HOUSTON (AP) — The Houston Texans turned to their rookies, then to their stars to win the first playoff appearance in franchise history, a 31-10 rout of the bungling Cincinnati Bengals.
Rookie J.J. Watt’s leaping interception return for a touchdown late in the first half propelled the Texans in Saturday’s AFC wild-card game. Third-string quarterback T.J. Yates, another first-year play pressed into action, then threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Andre Johnson and Arian Foster followed with his second touchdown of the game, a 42-yard run in the fourth quarter, to finish off the Bengals.
After nine seasons of missing the playoffs, the AFC South champion Texans (11-6) are heading to AFC North winner Baltimore (12-4) next Sunday.
“This is a special day,” Houston coach Gary Kubiak said.
Watt returned the first of rookie Andy Dalton’s three interceptions 29 yards for a score that broke a 10-all tie with 52 seconds left in the half.
Yates then hit Johnson on a TD pass late in the third quarter, and Foster added his long scoring run to close out the scoring.
Cincinnati was in the playoffs for the third time in seven seasons, but the Bengals (9-8) haven’t advanced since beating the Houston Oilers following the 1990 season.
Foster scored on an 8-yard run in the first quarter to tie the score at 7, and finished with 153 yards on 24 carries.
Dalton was 24 of 42 for 257 yards, while Yates was 11 of 20 for 159 yards in the first playoff game in the Super Bowl era matching two rookie quarterbacks.
As the final seconds ticked away, Kubiak walked down the sideline wearing a broad smile and smacked hands with players and assistant coaches.
He embraced Johnson — the franchise’s best player — in a moment that was a decade in the making.
And two rookies helped make it happen.
Houston took Watt with the 11th overall pick in last year’s draft, a cornerstone for the reconstruction of the Texans defense. He started all 16 games and led the team with 13 tackles for loss.
But he’d never picked off a pass.
Watt saw this one coming, measuring his jump when Dalton dropped back and snatching the ball with both hands. He sprinted to the end zone as the capacity crowd exploded, and he raised both hands after reaching the end zone.
Watt became the sixth defensive linemen to return an interception for a touchdown in postseason history — excluding the Super Bowl — and the first rookie to do it.
“He’s been exceptional,” Kubiak said. “He’s played like a 4- or 5-year player. That was a huge play. That got us a lot of momentum going into halftime.”
Dalton, meanwhile, rolled his eyes and shook his head as he walked to the Cincinnati bench and watched the replay on the giant scoreboard. It was just his second interception in his last seven games.
The Bengals outplayed the Texans for most of the first half before that, holding down Houston’s offense and controlling time of possession.
Late in the third quarter, Yates got away with a pass that safety Chris Crocker simply dropped. Three plays later, Johnson broke free from cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones and caught Yates’ pinpoint pass down the sideline to put Houston up 24-10.
As Johnson rested on the bench, Foster walked up to him and gave him a bow, the running back’s customary celebration after a touchdown. Foster has said that the bow is a Hindu gesture of respect.
Foster had a highlight of his own in the fourth quarter, dancing down the sideline for a 42-yard touchdown.
Aside from the Super Bowl following the 2003 season, Houston was hosting its first postseason game since January 1994, when Joe Montana led Kansas City past the Oilers at the Astrodome, Reliant’s dormant next-door neighbor.
The Texans rallied past the Bengals on Dec. 11 in Cincinnati to earn their first playoff berth. But they didn’t look like they’d last very long after dropping their last three regular-season games.
Kubiak said Saturday that the frustrating stretch ended up sharpening his team’s resolve.
“We need to kind of be humbled from the standpoint of what we’re not going to be able to get away with, if we’re going to win during this month,” he said. “I think it really helped us.”
The Texans not only snapped their losing streak, they also broke their stretch of low-scoring games, going over 22 points for the first time since a 37-9 win over Tampa Bay in Week 10, when starter Matt Schaub sustained a season-ending foot injury.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.