Tyrann Mathieu looks comfortable, self-possessed, at home here in Houston, lounged in the living room of his new home in his new city. Ready to say anything. Afraid of nothing.
When he first signed with the Texans back in March, he was shy. Reserved. Not quite ready to let his voice be heard. Every other week, J.J. Watt would badger him. Hey, man! Let's go! Talk to the guys! But Mathieu wasn't ready. He stayed in the shadows for a good four-and-a-half months.
Then one night in training camp, head coach Bill O'Brien asked his new safety to speak in front of the entire 90-man roster. And Mathieu didn't hesitate. He bared his soul. The growing up without Mom and Dad. The marijuana abuse. The arrest. Getting booted from the LSU football team. He minced zero words, sharing for all to hear every raw twist and turn in his life.
"From that point," Mathieu says, "I was able to be myself."
True bonds were born, instantly, and Mathieu was voted a team captain. Suddenly, players were asking him about everything. Suddenly, he was the one roaring during pregame. Suddenly, a franchise muddled in mediocrity was armed with what every champion needs. Attitude. Swagger.
More specifically, "Championship swagger."
Those are the words Mathieu used to repeat constantly back at LSU in 2011, when he was leading the Tigers to their last championship game appearance. And that's what he's repeating in Houston. As his voice here has grown louder and louder, win after win, it has become his call to arms again, his battle cry in nearly every speech since that first one.
"Let's celebrate each other," he says. "If my teammate makes a play, let's celebrate that. If I make a play, let's celebrate that. Let's enjoy the game. You've got to love it. If you don't love it, we won't be winners."
That's championship swagger.
And he knows that's what it'll take. Especially this postseason. Something extra.
Because standing between the Texans and a Super Bowl is a murderers' row of quarterbacks.
Patrick Mahomes' right arm is illegal in certain countries. Tom Brady is again playing January football in Foxborough, five rings 'n' all. Philip Rivers is having an MVP-caliber season. Andrew Luck is, again, the chosen one. Lamar Jackson is resembling Mike Vick 2.0. This is a golden era for the position. And because owners know the world craves more no-look passes, more Brady heroics, more shootouts, the rules governing this game are eliminating physicality (and anything resembling physicality) on defense like never before.
In his Dope Faith Vs. Everything shirt, a constellation of tattoos covering his arms, Mathieu gently rubs the tip of his beard. He's ready to fight back against it all—the quarterbacks, the rigged system—as the one serving as the air traffic controller in the Texans secondary, the one pushing all the buttons.
He's the one who must inject real belief where belief could be scarce.
Mathieu can see these Texans conquering them all—Mahomes, Brady, whoever. Because this has become a team in his image.
"I try to raise the tide," Mathieu says. "I want everybody to play at a level they may never expect themselves to play at. I want everybody to think that they're special. I just try to bring that part to it. I celebrate my teammates' plays more than I celebrate my plays. I think that's part of, really, who I am. I want everybody to be successful. I want everybody to feel that. If I've brought anything, I hope it's that. Just really bringing everybody together."
Giving everyone the attitude a champion needs. The mentality to push through anything. An 0-3 start. A broken dam of an offensive line. Injuries. The quarterback gauntlet that awaits. Anything.
The Texans keep on winning and now harbor very real Super Bowl dreams.
There's "no doubt about it," Mathieu assures. This team can go the distance.
Kicked back on his couch, he coolly rattles off the reasons.
His quarterback, Deshaun Watson, is freaky calm in the clutch. ("It's a blessing to have a quarterback like that.") Everyone on special teams. Mathieu praises how selfless that third of the roster is. ("You don't really get that in the NFL.") The fact that J.J. Watt is on his team and nobody else's. Watt sprints around trash cans any idle moment of practice before then diving into a pool to work out on his own afterward. ("He's crazy.")
And Mathieu knows his presence is a major part of the Super Bowl equation. He'll make sure nobody loses any confidence at any point.
The Texans need a championship swagger to win it all.
He sees one too.
"Guys are motivated to show everybody we can play," Mathieu says. "It hasn't always been pretty. We haven't played our best football yet. And that's very clear to us.
"We'll be tough to beat."
He cracks his knuckles at the memory, scowls, and his voice lowers to a near whisper.
The first domino to fall, the first decision that set this Texans season into motion, was actually a (predictable) Cardinals gaffe. The team that took a chance on Mathieu decided it was through with him, asking him to take a substantial pay cut before cutting him loose and then using that precious capital on—drum roll, please!—quarterback Sam Bradford.
Bradford decomposed. The Cardinals finished 3-13. First-year head coach Steve Wilks was fired.
Mathieu can still hear Arizona asking him to take a pay cut.
