The second-year defensive end for the Houston Texans has become one of the league's top defenders.
NFL: JJ Watt wants to turn up the voltage in the play-offs for Houston
With one mighty swat, JJ Watt knocked down Andy Dalton's pass, intercepted it and returned it for a touchdown in last year's play-off win over Cincinnati. It was one of the biggest plays in the history of the Houston Texans.
A year later, the second-year defensive end is one of the league's top defenders and he will need another big game to help the Texans, who lost three of their last four regular-season games, regain their form in a wild-card play-off rematch against the Bengals.
Watt was not keen on reliving that play after a practice session Tuesday.
"That was last year and this is this year," he said. "I have things to focus on this year. It was a great play, a huge moment in my life, but I'm looking forward to making bigger moments this year."
He has had plenty of them this season, leading the NFL with 20.5 sacks. He also had 39 tackles for loss, 16 passes defended, 107 tackles and four forced fumbles.
"You are watching something special," said Gary Kubiak, his coach. "If you probably went and broke down what's happened over a period of the first two years in this league for a player, I'm not sure many guys could put up the numbers he's put up."
Watt was having a solid rookie season for Houston in 2011 and had started each game for the Texans. But he was largely unknown outside of Houston before his interception return gave the Texans their first lead in a 31-10 win over the Bengals. It was the first play-off win in franchise history and a play Kubiak called a "game-changer".
"He's been really consistent," Kubiak said. "He was a good rookie. During the play-offs last year, he raised his level of play. He found another gear as a player.
"It's continued through this season."
Marvin Lewis, the Bengals coach, well remembers the play Watt made, and has watched him change the course of many other games with his play-making ability.
"It's kind of a big dagger for us," Lewis said. "We never really overcame it. He's done that a lot. He's made the big sacks and sack fumbles … you can't put on the tape where he's not doing that."
Watt finished 2.5 sacks shy of breaking Michael Strahan's NFL single-season record of 22. He was named to his first Pro Bowl, and is a top candidate for defensive player of the year.
"My season's been a lot of fun, and it's been great. But if we don't go out there and win, if we don't go out there and take care of business in the play-offs, it's just going to be another season for me," he said. "I appreciate all the support I've gotten, all the love I've gotten and obviously the awards and everything, but I want a Super Bowl. That's it."
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings credited the late-season improvement by Christian Ponder, the quarterback, for their surge into the play-offs. The Vikings meet the Green Bay Packers in the second play-off game Saturday.
Leslie Frazier, the Vikings coach, gave the struggling Ponder a vote of confidence after a particularly poor performance at Green Bay in early December.
"I don't want you to walk in there with any doubt about your future here as our starting quarterback," Frazier told Ponder before his post-game news conference. "Next ballgame, you're going to be our starter."
Adrian Peterson remains the focal point of the Vikings offence, but Ponder has improved dramatically.
"Obviously, a lot has changed. I think the biggest thing for me was making better decisions," he said. "Obviously, I made some bad decisions in that first game. It's something that I knew I had to improve upon. I think each week it's gotten better."
The Vikings needed a victory Sunday to reach the play-offs and Ponder matched his career high with three touchdown passes, turning in his fifth turnover-free performance of the year and taking only one sack in the most important NFL game in which he has played.
He acknowledged how much he appreciated the support from Frazier, Peterson and others.
"It was a tough situation and I was very hard on myself, so it was good to hear," Ponder said.
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