It was assumed that a pair of rookies would decide Saturday’s playoff game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Texans. Entering the contest, most of the attention was paid to the Bengals dynamic duo of quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green and rightfully so, as the pair led the team to its first playoff berth in three years.
Despite flying under the radar for much of the season, a pair of Texans rookies would share in the spotlight following Saturday’s decisive 31-10 victory. Defensive end J.J. Watt and quarterback T.J. Yates weren’t the only reasons the Texans won their first playoff game, but they were certainly key contributors.
With Cincinnati outplaying Houston in the first half, J.J. Watt made the play which would open the floodgates for the Texans. With the game tied at 10 with less than two minutes remaining in the first half, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton’s pass was intercepted by Watt at the line of scrimmage and ran back 29 yards for a touchdown.
“I was really just trying to put my hands up and get in the way of the passing lanes,” Watt explained. “It happened to stick. I realized I had the ball, so I was running to the end zone just trying not to fall down.”
Watt became the first rookie defensive lineman to return a pass for a touchdown in the playoffs (not counting the Super Bowl).
“He’s been exceptional,” Texans head coach Gary Kubiak said of Watt. “He’s played like a 4-5 year player.”
Watt’s score propelled Houston to 21 unanswered points and a trip to Baltimore for next Sunday’s Divisional Round matchup against the Ravens.
“I think it changed the momentum completely,” Texans linebacker Brian Cushing said of the interception. “It sparked a lot of excitement.”
Texans quarterback T.J. Yates had to spend the week listening to national publications touting opposing rookie quarterback Andy Dalton. Although Yates is more of a game manager than a facilitator, he is a player that is capable of making some throws, every bit as equal as his counterpart.
Yates numbers on Saturday won’t spur any playoff fantasy nerds on to any championships, but he was clearly the best quarterback on the field. Yates played the role of game manager to near-perfection as he completed 11 of 20 throws for 159 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. After making some plays early, Andy Dalton folded in the second half, finishing 27 of 42 for 257 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions. Dalton’s turnovers led to 14 points and long trip back to Cincinnati for a Bengals team that defeated just one team with a winning record in 2011.
If Houston is going to compete with or possibly defeat the AFC North champion Baltimore Ravens next Sunday they will need a great effort from all of their players, especially their rookie quarterback. For now, the Texans are going to savor the victory.
“This is a special day,” said Gary Kubiak who has coached Houston for five years in anticipation of his first playoff victory.
Baltimore is figured to be a heavy favorite and rightfully so, but they’re not taking the young Texans lightly.
“They’re a good team,” Ravens guard Marshal Yanda said of the Texans. “They’ve got a good defense, a good running game and a young quarterback.”
As much as you’d like to give Houston a legitimate shot to pull off an upset at Baltimore, it will be a tall task for a young team that maybe feels a little too good about itself facing a team whose sole purpose is to play in the Super Bowl. After Houston clinched the AFC South title, they went in the tank dropping their final three regular season contests. With Houston’s powerful rushing attack and stifling defense they can hang with anyone in the NFL, but it appears as if their mission for the season has already been accomplished.
Charlie Bernstein is the NFL Insider for ESPNFlorida.com and ESPN 1080 and 1040 in Orlando/Tampa and Editor-in-Chief of Sports Media Interactive, covering the National Football League, NCAA, and National Basketball Association. Charlie covers the Jacksonville Jaguars for FoxSports and has been featured on the NFL Network and Sirius NFL Radio. Charlie is also a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Charlie on Twitter @nflcharlie