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Looking wan and gray, Wade Phillips walked slowly through the tunnel beneath Houston's Reliant Stadium last Saturday evening, taking the short, measured steps of a 64-year-old man just three weeks removed from major surgery. This has been a most insalubrious season for the Texans, as their drive to the playoffs has been pocked first by the injury to All-Pro wideout Andre Johnson's hamstrings, then to All-Pro pass rusher Mario Williams's pectoral, then to starting quarterback Matt Schaub's foot, then to second-string QB Matt Leinart's collarbone. Then the team's first-year defensive coordinator, Phillips, got into the act, having his gall bladder removed on Dec. 15, due—as his venerable (and possibly hyperbolic) father, Bum, a coaching legend in his own right, reportedly revealed—to the presence of a benign tumor "the size of a volleyball." Even in his weakened state, though, Phillips had it in him to exult in another sterling performance by his defense, which he has elevated in one season's time from the league's third worst to its second best. Phillips whooped and thrust his right fist into the air before taking a right into the Texans' locker room, where his charges were celebrating their 31--10 victory over the Bengals in the first playoff game in the franchise's 10-year history.
Houston is not the same team it was before Schaub's right foot fractured under the weight of 350-pound Buccaneers defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth in Week 10. The Texans averaged 27.3 points per game before Schaub limped off to injured reserve but just 18.0 afterward. Though they are hobbled—like their defensive coordinator—they remain dangerous, as they demonstrated on Saturday.
In a season that provided a glimpse of the NFL's future—one in which multiple quarterbacks can reach the once all-but-unreachable plateau of 5,000 passing yards—Houston has thrived by playing (not entirely by choice) an old style of football predicated on a robust and unyielding defense.
Last Saturday it was rookie end J.J. Watt—the 11th overall pick in last April's draft, whose 5½ sacks and general precocity helped soften the loss of Williams—striking what turned out to be the decisive blow. The game was tied 10--10 when Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton dropped back to pass with one minute left in the first half, and Watt, who had until then been quiet, seemed as if he would remain that way. Mike McGlynn, Cincinnati's right guard, was allowing him no ground. Dalton zipped a pass in the direction of A.J. Green, and that pass happened to travel through the airspace directly above the 6'5", 288-pound Watt's head. Watt, who was battling McGlynn no more than five yards away from Dalton, instinctively leaped and thrust both hands in the air. The ball struck his gloves and then, he said, "It happened to kind of stick."
"You'd be surprised how many times he's done the exact same thing in practice, and we were surprised he hadn't done it in a game," Phillips said of Watt, once a collegiate tight end. "It's hard for anyone, even a receiver, to catch the ball from that sort of distance."
Watt raced 29 yards into the end zone. Then on the half's final play he chased Dalton the width of the field before sacking him. "Once you get a quarterback rattled," Watt said after the game, "it's tough for him to get unrattled."
Three days earlier Jay Gruden, the Bengals' offensive coordinator, had stressed the importance of a balanced attack. "I don't want to drop back and throw 50 times and put Andy under that stress—although I think he could handle it," Gruden said. But Watt's touchdown, combined with a defensive front that in the first half allowed Bengals lead back Cedric Benson just nine yards rushing, forced Gruden's hand. And Dalton couldn't handle it. In the second half he threw 24 passes (42 overall)—completing 14—and was intercepted two more times as Cincinnati didn't run a play inside the Houston 47 until less than four minutes remained.
With the Texans' defense at its stifling best, the offense exhibited a similarly old-fashioned style: a punishing running game. Most of the damage was inflicted by Arian Foster, who rushed for 153 yards and helped take the pressure off T.J. Yates, the former third-string rookie quarterback who was pressed into duty in late November. Yates was mediocre—he completed 11 of 20 passes for 159 yards ("He played like a rookie some," said coach Gary Kubiak)—but mediocrity is all Houston may require of him. To his credit, with his penultimate throw Yates hit Johnson for a 40-yard third-quarter touchdown, and Johnson's seeming return to full health gives the Texans a deep receiving threat they have recently lacked. But the team is under no illusions as to how it might win this week or beyond. "We can throw the ball if we have to," said left tackle Duane Brown. "But when you got a run game working, you want to keep it going, man."
Indeed, weakside linebacker Connor Barwin, who led the team with 11½ sacks, knows the Texans' future will depend on their continued embracing of the NFL's past. "We're holding on to the smashmouth," he said. "Hopefully through these playoffs, we can prove that's still the way to win."
Their immediate future will involve a game in Baltimore against the second-seeded Ravens, who struggled when defenses bottled up tailback Ray Rice, forcing them to rely on the arm of a seemingly regressing Joe Flacco. In their convincing victory over Cincinnati, the Texans, damaged as they are, showed how dangerous they can be when they force a team to abandon its running game, and to rely on a quarterback who can be rattled.