HOUSTON — He sat at his stall in the visiting locker room at Gillette Stadium, sorting through whatever answers he could find in the rubble of a 42-14 shakedown.
He was asked what to make of what happened. All he could muster was that the Patriots were a very good team, a team that executed and won.
He was asked about the fumble he forced in the fourth quarter, the one that seemed like it would give the Texans their first sign of life but instead squirmed its way to Brandon Lloyd in the end zone. All he could say was that it was tough luck.
There was no other way for J.J. Watt to describe it.
“Tough night,” said the Texans defensive end back on Dec. 10.
He was asked what a team that had been 11-1 and had won six straight games does after being exposed under the “Monday Night Football” floodlights. He said the Texans still controlled their own destiny.
He put his bag over his letterman’s jacket and walked out.
In his short career, Watt had never absorbed a loss so bad.
“After that game, obviously, yeah I was upset,” Watt said Thursday. “You’re going to be upset after you get beat like that. We got beat by a good football team. They played better that night and that’s the way it was.”
He had been a force of nature all season, adding quarterbacks to his sack collection. He notched at least one in nine of the first 11 games, and had a three-game streak coming into New England, but for as many times as he hit Tom Brady, he still came up empty.
How much it bothered him was clear.
“I don’t think I played my best game,” Watt said. “I think we can all agree on that. I got quite a few hits on him, but obviously the ball was gone. I need to play better and I’m going to play better.”
Watt has set the bar impossibly high for himself, because he had to.
He flew under the college recruiting radar, navigated through turbulence when he had to de-commit from Central Michigan because Brian Kelly decided to leave for Cincinnati, then had to do it again when he thought he’d land at Minnesota only to see Glen Mason get fired there.
There was a point when he was delivering for Pizza Hut, trying to figure out what to do. Then he gambled on himself when he transferred to Wisconsin, going to his parents to ask for tuition money so he could walk on to the football team. If he didn’t earn a scholarship by his second season, the agreement was, he’d have to pay for school himself.
The only option he truly gave himself was NFL stardom.
“Nobody has higher expectations for me than myself,” Watt said. “When I look in the mirror at the end of the day, I have much bigger expectations than any media member, coach, player, anybody has for me.
“If you want to be the best, you have to want to do things that have never been done before. I’m always striving to do that. I think if people expected good from me and not great, I would be disappointed. You want people to expect greatness from you.”
So when his numbers smashed through the ceiling in his sophomore season, no one in the Texans organization was shocked, even though there were boos from the crowd in Radio City Music Hall when Houston took him with the 11th pick in the 2011 draft.
“We thought he was a heck of a player,” said head coach Gary Kubiak. “I think the thing that people forget about J.J. is when you go back and you study him coming out as a player, everything told you this kid was going to continue to not only succeed but to get everything he could out of himself.”
Watt set a franchise record with a league-leading 20½ sacks this season. Of his team-high 107 tackles, 39 were for losses. He knocked down 16 passes, making him the only player in NFL history to record at least 15 sacks and 15 defended passes. He laid 42 hits on quarterbacks, forced four fumbles and recovered two.
In his coaching career, Wade Phillips has seen otherworldly defensive linemen, from Reggie White to Bruce Smith, but this was a season like no other, said the Texans defensive coordinator.
“Nobody’s had a season like that,” said Phillips. “Nobody’s made that many tackles, that many sacks, that many pass breakups, and that many tackles for loss or tackles for no gain in the history of football. It’s the best I’ve ever seen, for sure.”
The Pro Football Writers Association of America and Pro Football Weekly named Watt the defensive MVP.Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.