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Patriots will have their hands full with Texans' J.J. Watt

Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt reacts during

Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt reacts during an AFC wild-card game against the Cincinnati Bengals. (Jan. 5, 2013) Credit: Getty

Wade Phillips did not hedge when it came to ranking J.J. Watt's season.

There was no "best since,'' no "greatest besides,'' no "with the possible exception of.''

Just: Ever. From a man who has coached in the NFL since 1976 and overseen the play of Hall of Famers Elvin Bethea, Bruce Smith and Reggie White.

"He had the best season ever," said Phillips, the Texans' defensive coordinator. "I mean, nobody has had a season like that . . . He's had the absolute best year any defensive lineman has ever had."

It's kind of hard to argue with Phillips. Watt had a league-leading 201/2 sacks and was the only player in league history to ever have at least 15 sacks and 15 passes defensed (he had 16).

He led the Texans with 81 tackles, nearly half of them (39) for losses, and had four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He'll almost certainly be the NFL's defensive player of the year.

The question now is whether he'll be able to continue posting those kinds of dominating numbers against the Patriots in Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game.

The Patriots are so spooked by his ability to get his hands up and deflect passes that in practice this week, they've turned to the custodial staff for some help. Scout- team players are holding up rakes and brooms at the line of scrimmage so Tom Brady can practice throwing passes through a forearms forest.

"[It's] just to get into our mind that they're a very active group up front that defends a lot of passes, certainly, not only over the middle but in all parts of the field," Brady said. "There's no team better in the league at it than the Texans."

And no player better at the swat than Watt. "He's got all of the physical tools: He's big, strong, fast and then he plays relentless," Patriots guard Logan Mankins said. "He's a high-motor guy that hustles a lot and he's got a great playing style, so that's why he's good."

The Pats held him without a sack or pass defensed when they played in Week 14.

"I don't think I played my best game, I think we can all agree on that," Watt said of the 42-14 loss. "I got quite a few hits on [Brady], but obviously the ball was gone. I need to play better and I'm going to play better."

The Texans will need his best ever.

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