It wasn’t until January 2012 that J.J. Watt became ******J.J. WATT******. The Texans were playing the Bengals in the wild-card game that year. Near the end of the second quarter with the game tied, the Bengals were hoping to squeeze a score out in the final minute or so of the half. Andy Dalton, who’d escaped a Watt sack on the play prior to Red Rover his way to a 15-yard gain, dropped back to pass. Watt got stuffed at the line, and so he immediately transitioned into spying Dalton instead of trying to sack him. Dalton wanted to hit A.J. Green for a short completion, but Watt, like a super panther, sprung into the air as Dalton fired. He got enough of his paws on the ball that, rather than just bat it to the ground, he was able to pull it down into his chest.
He got control of the ball, ran through the fingertips of the lineman who just moments before thought he’d done a pretty good job of warding away Watt’s attacks, and then monster-rumbled his way to the end zone. The Texans ended up winning that game, and Watt set forward on his path toward superstardom. As he celebrated his touchdown, the announcer mentioned how Watt had once been lost on his path, a pizza delivery guy, a would-be deity without a destiny.
With six minutes left in the first quarter of Saturday’s wild-card game between the Texans and the Raiders, Jadeveon Clowney — the former no. 1 overall who’d since seen his name all but scratched off the Potential Franchise Altering Picks list after missing basically all of the 2014 season with a knee injury and then delivering an underwhelming 2015 season (4.5 sacks, 27 tackles) — made an eerily similar play to Watt’s.
Rookie Raiders quarterback Connor Cook, hoping to generate something, anything on offense, lobbed a pass opposite the direction of the flow of the play toward running back Latavius Murray. Clowney saw the pass before Murray did, and so he jumped the lane, slapping the ball up into the air, then hitting it again, then finally pulling it in as Murray clung to his ankle.
The Texans scored on the very next play.
Clowney finished the Texans’ 27–14 win with one tackle, two passes defended, and that pick, disrupting Cook’s timing and comfort throughout the content. But the highlight came early: When Clowney got to the sideline after that interception, there was Watt, in street clothes, still recovering from the back surgery that shut him down earlier this season. Watt was smilingSmilingSMILING, recognizing the brilliance of the play Clowney had just made, but also maybe recognizing himself.