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At the very least, the Houston Texans have two very special players.
That may or may not be enough to win a championship this season, but we got a reminder Sunday night that Houston should be considered a threat in the AFC so long as quarterback Deshaun Watson and defensive end J.J. Watt are healthy.
That, of course, was not the case for the majority of a tough 2017 season. And Watson and Watt both showed signs of rust during a three-loss September. Understandable, as one was still just 10 months removed from a torn ACL, while the other was returning from a serious leg injury.
Neither looked rusty against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 5, and that’s the only reason the Texans survived an ugly evening with a 19-16 overtime victory. It’s the only reason they’ve fought back to 2-3 after dropping their first three games of the 2018 campaign.
Watson wasn’t perfect against Dallas, but he was at his best against a tough Cowboys defense, particularly when it mattered most. He completed 33 of 44 passes for 375 yards while rushing for 40 more yards on 10 carries, and he did that despite taking a beating that at one point forced him to have his ribs checked in the injury tent.
He completed all but four pass attempts on third-down plays, and that doesn’t include a tremendous play he made to avoid a sack and draw a penalty to extend a second-quarter scoring drive.
On that play, and every other gutsy play made by the 23-year-old, he maneuvered as though he had no memory of the significant injury that destroyed his promising rookie season last November. He was fearless, which is a tremendous sign considering how much he relies on his knees inside and outside of the pocket.
“It’s so good to see Deshaun Watson playing like this again,” NBC’s Cris Collinsworth said during the broadcast. “He’s now putting that back foot in the ground, and making reads and anticipating throws.”
You don’t need a healthy knee to make reads and anticipate throws. You need a clear mind that isn’t concerned about the stability of said knee, and Watson looks as though he’s already there, both physically and mentally.
You saw it in the first quarter Sunday night, when he took an extra two steps backward under pressure, calmly established his feet and then threw a dart to Keke Coutee for a first down.
You saw it a few plays later when he beat a heavy Dallas blitz to hit DeAndre Hopkins for a 34-yard gain on third down.
You saw it when he stood bravely against the rush and took a big hit on a perfectly timed 13-yard throw to Hopkins to put Houston in the red zone late in the first half.
You saw it when he did the same thing while again under immediate pressure on a third-down completion to Coutee with 20 seconds remaining in regulation.
And you certainly saw it when he stepped back into the pocket following a fake and smoothly hit Hopkins for a big gain in overtime, setting up the game-winning field goal.
Just half a decade ago, another blue-chip first-round quarterback known for his big-play ability through the air and on the ground suffered a torn ACL as a rookie. But Robert Griffin III was never the same player. Few professional athletes recover both physically and psychologically from ACL injuries the way Watson has.
And that could mean the Texans have a shot despite that poor September, especially because Watson isn’t alone. Don’t forget that Watt is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and that he should technically be in his prime at age 29.
The four-time first-team All-Pro missed all but eight games while dealing with major injuries in 2016 and 2017, but he was September’s AFC Defensive Player of the Month and he kept rolling with another impact performance against the Cowboys.
Watt brought pressure to Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott for much of the evening, but the key moment took place when he won a one-on-one battle with Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin and sacked Prescott on a second-down play near midfield with about 160 seconds remaining in a tie game.
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If that doesn’t happen, the Texans might not get to overtime.
Watson and Watt can’t do it all by themselves, and it’s fair to be concerned about an oft-criticized offensive line that continually left Watson hanging Sunday night. It’s also fair to wonder if questionable play-calling and glaring red-zone woes (they scored just one touchdown on six red-zone trips against Dallas) will be impossible to overcome.
But Watson does have Hopkins and several other strong weapons in the receiving game, and Watt is well-supported by cohorts Jadeveon Clowney, Benardrick McKinney, Tyrann Mathieu and Kareem Jackson, all of whom had a tackle for loss on a night in which Houston allowed just one Dallas touchdown.
Nobody is running away with the AFC South—the Texans now trail Week 5 losers Tennessee and Jacksonville by just one game apiece—and AFC wild-card spots might not be overly challenging to obtain this season.
It’s wide-open, and with Watson and Watt and their respective supporting casts in place, you simply can’t rule out the Houston Texans.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.