HOUSTON — It was a crazy play. It was an unbelievable play. It was a once-a-decade play. It was Texans rookie defensive end J.J. Watt's 29-yard interception return for a touchdown that won Saturday's AFC Wild Card Game.
And it was a play the Bengals defense didn't match.
It "stole the momentum. It gave them the momentum, and they really just rode it home," said Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "They'd been playing catch-up the whole half and then all of a sudden they had the lead."
The Texans had just tied the game at 10 on Neil Rackers's 39-yard field goal with 1:48 left in the first half and the Bengals were looking to get some more points when quarterback Andy Dalton scrambled up the middle for 15 yards and had a first down at his 34 with 59 seconds left and one timeout left.
He dropped back, had plenty of time, and fired a ball to wide receiver A.J. Green on the right side that never got past right guard Mike McGlynn working on Watt. Watt launched into the air with his 37-inch vertical leap and snared the ball so suddenly that for a strange instant nobody knew where the ball was and by the time they did Watt was walking in for the touchdown that gave the Texans the lead for good.
It was Dalton's second pick-six of the year (Bills safety Bryan Scott got him back on Oct. 2), but no one was blaming him.
"All you can really say is he made a good play. By the time I could see he caught the ball, it was too late," said McGlynn, who dove back to try and trip up Watt. "I got a pretty good jam on him, and he stepped up and made a really good play. By the time I realized he had caught the ball, I was at his feet trying to trip him from behind. It was a heck of a play by him. Big momentum swing. It was a pretty hard ball, and he caught it. I was surprised he caught it."
Watt, of Wisconsin, and Dalton, of Texas Christian, played their last college games against each other in last year's Rose Bowl that Dalton won Offensive MVP after leading TCU to a win. Watt would have been this game's MVP, period.
"It was sweet; it was nice," Watt said. "We got him up there in Cincinnati and then we came down here and I got him for a sack and an interception today. He's a great football player, but for all my Badgers fans out there, that one did feel kind of good."
There wasn't much Dalton could do or say.
"I saw quarters and I threw it outside and he jumped up and made a good play; it was a great job on his part," Dalton said. "I didn't really see exactly what had happened. I just saw it got batted or whatever and then he was running the other way so, it was a good play.
"We were going in right at the half, we would have loved to have gone and at least tied and maybe get down and get a scoring drive so that was definitely a big play for them. It kind of gave them some momentum going into halftime."
FLIP SIDE: Bengals safety Chris Crocker didn't have to do anything nearly as athletic to match Watt in the middle of the third quarter when Texans rookie quarterback T.J. Yates threw a ball right at him over the middle at about the Bengals 40 trying to hit tight end Owen Daniels.
It was the throw the Bengals needed from a rookie quarterback. But Crocker dropped it. After the game he shook his head. Nine out of 10 times, Crocker said sadly, he catches that ball. And here he didn't do it, he said, in the biggest game of the year.
But the biggest play may have been the snap right after that. A third-and-six from the Texans 49 and wide receiver Andre Johnson juggled a ball over the middle. But there was nobody there to hit him and he was able to gather it in for a nine-yard catch.
Cornerback Adam Jones hurt his foot on the play and after he sat out the next play, Johnson ran by him on a double move when he checked back into the game for a 40-yard touchdown bomb.
"That a tough question," Crocker said when asked if the presence of Johnson was the key for the Texans offense. "I can't say yes or no. Maybe 60 to 40. He made some plays that were big. I can't say … we had opportunities, we had missed tackles. They kept chipping away, chipping away."
Crocker said the major disappointment wasn't giving Texans running back Arian Foster 153 yards rushing that included a 42-yard run touchdown run. It was not coming up with a play like Watt's.
"(It was) the big plays we didn't capitalize on," Crocker said. "When we don't make plays you don't win ballgames and they made more big plays than we did."
Jones took responsibility for giving up the 40-yard TD to Johnson and said his foot was fine. With the Bengals blitzing on second-and-eight, Jones saw Johnson run a route that looked like four shorter routes the Texans had run before.
It looked like a comeback route to the first-down sticks. But Johnson, the five-time Pro Bowler hampered by hamstring problems all year that shelved him for the game against the Bengals last month, shot by Jones on a double move.
Jones had a testy moment with Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. NBC reported he stormed away from Zimmer.
"He's a great receiver, runs great routes, great body control and he had a good day today," Jones said as he cursed the double moves. "They tried it a couple of times and I just (expletive) got my eyes off the last one. I just knew he was going to do the comeback. They did that play four times. I'll be back and look at film to critique myself. No one is harder on me than myself. It's tough. I'm not going to beat myself up too much. Hopefully tomorrow I can get over this."
Jones committed the fatal foul. He looked into the backfield.
"I should have just kept my eyes on the receiver. I tried to get a little peak to see if he was throwing the ball. All I can do is learn from this. Besides that, I had a good day. It was their day," he said.
Jones acknowledged that Yates had more help than Dalton in the battle of rookie quarterbacks.
"Theirs was better than ours so I give them an A because they won the game," Jones said. "Winning is first and foremost. That guy did a good job over there, they played good as a group, their defense played good and they were a better team."
SLANTS AND SCREENS
» Mike Nugent missed his first 50-yard field goal attempt of the year midway through the first quarter in the cozy closed confines of Reliant Stadium and it surprised him. Nugent, who had a long of 49 this season, went wide right.
"I hit it good, but not great," Nugent said. "When you have one that long, you have to hit it solid and pure. I never look at the yard line to let it influence me, but I didn't hit it well enough."
It was Nugent's first postseason miss. He made all three he took for the Jets and he came back to hit a 37-yarder later. After missing just two kicks in the first 14 games, Nugent finished 7-for-11 in the final three games.
» Backup tackle Anthony Collins, who is fighting an eye infection, said he was ready to play but was made inactive when then the Bengals dressed all three tight ends.