HOUSTON — Jadeveon Clowney was still in uniform when the phone rang.
The Houston Texans' third-year defensive end had just served as the driving force in Saturday's 27-14 wild-card pummeling of the Oakland Raiders. The locker room was mostly empty. But even though Clowney had already held a press conference and spent extra time chatting with reporters at his stall, another interview awaited on the other end of the line.
“When you ball,” said Clowney, his voice booming across the room as he spoke to Hall of Famer and NFL Network personality Deion Sanders, “you get the call.”
Ball Clowney and the Texans did. He intercepted a pass midway through the first quarter to set up Houston’s first touchdown. He was credited with two batted balls and applied steady pressure on third-string quarterback Connor Cook.
Against a rookie passer who wasn't protected by injured Pro Bowl tackle Donald Penn, that was more than enough to help Houston advance. But will such a performance suffice against the No. 1 seeded New England Patriots in the divisional round? That’s a tougher sell.
Quarterback Tom Brady is on the short list of MVP candidates after throwing 28 touchdowns versus only two interceptions in 12 games, setting a new NFL record for the best TD-to-interception ratio. Running back LeGarrette Blount led the league with 18 rushing touchdowns and racked up 1,161 yards. The Patriots ranked third in scoring, putting up 27.6 points per contest.
Houston’s offense, effective enough Saturday, showed it can still be a liability and is at its best when it simply avoids the fatal error. The Texans punted nine times Saturday. (There were only three games in the regular season in which a punter had had as many as 10 in a game.) Quarterback Brock Osweiler accounted for two touchdowns but threw for only 168 yards while managing the game.
“Without turnovers,” Texans owner Robert McNair said after the game, “we can play with anybody.”
That puts a lot of pressure on Houston's top-ranked defense, which yielded only 301.3 yards per game in 2016. But Clowney has blossomed into the most imposing and important defender on this unit with all-pro defensive end J.J. Watt sidelined after back surgery. Clowney only recorded one tackle against Oakland, but his impact allowed his teammates to flourish as he occupied multiple Raiders double teams. Whitney Mercilus and D.J. Reader combined for three sacks.
Along with the pressure, Clowney also disrupted Cook’s timing, helping create opportunities for a secondary that picked off two more passes.
“The defense did a phenomenal job,” veteran Texans left tackle Duane Brown said after the game. “And that’s what we have come to expect from them all year. Clowney, he’s been doing what he’s been doing all year: being disruptive, being a game-wrecker.”
Clowney’s emergence as a Pro Bowler comes after the team drafted him first overall in 2014. Injuries cost him 15 games during his first two seasons, but now he's justified the team's faith in him after some outsiders suggested he was a bust.
“These guys picked me No. 1, and they saw something in me,” Clowney said in his press conference.
“Things didn’t go well earlier in my career, but I am on the right track now. Things are coming together. I am healthier. I am playing good ball, and we all have come together to play good defense.”
The Texans know, however, that virtually no one expects them to challenge the Patriots this weekend. Many analysts still picked them to lose at home to the Raiders even though star quarterback Derek Carr was out with a broken leg.
Houston defensive end Antonio Smith, who dressed at his locker and overheard Clowney’s phone interview from about 15 feet away, shouted: "J.D., if they picked the Raiders to win, hang up on ‘em.”
The early spread from some sportsbooks has the Patriots favored by as much as 16 points. They will host the divisional round game in New England, where they spanked the Texans 27-0 in Week 3 even though rookie Jacoby Brissett was making his first start while Brady was suspended and second-string quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was injured.
“We shot ourselves in the foot,” McNair said. “We had two fumbles in the first quarter and gave up the ball on the 20-yard line. Doesn’t matter who you play, you can’t win playing like that.”
Houston came out with a conservative plan on offense in that game and struggled to cross midfield. The defense failed to rattle Brissett, who never turned the ball over. Now, a far better effort will be required to even be competitive against Brady and Co.
“It means a lot,” Mercilus said of Saturday’s victory and the defensive success. “But it doesn’t mean squat at the end of the day because we have to go out and do it again next week.”
Follow Lorenzo Reyes on Twitter @LorenzoGReyes