HOUSTON — He sat at his stall in the visiting locker room at Gillette Stadium, sorting through whatever answers he could find in the rubble of a 42-14 shakedown.
He was asked what to make of what happened. All he could muster was that the Patriots were a very good team, a team that executed and won.
He was asked about the fumble he forced in the fourth quarter, the one that seemed like it would give the Texans their first sign of life but instead squirmed its way to Brandon Lloyd in the end zone. All he could say was that it was tough luck.
There was no other way for J.J. Watt to describe it.
“Tough night,’’ said the Texans defensive end back on Dec. 10.
He was asked what a team that had been 11-1 and had won six straight games does after being exposed under the “Monday Night Football’’ floodlights. He said the Texans still controlled their own destiny.
He put his bag over his letterman’s jacket and walked out.
In his short career, Watt had never absorbed a loss so bad.
“After that game, obviously, yeah I was upset,’’ Watt said Thursday. “You’re going to be upset after you get beat like that. We got beat by a good football team. They played better that night and that’s the way it was.’’
He had been a force of nature all season, adding quarterbacks to his sack collection. He notched at least one in nine of the first 11 games, and had a three-game streak coming into New England, but for as many times as he hit Tom Brady, he still came up empty.
How much it bothered him was clear.
“I don’t think I played my best game,’’ Watt said. “I think we can all agree on that. I got quite a few hits on him, but obviously the ball was gone. I need to play better and I’m going to play better.’’
Watt has set the bar impossibly high for himself, because he had to.
He flew under the college recruiting radar, navigated through turbulence when he had to de-commit from Central Michigan because Brian Kelly decided to leave for Cincinnati, then had to do it again when he thought he’d land at Minnesota only to see Glen Mason get fired there.
There was a point when he was delivering for Pizza Hut, trying to figure out what to do. Then he gambled on himself when he transferred to Wisconsin, going to his parents to ask for tuition money so he could walk on to the football team. If he didn’t earn a scholarship by his second season, the agreement was, he’d have to pay for school himself.
The only option he truly gave himself was NFL stardom.
“Nobody has higher expectations for me than myself,’’ Watt said. “When I look in the mirror at the end of the day, I have much bigger expectations than any media member, coach, player, anybody has for me.
“If you want to be the best, you have to want to do things that have never been done before. I’m always striving to do that. I think if people expected good from me and not great, I would be disappointed. You want people to expect greatness from you.’’
So when his numbers smashed through the ceiling in his sophomore season, no one in the Texans organization was shocked, even though there were boos from the crowd in Radio City Music Hall when Houston took him with the 11th pick in the 2011 draft.
“We thought he was a heck of a player,’’ said head coach Gary Kubiak. “I think the thing that people forget about J.J. is when you go back and you study him coming out as a player, everything told you this kid was going to continue to not only succeed but to get everything he could out of himself.’’
Watt set a franchise record with a league-leading 20½ sacks this season. Of his team-high 107 tackles, 39 were for losses. He knocked down 16 passes, making him the only player in NFL history to record at least 15 sacks and 15 defended passes. He laid 42 hits on quarterbacks, forced four fumbles and recovered two.
In his coaching career, Wade Phillips has seen otherworldly defensive linemen, from Reggie White to Bruce Smith, but this was a season like no other, said the Texans defensive coordinator.
“Nobody’s had a season like that,’’ said Phillips. “Nobody’s made that many tackles, that many sacks, that many pass breakups, and that many tackles for loss or tackles for no gain in the history of football. It’s the best I’ve ever seen, for sure.’’
The Pro Football Writers Association of America and Pro Football Weekly named Watt the defensive MVP.
“He’s had the absolute best year any defensive lineman has ever had,’’ said Phillips. “I had Elvin Bethea, who’s in the Hall of Fame, and he had some great years. Bruce Smith had some great years. Reggie White had some great years.
“But they didn’t make that many tackles, that many tackles for loss, that many knockdowns, and that many sacks in one year. Nobody has done that.’’
The swats are what everyone pays attention to. When the Texans won the first playoff game in franchise history a year ago over the Bengals, the image of Watt batting down and gobbling up an Andy Dalton pass and taking it 29 yards to the end zone was one of the brightest highlights.
“He always played big in big situations, in big games,’’ Kubiak said.
Watt is the reason the Patriots break out the brooms during practice — holding them high to simulate Watt’s arms.
A month ago, he didn’t get his hands on a single one of Brady’s passes, but Brady is still paying close attention to him.
“He’s an incredible player,’’ Brady said. “The passes defensed is an amazing statistic. You have to know where he’s at on every single play because he’s so disruptive with tackles for loss and his penetration of the backfield.
“He’s as good as anyone playing in the game and we know how challenging it is to play against him. We have our work cut out for us.’’
Watt isn’t the only playmaker on the Texans’ defense, but he sometimes makes it harder for those other playmakers to make plays.
“It’s frustrating, because you’re sitting there and you’re ready to make your play and he makes another play,’’ said linebacker Connor Barwin. “You’re like, ‘What the heck? Don’t make all the plays.’ ’’
Watt will come back to Foxborough looking to make the ones he left on the field in December. The Texans won’t have the same one-loss aura they had a month ago. There will be an air of impossibility about winning a playoff game in a stadium where they’ve never won before.
Watt will embrace it.
“I love doing things people tell me I can’t,’’ he said. “That’s a great feeling. Right now, there are a whole lot of people telling us what we can’t do.’’