Texans 24, Titans 10: Defense Returns to Form in Playoff-Clinching Win
After back-to-back games of exhilarating drama, the Texans seem back to their usual selves. That's just fine for soon-to-be Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.
Led by Watt and a defense that suffocated Tennessee and second-year QB Jake Locker, the Texans cruised to 11-1 and clinched the second postseason berth in club history.
"Today is what we're used to and the way we're used to playing," said Watt, who recorded a sack (raising his season total to a ridiculous 15.5), forced a fumble and deflected a pass.
"That was our defense."
It was indicative of the Texans we've seen for most of 2012, including the Buffalo and Chicago games to start last month -- not the aberrations against Jacksonville and in Detroit.
Turnovers, sacks prove critical
It's tough to lose when the turnover margin is plus-six. That's what the Texans had Sunday with three interceptions and three fumble recoveries, including a fourth-down sack and fumble in the fourth quarter when the Titans were only eight yards from scoring and making it a one-possession game.
"We've been looking for this for a couple weeks, with the turnovers and the momentum swings," said Watt.
The questions about pass defense weren't completely answered, with Locker throwing for 309 yards. However, the vast majority of those came against a prevent defense nursing a huge second-half lead.
The yardage is also explainable considering the Texans were again without star cornerback Johnathan Joseph (hamstring), leaving second-year corners Brandon Harris and Roc Carmichael with marquee roles for the first times in their NFL careers.
While each turned in an understandably mediocre performance, the pressure the Texans generated up front was enough to overwhelm the Titans. Locker was sacked six times and hit on several other occasions as Houston denied him the time to look downfield and exploit the young secondary.
It started with Watt, but on the other end, Antonio Smith turned in his best performance of 2012 with a sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery. Rookie linebacker Whitney Mercilus continued his strong play as well with two sacks and a recovered fumble.
"They were exceptional today," head coach Gary Kubiak said of his defense.
"I just told the team, you come in here missing some key defensive players and you think you have got to play really well offensively, and we turn around and may have played as good of a defensive game as we have played this year. That tells you you're a team."
Many had expected Mercilus to go back to the bench when Brooks Reed (groin) returns in a month or so. But despite his limited playing time this season, the rookie now has as many sacks (5) and fumble recoveries (1) as Reed and Connor Barwin combined. He also has more forced fumbles (2) than the starting linebackers.
For a defense that thrives on pressuring opposing quarterbacks and creating turnovers, coordinator Wade Phillips may have a tough time taking him off the field.