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Deshaun Watson Has Turned the Houston Texans Into an AFC Contender

After his five-touchdown performance against the Titans on Sunday, Watson has Houston’s offense right where it needs to be

Tennessee Titans v Houston Texan Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Texans head coach Bill O’Brien—and the team’s fans—probably would’ve been happy to see rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson just take a few baby steps in his development this season. After suffering through a nightmarish and seemingly never-ending rotation of starters at the position over the past three years—Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, Ryan Mallett, Brian Hoyer, T.J. Yates, Brandon Weeden, Brock Osweiler, and Tom Savage—all they really needed to see from Watson was some potential—just enough for them to know he represents the future for the franchise.

Watson took over for Savage in the Texans’ Week 1 loss to the Jaguars and showed a few flashes of what he could become—but those flashes also came with inaccurate throws and poor decisions. In the Texans’ Week 2 win over the Bengals, he looked more comfortable, developing a connection with his receivers and showing poise as a passer. And during Houston’s Week 3 loss to the Patriots in Foxborough, it became pretty clear that the Texans had finally found the quarterback they can build around, not just another stopgap. Watson threw for 301 yards with two touchdowns and two picks, and nearly led his team to an upset win against the reigning Super Bowl champs. But after watching Watson account for five touchdowns (four throwing, one rushing) in the Texans’ 57-14 blowout victory over the Titans on Sunday, we can forget about what he means for the future and instead focus on the present: With Watson at the helm, Houston’s offense already looks like a legitimate force.

The Texans have had plenty of talent on the offensive side of the ball over the past few years, but they lacked a guy that could distribute the ball to the team’s playmakers. Now they have one, and the former Clemson star has quickly developed chemistry and trust with top wideout DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins, who caught 10 passes for 107 yards and a score on Sunday, is an inexperienced quarterback’s best friend—a big, physical receiver who catches everything thrown his way, even if the pass is off target. That connection showed up in the first quarter against the Titans, when Hopkins reeled in a ball that was thrown behind him on a slant in the end zone

In his first game back from a broken collarbone, Will Fuller looked like a major factor for the Texans on Sunday, too. With elite deep speed, the second-year pass catcher helps keep defenses honest and stretches them thin. As Hopkins said after the game, “Will can open up the field. You can't just key on me.” It helps to have a quarterback that can test a defense deep, too, and Fuller caught four passes for 35 yards and two touchdowns. Plus he was directly responsible for a third, drawing a defensive pass-interference call on a shot into the end zone, which gave the Texans a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line. (Watson later ran it in.)

Aided by a functioning air attack, Houston’s run game is humming too. Running backs Lamar Miller and D’Onta Foreman were an explosive combination against Tennessee, totaling 120 yards and a touchdown on the ground (Miller added another 56 yards and a touchdown through the air). Watson’s ability to run has given the Texans another dimension on the ground as well. In addition to his ability to demoralize a pass rush by escaping the pocket and scrambling for first downs, Houston has used Watson in read-option plays designed to confound defenses. The Texans scored two touchdowns on these read-option runs on Sunday, with the first coming on a pitch to Miller early in the first quarter.

The second came just before halftime, this time on a keeper by Watson.

Watson’s ability to make plays with his legs and his skill at getting outside the pocket and throwing on bootlegs and sprint-outs opens up the playbook for O’Brien and puts pressure on opposing defenses—it gets them thinking rather than reacting. With Watson under center, Houston’s found a rhythm and run/pass mix on offense that we haven’t seen since O’Brien took over as head coach in 2014. The rookie finished the day 25-of-34 for 283 yards, with four touchdowns and one pick, adding another 24 yards and a touchdown on the ground. The 57 points the Texans put up on Sunday is a new franchise record.

It was just one game, sure, and Watson’s bound to make plenty of rookie mistakes as the year goes on. But for a team that’s gone to the playoffs the past two years despite an anemic offensive attack, suddenly fielding a unit capable of pushing the ball downfield and running it with authority could be a game-changer. Pair that with a defense that’s carried the team for years, and the Texans look an awful lot like a contender in the AFC.