Andre Johnson was poised to assume the role of feel-good story in any Texan playoff win, regardless of how it came about. Nine seasons of brilliant play that (until now) had been overshadowed by team-wide failures can have that effect.
For the first time in months, though, Houston's star receiver also became the headliner through his on-field play.
It comes just in the nick of time for the Texans, who cruised to victory in their first postseason appearance. It earns them a trip to Baltimore to play the defensively stout Ravens in the second round next Sunday.
"We played the football that we had been playing when we were winning, and that's what we were after," said head coach Gary Kubiak.
Yates-era offense sets new high mark Prior to Saturday, the four full games for the T.J. Yates-led Texans resulted in point totals of 17, 20, 13 and 16. That led many to predict that any postseason success would have to come in tight, low-scoring games dominated by the defense.
But of those previous four games, Johnson played in only one -- and under three quarters, at that.
Saturday's romp over the Bengals proved that Johnson remains a game-changer for the Texans offense, which scored 24 points on offense and might have put up even more if not for going conservative with a giant fourth-quarter lead.
"We got 80 into his groove and made some plays," said left tackle Duane Brown.
"I think it's very big from a confidence standpoint," said linebacker and team MVP Brian Cushing. "[Johnson] is one of the best players and best receivers ever, I think, and to have him out on the field is huge. Just to see 80 out there, I know that really you can go up to him any play."
Rust showed in first half It didn't come easy for Johnson or the Texans, who spent much of the first half trying to re-establish a rhythm. On the first possession of the game, Johnson was wide open for a first down (and a lot more) on a 3rd-and-5 drag route. But Yates rushed the throw and it sailed, forcing a punt.
Later in the half, Johnson dropped what should've been an easy catch for a first down, and also wasn't able to come down with a jump ball in the end zone against single coverage. The latter forced the Texans to settle for a field goal, tying the score at 10 instead of taking the lead.
Fortunately for the Texans, J.J. Watt's ensuing interception return for a touchdown gave them the halftime advantage. But going into the break, the offense knew that it hadn't held up its end of the bargain.
"Everybody was just telling me be patient, be patient," Johnson said. "You know when you are playing a game like this and you are going what I went through this year, you just want to make something happen so bad to where I think I got impatient."
Johnson didn't appear to have any lingering hamstring issue, but it seemed as though the rust from playing just four quarters of actual football since early October would be hard to shake off. Second-half turnaround In the second half, though, he found his groove. And with it, the Texans finally found the offensive balance that they had been struggling to achieve since Matt Schaub went down in mid-November.
After a middling first half from Yates that saw him go 6-of-13 for 79 yards and no touchdowns, he rebounded with a 5-for-7 outing for 80 yards in the second half. Three of those five completions went to Johnson, giving him a game total of five catches for 90 yards and a touchdown.
The passing performance, of course, was punctuated by the 40-yard scoring strike to Johnson, who broke open after a double move against Cincinnati cornerback Pacman Jones. That gave the Texans a commanding 24-10 lead.
"It was like a big relief, Johnson said. "With what I've been through this season as far as the injuries and everything, and being in my first playoff game and wanting to win so bad, I was wanting to make a play.
"I was kind of antsy playing today and that's not me," he continued. "Once I made that play, it was a weight off my shoulders."
The most interesting aspect of Johnson's touchdown was that Cincinnati didn't have a safety in the immediate vicinity to help Jones. Instead, the Bengals were loading up the box against Arian Foster and Ben Tate, much like most Texan opponents have done since Schaub's injury.
Up until that point, the game plan was largely successful for the Bengals. It was late in the third quarter, and the Texans had just 10 points on offense.
But in one play, Johnson showed a flash of his usual self, and his return to form finally allowed the Texans to punish an opponent for playing overly aggressive.
It seemed to pay immediate dividends for the Texans, who ran roughshod over a loosened Cincinnati defense in the fourth quarter. Arian Foster capped the turnaround with a 42-yard touchdown run with five minutes remaining, sending the largest crowd in Reliant Stadium history into pandemonium.
"Just having [Johnson] back on the field, we do get played a little bit different," said Kubiak. "I know one thing, for me personally and I know anyone else in this organization, when he's got that uniform on it sure feels good. It was great to have him back."
The Texan offense scored 24 points on the game and 14 in the second half, both season highs under Yates. The second-half total included 184 total yards, and could've resulted in even more points had Kubiak not tapped the brakes late.
Houston also flipped the script and routinely converted late-game third downs, allowing it to control the clock. After holding the ball for just 12:45 of 30 first-half minutes, the Texans secured it for 16:58 in the second half.
Looking ahead In the big picture, it was the kind of performance the Texans needed to gain confidence against the elite of the NFL, which includes the Ravens next Sunday.
Above all else, the Baltimore defense is comprised of intelligent veterans. When the game is close and late, they can slow an opponent's strength. The Texans learned that in October, when Baltimore bottled up the Houston running game in the fourth quarter and forced Houston to throw to win.
Even though Schaub was healthy, the Texan receivers -- minus Johnson -- simply weren't good enough to create separation, and the Texans couldn't sustain late-game drives. It added up to a close loss.
Now, though, Johnson appears to be rounding back into peak form. And that's what gives the Texans a chance.
"I feel confident that we can play with anybody," Johnson said.
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The Texans have a very good defense, but it's not an all-time great one. It can't win big games by itself. The offense has to hold its own.
Against a quality defense in Cincinnati, the Johnson-led Texans did just that.