The Houston Texans' Wild Card Weekend win over the Oakland Raiders wasn't the first time outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney showed his true form. No, that strutting in the spotlight had been brewing throughout his comeback season.
What he did do for the first time is fuel something that felt absent for the Texans because of their quarterback quandary. He gave them hope, even against seemingly insurmountable odds as they pack up and head for New England to take on the Patriots. The Patriots have lost only four regular-season home games over the past three years, and they're 15-3 in the playoffs at home during the Bill Belichick era.
Clinging to hope and building momentum must feel right for the Texans while facing long odds in the divisional round. That feeling will percolate throughout a locker room after one defender took over a game like Clowney did against the Raiders, highlighted by the interception he tipped to himself.
Now the Texans' ability to pull off a colossal upset as 16-point underdogs (per OddsShark) doesn't rest with the quarterback, as it so often does in the playoffs. Brock Osweiler is still a liability and free-agency bust despite his brief flashes of competence Sunday.
It rests with running back Lamar Miller to some degree, though he'll likely struggle against a Patriots run defense that finished the regular season allowing an average of only 88.6 rushing yards per game (tied for third-best). It rests with wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins a bit too, but Osweiler wasted Hopkins in 2016, and he finished with just 954 receiving yards.
Mostly, the Texans' quest to sufficiently slow the same offense that pummeled them 27-0 in Week 3—when Jacoby Brissett was under center instead of Tom Brady—rests with Clowney's being a one-man pressure cooker again.
Getting to Brady has been a monumental challenge for anyone.
Remarkably, Brady was sacked only 15 times all regular season on 142 dropbacks under pressure, but he became average at best while handling it. He had a completion percentage of 47.2 when under pressure, which ranked 21st, according to Pro Football Focus.
To the surprise of no one on planet Earth, Brady's completion percentage with a clean pocket skyrocketed. He completed 75.4 percent of his attempts when he was allowed to feel cozy, warm and comfortable while sipping cocoa in the pocket. That was the second-highest percentage in an undisturbed pocket, per PFF, and Brady's passer rating of 123.0 while not pressured also ranked second.
It takes about a half-second of thought to understand why, with rare exceptions, quarterbacks prefer a squeaky-clean pocket. Mentally processing the flashes of color dancing before you starts to feel like casually flipping through the TV channels. There's a sense of ease, and the ultimate danger for a defense is when that feeling becomes normal and remains when pressure does close in.
That is why Brady has dissected so many defenses while firmly placing himself in the MVP conversation despite missing four games due to a suspension. He's a one-man sinkhole that swallows defenses whole.
Brady has had a laid-back life of luxury in the pocket. Forget the lack of sacks he's taken for a second. As always, that number is important but less so than how little the slow-footed 39-year-old has been hurried, hassled or disrupted in any way. Brady was pressured on only 30.9 percent of his dropbacks in 2016, per PFF, which ranked 19th out of the 29 quarterbacks who took at least half of their team's dropbacks.
That's where Clowney comes in with his ability to be a constant menace. That's what he did against the Raiders—and it's a performance the 2014 first overall pick needs to duplicate. As Sports Illustrated's Chris Burke noted, Clowney had maybe the best pass-rushing game ever that was invisible on standard box scores:
Jadeveon Clowney is probably having the best 1-tackle, 0-sack game in the history of pass rushers.— Chris Burke (@ChrisBurke_SI) January 8, 2017
You'll see Clowney's interception—and the intricate hand-eye coordination he needed for it—replayed roughly 77 times throughout the week leading up to Saturday night. It's well worth the repeated viewings, but his impact on the Texans' third playoff win in team history went far beyond one play.
The hallmark of a dominant pass-rusher often lies in how much they can tear down the opposing offense and alter plays even when not recording sacks. That's what Clowney did frequently against the Raiders, a game that ended with four pressures from the 23-year-old.
It was the ninth game of 2016-17 in which Clowney tallied three-plus pressures, per PFF. He did it against a Raiders offensive line that had allowed the fewest sacks during the regular season (18), though the absence of left tackle Donald Penn was significant.
Clowney registered another pressure that didn't count because of an illegal-contact penalty downfield on the play. But the sequence that ended when Clowney flung Raiders tackle Menelik Watson—a 315-pound human—like a frisbee was a shining example of why he isn't your garden-variety pass-rushing behemoth.
It was 2nd-and-12, a clear passing situation especially since the Raiders trailed by 13 points early in the third quarter. Raiders quarterback Connor Cook wanted to connect deep with wide receiver Seth Roberts. But to throw deep, you need a vital source of life in football: time.
Clowney has a way of making the seconds tick faster, and so, so much louder. On the play in question, Watson heard that sound of failure before his quarterback.
When Clowney engaged Watson, he rocked the tackle instantly, with his upper half shoved to the right. Watson stumbled, and his blocking base was already destroyed.
Clowney had now established more than enough leverage. Watson was in desperation mode and leaning on his back foot while searching for stability. The tackle was upright, prone and ready to be walked wherever Clowney pleased.
Clowney ripped to the right and turned Watson's shoulders almost sideways so the sideline could read his name and number. Clowney had control, and Watson was merely along for the ride.
Then Clowney showed the raw strength that allows him to treat offensive linemen like that well-worn tennis ball you throw for your dog (or your dog throws for itself?).
With his left leg anchored for maximum lineman-heaving power and a firm hold of the tackle's shoulder, Clowney was ready to put a dent in Watson's pride. Warning: What came next isn't safe for work.
As Watson began his long and loud descent to the ground, Clowney proceeded to throttle Cook, resulting in a wayward and wobbly pass.
That's the Clowney we've seen often in 2016. He's a disruptive force who was healthy for the first time in his three-year career, and it showed as the season went on and his body kept bouncing back to the form that made him such a hot draft commodity.
Clowney played in only one more game in 2016 than he did in 2015 and still finished with 19 more pressures, per PFF. Of his six regular-season sacks, three came in his final three games.
He's getting white-hot when the Texans need him most, particularly since defensive end J.J. Watt is still playing the role of oversized cheerleader. What's a little daunting for both Clowney and the Texans, though, is that he'll have to duplicate his game-altering performance to keep upset hopes afloat against the Patriots.
Brady's rhythm and timing need to be disturbed. Beyond the aforementioned poor completion percentage when under pressure, there's some anecdotal evidence to suggest facing a high-end pass rush can make Brady unravel a bit.
His worst single-game completion percentage of 2016 came against the Denver Broncos in Week 15. The Broncos finished tied for third in sacks during the regular season (42). They took Brady down twice that day and hurried him repeatedly. Brady finished with a completion percentage of 50.0.
That same Broncos defense hit Brady 20 times during last year's AFC Championship Game, which was more than any quarterback was hit throughout the entire 2015 regular season, according to Ben Volin of the Boston Globe. Brady completed only 48.2 percent of his throws that afternoon while averaging 5.5 yards per attempt.
The Patriots will scheme and adjust, just as they have for years with Brady and Belichick at the helm. They'll surely attempt to neutralize Clowney with quick passes and screens.
But Clowney still needs to force them into executing that scheme and accounting for his frighteningly athletic presence. If he's silent, any hope of an upset and Cinderella run will crumble.