NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The jabbing began just before practice, as Kenny Stills was stretching with his Miami Dolphins teammates on a hot August afternoon.
"We're playing Jay-Z all day today," Miami's rookie coach, Brian Flores, apprised the veteran receiver, who the previous day had criticized the famed rapper's partnership with the NFL and called his comments on players' social-justice protests "uninformed."
Stills laughed off Flores' proclamation, telling him, "That's cool." Yet the two of them continued to go back and forth throughout the practice, with the receiver at one point catching a pass in a one-on-one drill and pointing the football back at Flores, earning him a trip to the coach's office later that day.
"I got underneath his skin," Stills recalled Sunday afternoon at Nissan Field, where he'd just helped the Houston Texans take control of the AFC South with a 24-21 victory over the Tennessee Titans in front of 65,265 deflated fans. "The (other players) just kinda felt it was a power struggle between us, and I think it was a bad look, from his perspective, for a player to be getting at the coach like that. And from then on, I kinda felt I was gonna be out of there."
Sure enough, 11 days after the Heated Hova Hullabaloo, Stills was included in the blockbuster trade that sent standout left tackle Laremy Tunsil to Houston. Three-and-a-half months later, Stills is racing toward the postseason for a franchise that is exceedingly grateful for his presence.
"Kenny's been great," said DeAndre Hopkins, the Texans' star wide receiver, who combined with quarterback Deshaun Watson to take over Sunday's game in the fourth quarter. "He's brought explosiveness and toughness to our offense. He's a playmaker, and he's one of the toughest receivers I know. He takes big hits and keeps on going, and the dude gets open."
On Sunday, Stills staked Houston to a 14-0 lead with a pair of second-quarter touchdown catches, taking advantage of single coverage on each occasion. With defenses obsessed with stopping the prolific Hopkins, especially in the red zone, and mindful of counterpart Will Fuller V's breakaway speed, Stills has found his niche in an offense that has also gotten good production from physical running back and fellow late-August trade acquisition Carlos Hyde (26 carries for 104 yards and a touchdown against Tennessee). Call it Coming of Age (Da Sequel), as a certain hip-hop legend from Brooklyn might put it.
"Kenny's a really good pro, and a really good guy, and we're glad we have him," Texans coach Bill O'Brien said as he walked to the team bus more than an hour after Sunday's victory. "He works hard, practices really well and is a terrific route runner with good speed and hands. We can line him up in a lot of different places, and he's effective in all of them.
"When we first called the Dolphins, they spoke very highly of him. They didn't really want to include him in the trade, but they ended up putting him in, and we're happy they did."
The trade for Tunsil and Stills, one of several moves made by O'Brien after assuming de facto general manager duties this past offseason, was conjured with occasions like Sunday's hugely significant divisional showdown in mind.
With the victory, the Texans (9-5), who host the Titans (8-6) in a rematch on the final Sunday of the regular season, can clinch the AFC South in advance of that game. Either a Houston road triumph over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers next Saturday or a Tennessee home defeat to the New Orleans Saints the following day would give the Texans their second consecutive division crown -- and secure their fourth playoff appearance in O'Brien's six seasons.
In facing a hot Titans team that had won four consecutive games, and six of its previous seven, the Texans confronted a moment of reckoning. Would they resemble the powerful ensemble which, two weeks earlier, had rolled to an impressive victory over the New England Patriots? Or would they look like they had in the previous Sunday's home debacle against the struggling Denver Broncos, a game in which Houston came out flat and trailed 31-3 at halftime?
"The team was edgy this week," O'Brien said. "To come on the road after losing to the Broncos and win a game like this, it says a lot about this team. We've got great guys. I love coaching them."
O'Brien's affection for Stills was at an all-time high during Sunday's second quarter, when the seventh-year receiver caught scoring passes on consecutive drives. The Texans had come out with poise and purpose, methodically driving the ball to the Titans' 20 on the game's first drive before Tennessee safety Kenny Vaccaro swooped in to intercept Watson's pass for running back Duke Johnson at the 1-yard-line.
Houston responded with big plays on special teams (Angelo Blacksonblocked Ryan Succop's 45-yard field goal attempt midway through the first quarter) and defense (safety Justin Reid jarred loose Ryan Tannehill's pass for tight end Anthony Firkser near the goal line, and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus intercepted it and returned it 86 yards to the Tennessee 12), setting up Watson's 12-yard touchdown pass to Stills on a looping throw to the back of the end zone.
