HOUSTON -- The stultifying sequel to the Houston Texans' postseason anxiety dream was playing out in excruciating fashion, causing most of the 71,699 fans at NRG Stadium on Saturday to start coming to terms with what promised to be a brutal offseason of soul-searching and second-guessing.
Logic suggested the sublime young quarterback's optimism was desperate, and possibly delusional. Midway through the third quarter of their first-round playoff game against the Buffalo Bills, the AFC South champions were well on their way to a second consecutive one-and-done playoff disaster. The Bills led 13-0 and had driven into the red zone, and Watson, at that moment, had produced just seven points in more than six quarters of postseason play.
All across America, skeptical viewers were putting the Bills into the Divisional Round, placing Texans coach Bill O'Brien on the hot seat heading into the 2020 season and, worst of all, questioning Watson's big-game credentials. There was plenty of tension on the Houston sideline, too -- but none of it was emanating from the dude who'd had five chances to drive the Texans down the field and had thus far come up empty.
"I was chill," Watson told me as we walked in the corridor outside the home locker room more than an hour after Houston's epic, 22-19 overtime victory, which sent the Texans into next Sunday's Divisional Round against the second-seeded Kansas City Chiefs. "Things hadn't gone well, but s--- happens. Everybody knew that it was about that time -- somebody just needed to make a play and get things going. J.J. made one -- and once that happened, we were off and running."
At the time, star defensive end J.J. Watt's third-down sack of Bills quarterback Josh Allen merely mitigated the damage, with Stephen Hauschka's 38-yard field goal extending Buffalo's lead to 16-0 with 6:08 left in the third quarter. At that point, the Texans had managed just five first downs, and All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins had only one catch -- after which he'd fumbled the ball away.
And then, as if he were utterly offended by the storyline, Watson morphed into a 21st Century Joe Montana Remix and took over what turned out to be a scintillating playoff game.
First Watson connected with Hopkins on a couple of key completions, including a third-and-8 throw that put Houston on the edge of the red zone. Then he literally carried two Bills defenders into the end zone on a 20-yard run -- figuratively putting the Texans on his back in the process -- and beat two more to the pylon to complete a two-point conversion, cutting the lead to 16-8 and completely changing the momentum.
Somehow, with 4:37 remaining in regulation, after Watson had connected with Hopkins to complete another two-point conversion, Houston had a 19-16 lead and a raucous stadium full of roaring fans.
Then Buffalo's own resilient and talented young quarterback responded by rallying his team to a late field goal that forced overtime -- and, with the Bills needing only a field goal to win in sudden death, converted a pair of improbable third downs to reach Texans territory before the drive stalled.
And at that point the football-watching world learned that Watson (20 for 25, 247 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions), with the season on the line, had merely saved his most impressive act for last.
It was a play that encapsulated Watson's brilliance on so many levels, showcasing his pre-snap intelligence, toughness, strength and accuracy. And, of course, it took a young man with uncanny poise to pull it off.
On second-and-6 from the Buffalo 44, Watson lined up in the shotgun formation and recognized a zero blitz, meaning the Bills would not have a safety patrolling the back end. That meant single coverage for Hopkins (six catches, 90 yards), who was lined up in the right slot against All-Pro cornerback Tre'Davious White, and Watson liked the matchup. However, Watson suspected that nickel cornerback Kevin Johnson -- who played for the Texans from 2015-18 -- had a pretty good idea of what his former teammate was thinking.
"I wanted that play for Hop, but Kevin Johnson knew our signal," Watson told me. "I knew (Johnson would) drop, but I was trying to see if he'd try to bait him and jump the running back. But it wasn't there, and because it was blitz zero, I knew I was gonna have to take the hit. I never usually go down on first contact, so it was worth the chance."
As it turned out, first contact was the understatement of the season.
Shortly after receiving the snap, Watson got clocked in the back by safety Siran Neal, who was blitzing from his left. A split-second later, he got rocked in the neck area by linebacker Matt Milano, who was charging from the quarterback's right. And Watson, incomprehensibly, somehow stayed upright and spun out of the second hit, rolling to his right to keep the play -- and hope -- alive.