"I wasn't really too fond of it," he says.
The next step was easy. He signed a one-year deal with the Texans because he saw a team loaded with players just like him. Players with something to prove. More specifically, he saw a quarterback with the same wiring: Watson. "DEY-shaun," he calls him. Mathieu recognized Watson as a kindred spirit back when Watson was still at Clemson, reached out to him on Twitter, and the two started messaging regularly. Like Mathieu at LSU, Watson delivered in big moments. And like Mathieu coming into 2018, Watson was hungry. Eager to finish what he started as a rookie.
The days of Houston starting quarterbacks straight out of the Walmart bin are over. It's finally a fair fight in the AFC. From May on, the two spent time breaking down exactly what each was seeing after plays in practice. Football is Watson's life, Mathieu says. "Everything for him." So they picked each other's brains constantly.
Mathieu has never seen Watson frown. Ever. Never seen Watson upset. Ever.
Maybe the world's been drooling over Mahomes all season long. He's the MVP front-runner, the one who finished with video game numbers: 5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns. But everyone on this Texans team witnessed Watson grit through a cracked rib, a bruised lung and a partially collapsed lung through Houston's nine-game winning streak.
Mathieu knows precisely what makes his quarterback different.
"They're obviously both flashy. They both can do really exciting things," Mathieu says. "Mahomes can throw the ball wherever you want him to throw it. He could throw it to Tokyo if you wanted him to. I think with Deshaun, what he has really proven, really since we have all been watching him, is he can handle the moments. He's been getting beat up, and he's been handling it well. ... He's special."
Of course, when Mahomes is Mahomesin' around—throwing left-handed, rifling 40-yard bullets with his torso flipped at impossible angles, escaping, re-escaping, pulling off stunts nobody's ever seen before—Watson will be on the sideline. Powerless. It's on Mathieu to fight back, and it hasn't always been pretty. Two weeks ago, Nick Foles blistered Houston for 471 yards and five touchdowns. Injuries rocked the secondary for a stretch. Still, the Texans did finish with 29 takeaways (fourth in the NFL) while allowing just 19.8 points per game (also fourth), with Mathieu as the point man. And he asserts his belief that this Texans defense can be "dominant."
Mathieu has been more of a cerebral communicator than a freewheelin' blitzer this season, he says, decoding formations and lining up coverages.
His impact, as O'Brien has pointed out, goes beyond the numbers.
"Since the day he walked in the door here, he has a presence about him," O'Brien said in a December press conference. "Even though he may not be the biggest guy in the world, he has a presence about him. He handles himself in a very professional way. He practices the right way. He pays attention in meetings. He doesn't talk all the time, but when he speaks, people listen."
Now, the pressure's on.
Mathieu is a facilitator, sure, finishing the regular season with a respectable 89 tackles (70 solo), two picks and three sacks. But he knows a day of reckoning is rapidly approaching. He knows he inevitably will have to make a play to save Houston's season. Mathieu has spent hours studying these quarterbacks...to the point of knowing how each one will attack him. And he's ready. He chuckles that he's "looking forward to it."
In January and February, nothing else matters. This is when legends are made, and he wants to be legendary.
"I think of guys like Troy Polamalu," Mathieu says. "These are guys who didn't see much action in the regular season, but when it came postseason time, they made their plays," Mathieu says. "That's ultimately how they got their names. Ed Reed. Troy Polamalu. Ty Law. Asante Samuel. They caught interceptions, and they took them to the house. They picked up fumbles, and they were touchdowns. That's what I'm looking forward to doing this postseason."
So Mathieu isn't worried about his impending free agency. Nor the Cardinals' snub.
Not even how the NFL has made DBs play with virtual blindfolds on. Polamalu and Reed and Law never had to deal with such absurdity. The game is changing in real time. This season, NFL officials assessed a record 3,447 penalties.
Mathieu does admit that corners and safeties leaguewide are slowing down. "You're so scared. You don't know whether to catch the ball or hit the guy—either way you might get a flag." Because, frankly, he adds, "30 grand is 30 grand." Nobody wants to get fined. Not rookies, not vets. He's still breathing a sigh of relief that one of his fines was rescinded.
Part of him gets it. The NFL is giving fans what they want. Quarterbacks must operate in a clean pocket, and receivers must run freely wherever they please en route to the end zone, to celebrations, to theatrics that are must-see.
That's the script the commish, the owners, the television networks, everyone's hoping for this month.
"That's why I play defense," he says. "We're going to make sure that doesn't happen."
He speaks so confidently because this year has been one of total self-reflection. Everything he told teammates in camp was condensed into one "Fall Forward" tweet for his 907,000 followers in October, and he's been ALL CAPS'ing his emotions ever since. Reflecting on his life so publicly feels more cathartic than ever.
