Connor Cook’s first pass attempt as a starting quarterback for the Raiders—which also happened to be his first pass attempt in an NFL playoff game—was supposed to be a quick, relatively safe toss to his left. Something to let him get his feet wet, while also pushing the Raiders away from the shadow of their own goal line.
Jadeveon Clowney tipped it away.
On Oakland’s next possession, the Raiders tried again to protect their rookie quarterback, this time with a conservative call on third-and-12. Cook rolled right, then threw back to his left on a screen pass to Latavius Murray.
Clowney intercepted it.
Of course Cook deserves blame for the pick, but not many defenders make the play Clowney did. Any lineman who might have read the screen and got his hands up to tip the pass would have struggled to complete the tumbling interception. Clowney didn’t just catch it—he tried to break free and run it back.
“That was a great play,” said Houston coach Bill O’Brien of Clowney’s pick after the Texans’ 27–14 wild-card round win. “He’s had a good year for us, he’s an active player, we line him up in different spots. One thing about him is he goes to the ball, if that makes sense, he makes plays on the football ... that was a very nice play by him.”
Perhaps at full strength, the Raiders could have kept their season going Saturday. (Hell, at full strength, they might have held on as AFC West champs and thus would not have even been playing Saturday.) Without their starting QB and starting left tackle, though, it was all too much. The Raiders never really managed to get Cook into a groove, in part because they could not slow down Clowney & Co. up front. And so the Texans will play on into the divisional round after taking control of the first game of the 2017 playoffs from the opening kickoff.
Will the divisional round be the end of the line for Houston, which plays either Kansas City or New England next weekend, depending on the outcome of Steelers-Dolphins on Sunday? Maybe. Probably. But the continued emergence of Clowney as a superstar, and the disruptive play of those around him along the D-line, at least will give Houston hope of springing a shocker.
Clowney was so dominant Saturday that it feels almost like a mistake that he finished the game with one tackle and zero sacks. Nonetheless, he was omnipresent when Oakland had the ball, whether he was making plays himself—like the game-changing pick—or drawing double teams to set up his teammates. The Texans notched three sacks (two by Whitney Mercilus, one by D.J. Reader), but they were in Cook’s face throughout.
The day before the game, the Raiders ruled out Pro Bowl left tackle Donald Penn, who suffered a knee injury in Week 17. With franchise QB Derek Carr already done for the year, the Penn news may have doomed Oakland before this one even started.
His replacement, Menelik Watson, clearly had no real answers for Clowney, or Reader, or anyone else who came off the edge. When the Raiders left him on an island to Cook’s blind side, it was asking for disaster.
Oakland still managed to get out of the first quarter down just 10–7, thanks to an impressive run-heavy touchdown drive. The momentum appeared to be on their side. It wouldn’t last.
The Clowney-led Houston defense helped make sure of that, but so did—in a surprising twist—Brock Osweiler. The once and current starter replicated the success he’d had during the teams’ regular season meeting, feeding tight ends Ryan Griffin and C.J. Fiedorowicz out of the gate before turning his attention to star wideoutDeAndre Hopkins.
Osweiler and Hopkins spent all season trying to find a rapport. They clicked, finally, in the first half Saturday. Hopkins caught five passes for 67 yards and a TD (all before halftime), and a 38-yard completion to Hopkins deep down the right sideline was probably the best ball Osweiler threw all year.
Later, with Houston on the verge of icing the game in the fourth quarter, Hopkins drew a pass interference flag in the end zone, setting up an Osweiler rushing TD.
“I thought he had a good game,” O’Brien said of his QB. “He took care of the ball, he executed the game plan. He spread the ball around. ... Everybody on offense did a nice job today.”
Osweiler finished 14 of 25 for 168 yards and a TD—oceans away from record-setting numbers, but the Texans pulled the plug on their passing attack in the second half, content to milk the clock. More importantly, as O’Brien mentioned, Osweiler avoided the costly turnovers that had plagued him at times during the regular season.
Cook did not. The Clowney interception mere minutes into the opening quarter helped bury the Raiders in a 10-point hole they were not equipped to claw back from with Carr out and backup QB Matt McGloin on the sideline nursing his own injury.
Lamar Miller cashed in Clowney’s interception for a touchdown run one play later, part of a grueling 31-carry, 73-yard day on the ground for him. It wasn’t a brilliant performance from Houston’s run game, but it was enough, especially with the Raiders mustering just 64 yards on 21 carries themselves—31 of those yards coming on their first-half touchdown drive.
The Raiders did have their chances, but they were few and far between. Cook’s misfires (he finished 18 of 45 for 161 yards) and his receivers’ drops—Amari Cooper had a particularly egregious one on a deep ball near the sideline—cost Oakland dearly. So, too, did its inability to handle Houston up front.
Clowney set the tone. The rest of the Texans’ defense followed his lead.