HOUSTON — J.J. Watt says he thinks he can play better. This is something any athlete would say at almost any time. But Watt actually seems to believe this. You get the impression Watt already believes he’s the best defensive player in the NFL, and believes he could become the best of all time.
He had three sacks, four hurries, six tackles for loss and a forced fumble in the Houston Texans’ 29-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts (9-5) on Sunday at Reliant Stadium. He also made a strip on his own goal line that saved seven points. The win gave Houston its second AFC South championship in a row.
Watt thought it should have been five sacks.
“If you’re not trying to be the greatest,” Watt said, “you’re wasting your time.”
If that’s the standard, the Texans (12-2) are still a little short. But Sunday’s win nonetheless accomplished a lot for the Texans. Clinching the division had looked like a matter of time all year, but the way the Colts had been playing, and the way the Texans got trashed at New England on Monday, tension grew for Sunday’s affair. Though they entered Sunday’s game 11-2, their play had looked a little lifeless of late. The Texans had not run the ball well and had been abused in the secondary by some of the league’s better quarterbacks.
With Andrew Luck looking more and more like he deserves that designation, Sunday’s game turned into a chance for the Texans to prove something.
So they sacked Luck five times, harried him into a 13-for-27, 186-yard passing performance. They ran for 178 yards. They threw for 239. They led the game from beginning to end, and finished the whole thing off with a nine-play, 78-yard drive during which they threw one pass.
It was the response receiver Andre Johnson guaranteed the Texans would make after they got humiliated by the New England Patriots on Monday. Nobody, except Watt, had a better day than Johnson, who had 11 catches for 151 yards and a touchdown. He also passed the 11,000-yard mark for his career, becoming the third-fastest player to hit that number.
“(Kubiak) in the locker room said something like, ‘It’s not really that we bounced back, it’s that we played the football we know we’re capable of playing,'” running back Arian Foster said. “Hats off to the New England Patriots. They played us very well, but we shot ourselves in the foot so much.”
Viewed as the 60-minute performance it was, the Texans looked more or less exactly like the team everyone thought they were before the losses to Green Bay and New England started to make even some of their wins look retrospectively suspicious.
But there were moments of angst Sunday.
The score was 23-17 with 2:37 left in the third quarter. Luck had made a habit of the fourth-quarter comeback. The Texans have shown an acute ability to surrender a huge passing play at any moment (they blew a coverage that allowed a 61-yarder in the first half).
Maybe people forget this now, but it was only two years ago that the Texans were pretty much all offense. Because the team’s biggest star is a defensive player, and the defensive coordinator happens to be Wade Phillips, defense has become the Texans’ identity.
But Matt Schaub has two 4,000-yard passing seasons. Arian Foster once led the NFL in rushing. Johnson has 11,000 career receiving yards. Those guys are still around.
Those guys responded. From the Indianapolis 27, Foster broke away for a 27-yard touchdown run. It was called back by a penalty, but you could see what was happening. It was there. The Texans drove for a field goal on that drive, forced a punt, then drove for another field goal with 1:09 left. Over the final 11 minutes, Forster ran for 80 of his 165 yards.
“We knew it was going to happen, we just had to stay patient,” Foster said. “Really, we were waiting a couple games to get it going.”
That has not been the case for Watt, who has been unstoppable all season. He has helped hide flaws in the secondary, injuries to the linebackers, and a slumping season by Connor Barwin.
Sunday he seemed to make every important tackle. He was the one thing the Colts could not manage.
“If he keeps going at the rate he’s going, I think he’ll probably be the greatest Texan to come through here,” Johnson said.