It's helping him and helping others.
Three days before meeting with B/R, Mathieu visited a local high school football team still reeling from the death of a player who was killed during a family dispute. When a Texans official told him about this tragedy, asking if he'd want to meet with the team, Mathieu didn't hesitate.
"I was like: 'Hell yeah. Why not?'" Mathieu says. "I'm sure I've got a story that could relate in some kind of way."
He told that story to B/R back in February and, since then, has reconnected with his imprisoned father, Darrin Hayes, who has been behind bars Mathieu's entire life. They talk every week now—and, beaming, Mathieu says his dad has a realistic shot of getting released from Elayn Hunt Correctional Center within the next four years. He can't wait to give Dad a second chance. Forgiveness is a virtue Mathieu insists he cherishes now more than ever.
He relaxes. He looks inward.
And right here, right now, it feels like Tyrann Mathieu may be the player uniquely qualified to combat QB after QB this postseason. On the spot, it's as if Mathieu is transported into the Texans locker room, talking to a teammate. His energy's infectious.
Whenever anything went wrong in his life back in college, he says he had one default: Smoke weed and blame everybody else. Now? He's locked into a routine, day to day, hour to hour, from meditation sessions in the sauna, to studying those AFC quarterbacks with mad-scientist detail, to working with a personal recovery coach, to throwing around that inflatable football on the living room floor with his son.
Mathieu took control of his mind, and that's not easy. The shadow of another player who could have rocked these AFC playoffs, receiver Josh Gordon, lingers over the conversation. Just hours before B/R met with Mathieu, Gordon was released by the Patriots after reportedly failing yet another drug test.
So, again, Mathieu reflects.
"Everything around me was a problem," Mathieu says. "I was never the problem. In my mind, my thoughts, I was never the issue, because I could always put it on somebody else. When you really sit down and you have to focus on yourself, then you come full circle and realize, 'Everything is my fault.' Once you're able to handle that, you're able to really deal with anything. …
"A lot of people do impulsive things. They just go with their moves. I used to do that. Once I was able to control my mind, I was able to control my actions."
Endless counselors and therapists told Mathieu it needed to start with him, nobody else. When he was kicked off the LSU football team, when his best friend was killed, when his world was crashing down, Mathieu finally looked in that mirror and pointed the finger at himself. For him, the key was multiplying all positive thoughts in his mind whenever something bad happened.
Like his two torn ACLs. Like the Cardinals releasing him. He refuses now to get down.
"A regular person might be like: 'I'm in control of my thoughts. What are you talking about?'" Mathieu says. "But, no, if you're able to control your thoughts, you're really able to control your actions. I think with Josh, it's more than marijuana because he can't control his thoughts. And it's sad. But if he's able to take control of his thoughts, I think he'll be able to control his feelings.
"Most guys don't take that next step because they don't want to challenge themselves. They don't want to sit in front of the mirror, in their room, and just pick themselves apart. They don't want to tell themselves the truth. It's sad because you'll cry. I cried! Just telling yourself: 'Dog. C'mon. That's you. I know who you think you are, but this is what you're doing.' So that's who you are! And that's some of the deepest… It's real. It's real."
So when Mathieu shouts before games, everyone listens. Everyone knows he had to tell himself, "Enough is enough." Everyone knows how far he's come. And everyone can hear that championship swagger back in him now.
For 11 months, one message has been pinned at the top of his Twitter profile: "I'm letting my scars bleed all 2018." That's what he's done, and the Texans are three wins away from the Super Bowl.
Long term, this is where he wants to be. The people are welcoming. The BBQ's great. He can picture himself throwing a football to his son in this quaint neighborhood. He's building a foundation to last, determined to extract every drop of greatness he can out of every single teammate he can. What Mathieu told that high school team is exactly what he tells these Texans all the time: Use all of the bottled-up emotions inside of you for good. As motivation. If he failed to do that, he wouldn't be here.
Then, Mathieu takes a moment to stare into a virtual crystal ball. What does he see going down these next five to 10 years? Multiple postseasons, for sure. He sees himself continuing to "defy the odds" as a DB flying all over the field on two reconstructed knees. Maybe all of these quarterbacks Houston's about to face are heading to Canton—well, he sees himself in Canton one day too.
No doubt about that, he repeats.
"I take great pride in being who I am. Whether I'm broken or not, I am who I am."
And one more thing: He absolutely sees himself hoisting a Lombardi Trophy. Maybe even this year. It's not too complicated, really. The Texans, by now, have adopted his championship swagger. He's rising the tide.
Count on Mathieu to share a few words with his team before Saturday's game too.
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @tydunne.