Following a Titans three-and-out, Houston finished off a nine-play drive with Watson's 16-yard TD strike to Stills, who had torched Tennessee cornerback Tye Smith.
"Deshaun saw me in man coverage and checked to that play at the line," Stills said. "I beat my guy bad, and the ball was right there. I knew (Watson) was good before I got here, but it's hard to believe some of the stuff he does."
This was Stills' first multiple-touchdown game since the 2018 opener -- also against the Titans, with both of those scoring throws delivered by Tannehill, whom the Dolphins traded to Tennessee last March. By then, it was clear that Miami was in full rebuilding mode, and the season has played out accordingly: On Sunday, the Dolphins fell to 3-11 after losing to the similarly dismal New York Giants.
Stills, however, insisted he has zero hard feelings toward the franchise and that he openly roots for his former teammates -- and, yes, for Flores -- to the point where he boasts about "my Dolphins" in the Houston locker room when Miami does something noteworthy.
"There's no beef between me and Flores," Stills insisted.
There was plenty of creative tension, however. The two men had engaged in some spirited trash talk throughout training camp, and emotions boiled over during that Aug. 20 practice.
Stills, a close friend of Colin Kaepernick's who is deeply committed to social justice and promoting understanding between law-enforcement officers and the citizens of the communities they patrol, had been critical of Dolphins owner Stephen Ross' decision to hold a fundraiser for President Trump before expressing his thoughts about the Jay-Z partnership.
Flores, who grew up in Brooklyn, responded -- as he'd warned Stills he would during stretching -- by playing eight consecutive Jay-Z songs during the practice.
"After one of the drills, I walked by him and said, 'Hey, this playlist sucks,' " Stills recalled. "I was just making a joke, but he said, 'Alright, well you need to just focus on football.' I said, 'So does this mean that you're choosing sides?'
"The next drill was one-on-ones, and he put me up first and said, 'Win the route.' I won the route, caught the ball and pointed it back at him, and I guess that was too much. He brought me up to the office after practice and said, 'Play better. Practice better.' He told me I wasn't playing to my ability and that I needed to focus on sports and focus on the team. And that's why he said he played the (Jay-Z) songs -- to see if I could focus."
To Stills, it was a pointless exercise.
"I've taken a knee (for the national anthem) since 2016, and I've had racial slurs thrown at me during the anthem and during games," Stills said. "You think eight Jay-Z songs are gonna get under my skin? I've had death threats. Come on."
Thanks to the trade, Stills is now one of the many downfield receiving threats at Watson's disposal; after Sunday's game, he referred to the trio of him, Hopkins and Fuller as a "three-headed monster."
One of those heads was especially surly after the third quarter of Sunday's game. At that point, Hopkins had just two receptions for 21 yards and was not targeted during the quarter, which ended with a tipped Watson pass being intercepted by linebacker Jayon Brown in the end zone, and Tennessee launching the touchdown drive that would tie the game at 14.
Even after Watson's 35-yard hookup with Hopkins helped spark the go-ahead scoring drive that ended with Hyde's 10-yard TD run with 10:34 remaining, the All-Pro receiver was visibly frustrated as he came off the field.
The mini-tantrum seemed to work, as Hopkins caught a short pass from Watson on the first play of Houston's next possession, then added receptions of 35 and 25 yards on a drive that ended with Ka'imi Fairbairn's 29-yard field goal, giving the Texans a 24-14 lead with 3:26 remaining.
"I hate that s---," Hopkins said of his lack of involvement prior to the fourth quarter. Later, he told a group of reporters, "Fourth quarter, tie ballgame -- why not try to get your best player the ball?"
Hopkins (six catches, 119 yards) then raised his eyebrows for effect.
Said O'Brien as he walked to the bus, "He probably gets frustrated. It's good that we found a way to get him the ball down the stretch."
Said Stills of Hopkins: "He's open all the time. I've learned a bunch from him. We know we've got a lot of firepower, and all of us play well off of each other. You see how explosive we are with all three of us on the field."
As they charge into what could be a very charged January, Stills and his fellow receivers have a chance to get under the skin of some opposing defensive backs -- and they're intensely focused on that opportunity.