiefs— and hang with any of the big boys in the NFC.
Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press
It wasn’t all good news Thursday. Both Clowney and Fuller (who have lengthy injury histories) were injured in the fourth quarter and did not return. Former NFL team doctor David Chao speculated that Fuller tore his ACL.
Losing either (or both) for an extended period of time would be a blow.
But so long as Watson is healthy and scrambling around in the offensive backfield, the Texans are a threat to score on every play—let alone every drive. So long as Watt is healthy and rampaging through opposing offensive backfields, the Texans have something that few teams can boast—a one-man wrecking crew who can take over a game.
Despite their four-game winning streak entering Week 8, there were plenty of people (including me, admittedly) who questioned whether Houston was for real. Whether this team had to be taken seriously as a contender capable of a deep run in the postseason.
That question was answered against the Dolphins—emphatically.