HOUSTON (AP) — Last year at this time, Houston’s J.J. Watt and Deshaun Watson were rehabbing after serious injuries cut both of their seasons short and contributed to the Texans’ terrible 4-12 season.
Healthy and thriving this season, the stars lead the AFC South champion Texans into Saturday’s wild-card game against Indianapolis.
“We talked about times like this when we were in the training room, what we wanted to accomplish and what we were working toward,” Watt said.
“So, for it to be where we are now and to have everything in front of us, it feels really good. I think that we can both look back at all the work and all the tough times that we had and be happy and proud of where we’re at now.”
On Sunday, moments after Houston clinched its third division title in four years with a win over the Jaguars, the quarterback and defensive end found each other amid scores of players celebrating on the field and shared a big hug.
After neither of them was able to play a full season last year it was a moment to appreciate their journeys and the accomplishment of not only playing all 16 games, but helping the Texans to their fifth playoff appearance.
Watson said they often meet up on the field or in the locker room after games, but admitted that this time it was different.
“There was a little bit more because we clinched the division, AFC South champs,” Watson said. “We finished a full season together, so it was a special moment.”
Coach Bill O’Brien said when he was at the stadium during the offseason he’d often find the two players together working in the training room.
“They were together a lot,” he said. “They were side-by-side. Different injuries, but kind of going through the same schedule of things … (and) it looks like there was a bond created there … and I think that was good for both guys.”
Watson returned this season after playing just seven games as a rookie after tearing a knee ligament in practice. The 12th overall pick in the 2017 draft threw for 4,165 yards and 26 touchdowns this season to become the second player in team history and first since Matt Schaub in 2012 to throw for 4,000 yards. He added 551 yards rushing and five touchdowns to become the first player to have at least 4,000 yards passing and 25 touchdowns and 500 yards rushing and five scores in a season in NFL history.
Watson hasn’t thrown an interception in 207 straight attempts, a franchise record and the longest active streak in the NFL. His emergence is a revelation for a team that has had a revolving door at quarterback since Schaub was traded before the 2014 season.
Watt’s comeback comes after the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year played just eight games over the previous two seasons because of back surgeries and a broken leg. He was selected to his fifth Pro Bowl and first since 2015 in a season where he had 61 tackles, led the AFC with 16 sacks, had 25 quarterback hits, 18 tackles for losses and forced a career-high seven fumbles, which tied for the most in the NFL. It’s his fourth season with at least 15 sacks, which ranks second in NFL history behind Hall of Famer Reggie White, who had five.
Watt feels as if their time working together to get back on the field helped build their relationship.
And after seeing 11 different quarterbacks start a game for Houston since he was drafted in 2011, he loves the continuity Watson has provided at the position.
“We have a great relationship. He’s an incredible talent,” Watt said. “He’s a great guy and I’ve been through a lot of quarterbacks here throughout my career. So, to have a guy back there who’s special and can do a lot of different things, it’s great.”
Watson agreed that their time spent together when they were injured helped forge a closer friendship and he even went so far as to say that he now sees Watt like a brother.
While the pair is grinding to return to pre-injury form, they had many conversations about the future and the 29-year-old Watt had plenty of advice for the 23-year-old Watson.
“Just being able to be on the same page,” Watson said. “Like he told me back then, he’s going to be that leader on that defense, and lead that whole troop, that whole squad and I’m going to do the same for the offense and we’re going to bring this whole team up. We knew the work we had to put in to be able to come back and play a full season and try to get the team to this position, to have a chance.”
And on Saturday they’ll try and continue their strong rebound seasons and get Houston a win to put the Texans in the divisional round for the fourth time and first since the 2016 season.