After missing last year's playoff game with an injury, Jadeveon Clowney turned Houston's wild-card win over the Raiders into his NFL coming-out party.
Clowney's first career interception underlined why he was drafted first overall in 2014.
The play itself was spectacular. The 6-foot-5, 270-pound defensive end batted the ball with one hand before tipping it with the other and making the acrobatic grab . But as impressive as it was, what it did for the team was even better.
The interception and a penalty the Raiders drew on the play left Houston at the 4-yard line, set up a touchdown on the next play that made it 10-0 in the first quarter, and helped the Texans cruise to the 27-14 victory.
"That interception that was a really instinctive play ... the back came at him. He understood what was coming at him," coach Bill O'Brien said. "He saw the quarterback through the back. He basically backpedaled to get in the throwing lane, tipped the ball to himself. He did several things on that play to really change the game at that point."
The Texans look to win a divisional game for the first time in franchise history on Saturday when they travel to New England. It certainly won't be easy as the Patriots are 15 1/2 -point favorites, according to Pregame.com.
But Clowney isn't daunted. In fact, he kind of likes it.
"That kind of boosts us up a little (like), OK we gonna show them," he said. "One of the mentalities this week going into this game is we're the underdogs, always been underdogs all season — let's go out there and prove to them why we're here in this second round now."
Clowney had been felled by injuries in his first two seasons after Houston made him the top pick in the 2014 draft. He played just four games as a rookie before appearing in 14 games last season. While he played most of the games in the 2015 season, he was slowed by a variety of injuries and was angry when he had to sit out Houston's wild-card game with a foot injury.
So when Clowney finally got to play his first career playoff game on Saturday, he was determined to make an impact. He joined J.J. Watt as the only defensive linemen in franchise history to have an interception in the postseason.
"I was happy. I was very excited about what I (did)," he said. "Put us in great field position to score a touchdown. That was the best thing about it.
"And we won," he said before flashing a huge smile.
The play was far from the first big moment of what has been his breakout season. But it was the first time he's made such a huge play in front of a national audience. He was asked what it meant to shine in front of so many people after being criticized and characterized as a bust for a while.
"I didn't care," he said. "Guys in the locker room (have) seen me doing it all season."
Indeed, Clowney's play this season has been a key to Houston's defense remaining dominant despite the loss of Watt to season-ending back surgery after three games. He had 16 tackles for losses, six sacks and 17 quarterback hits to help the Texans rank first in the regular season.
"He figured it out. I think he figured out how much he means to this team and he's been rolling," veteran nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. "A Pro Bowler this year, making plays like we always knew he could do."
Clowney knows Houston's defense will have to build on last week after its smothering performance against the Raiders propelled the Texans to their first playoff win since the 2012 season. He's also fully aware that dealing with Tom Brady will be far different than facing third-string rookie Connor Cook last week.
"The guy is the most poised quarterback in the NFL," Clowney said of Brady. "He (doesn't) get rattled most of the time. He ... stays calm and that's what makes him so good. He just stays calm back there. Even when you do get the pressure he steps up and makes the best pass."
Clowney had two sacks in his only career game against Brady last season. He's hoping that he and his teammates can do enough to slow down Brady on Saturday and help their offense — like they did against Oakland.
"You've got to get after him ... we've got to go in there and execute the game plan and force him into some bad throws, some turnovers and try to get him where we want him," he said.