Naturally, two more defenders closed in hard -- defensive tackles Corey Liuget and Jordan Phillips. Watson, who'd already been sacked seven times by the Bills, retreated to his own 42 with both players in hot pursuit. Just before the 6-foot-6, 341-pound Phillips plowed into him, he released a pinpoint pass to his right, where third-string running back Taiwan Jones was waiting near the sideline at the Buffalo 45.
Jones, who spent the previous two seasons with the Bills, darted to his left, eluded lunging safety Micah Hyde, and raced ahead to the Buffalo 10. The 34-yard gain set up Ka'imi Fairbairn's 28-yard field goal, which ended the game 11:37 into overtime and left players on both teams slack-jawed about Watson's magic as they left the field.
It should be pointed out that Watson wasn't the only quarterback who summoned exceptional grit and came up clutch in this game. Allen, a similarly strong and mobile player who made great strides in his second season, was breathtaking from the jump on Saturday, sprinting 42 yards on a designed quarterback run on the game's fourth play from scrimmage and catching a 16-yard touchdown pass from wide receiver John Brown two plays later to give the Bills a 7-0 lead.
Down 19-16 with 1:16 left in regulation, Allen drove Buffalo from its own 30 to the Houston 29, setting up Hauschka's game-tying 47-yard field goal with five seconds remaining. Then, after the Bills forced a three-and-out on the first overtime possession, Allen (24 of 46, 264 yards; nine carries, 92 yards) made his most insane play of all: On third-and-9 from his 43, the quarterback scrambled to his right, with Watt -- returning after missing the second half of the season with a torn pectoral muscle -- chasing him toward the sideline. As Allen ran out of room and got pushed out of bounds by Watt, he fired an absurdly accurate ball to rookie running back Devin Singletary for a 14-yard gain.
While heading through the corridor outside the Texans' locker room after the game, Watson expressed admiration for his Bills counterpart. "I mean, he's great," he said of Allen. "He's a special player, and he's a special teammate -- you can tell. Everyone believes in him, and he's gonna be special."
Painful as the defeat might have been to the Bills, who were so close to capturing their first postseason victory since 1995, their future is abundantly bright. Owners Terry and Kim Pegula have infused the organization with a sense of renewed energy, and general manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott have proven to be an effective partnership, with two postseason appearances in their three seasons to show for it.
With a young core of contributors and an estimated $90 million in salary-cap space, Buffalo has a chance to be even better in 2020 -- and, perhaps, to end the New England Patriots' long run of dominance in the AFC East.
As for the Texans? Well, it's all about the present, and their fortunes revolve around their ultra-cool young leader who on Saturday took a big, big step in his career development when things looked bleakest.
"He was real chill," Watson said of O'Brien. "He came in at halftime, and he didn't panic. He just said that it's a long game, and we've just got to find our rhythm -- have somebody make a big play to get us going -- and we're gonna be fine."
Deep into overtime, Watson made the biggest play to date of his NFL career, and it was so good, it provoked a private screening once he reached the locker room. After receiving congratulations via FaceTime from Houston rapper Travis Scott, Watson sat down at his locker next to left tackle Laremy Tunsil and called up a replay of the pivotal overtime pass to Jones on his iPhone.
Tunsil, acquired shortly before the season in a blockbuster trade with the Miami Dolphins, watched the replay in sheer wonderment.
"Bro," Tunsil said to Watson after watching a replay of the quarterback shaking off the first two hits.
"Bro!" Tunsil exclaimed after seeing the quarterback get the pass off to Jones. Then, looking up at me, Tunsil said: "What more do I need to see? My boy is a playmaker." Watson smiled, then explained why he decided against throwing "hot" to Hopkins.
"If I threw it, it'd be picked," he said. "So once I made that decision -- too late ... I was going to take a hit. But I knew I wasn't going down."
Because he didn't, the Texans are still standing, and will head into Kansas City with a bounce in their step.
And the masses who were freaking out about Houston's expected early exit midway through the third quarter?
They can just chill.