HOUSTON — The Texans are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2012 and now have to come up with a plan to derail the Kansas City Chiefs, winners of 10 in a row.
They'll do it with a defense that surged in the last nine games after struggling early. Houston (9-7) went 7-2 in that stretch in large part because the defense allowed an NFL-best 12.7 points a game.
"There's a lot of trust on that side of the ball among each other and with the coaches," coach Bill O'Brien said. "You've got some guys playing some great football ... you've got better tackling, better communication. All the things that you need to play good football in this league and good defense in this league, you're having it."
Not surprisingly that improvement has been led by defensive end J.J. Watt, who had another stellar season. Watt led the NFL with 17 1/2 sacks to join Reggie White as the only players in NFL history to have three 15-sack seasons in their first five years in the league. He also had 76 tackles, 29 tackles for losses, 50 quarterback hits, batted down eight passes, forced three fumbles and recovered one.
He had been slowed in recent weeks because of a club-like cast on his left hand, which he broke Dec. 9. On Sunday, Watt had three sacks, forced a fumble and recovered another one in his first game without the cast.
"I never really get worried about J.J.," O'Brien said. "Even when he was playing with the club he was still a very, very disruptive player (but) having the use of his fingers, being able to grab was a whole lot better than having the club on there."
The Texans won the AFC South and made their first two playoff appearances in 2011 and 2012. They sank to 2-14 in 2013 before improving to 9-7 last year, missing the postseason.
"This is what we expect. We expect to win the division, expect to be in the playoffs," Watt said. "We aren't satisfied with where we are right now. We expect to be where we are right now and we look forward to moving even farther forward."
Houston opened the season 2-5 before getting on track to overtake the Colts for the division crown despite a revolving door of quarterbacks. Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates and Brandon Weeden all started games and won at least one. The Texans are the only team since 1950 to make the playoffs with four different quarterbacks winning games.
Hoyer returned on Sunday after missing the previous two games after his second concussion in less than a month. He was glad to have a game under his belt before starting in the playoffs against the Chiefs on Saturday afternoon.
"I definitely wanted to play at some point before getting back out there in the playoffs just because you can say it's like riding a bike, it's just playing football, but nothing compares to live game reps and the speed of the game," he said. "So it was good to get back out there."
He will be working behind a line that will look different after veteran left tackle Duane Brown suffered a quadriceps injury that will require surgery. He'll be replaced by Chris Clark, who is in his first year in Houston after spending five seasons with the Broncos.
"He's played in a Super Bowl as a starter," Obrien said. "So he knows what it means to play at this time of year in this league ... it's never good to lose your starting left tackle. That's not easy to overcome, but when you have a guy like (Clark) that's good. That can help you."