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J.J. Watt, DeAndre Hopkins and 6-0 Arizona Cardinals will be reality check for struggling Houston Texans

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HOUSTON -- When Arizona Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt was determining where he wanted to play in 2021, he looked ahead to what his future in Houston might be like.

Just like the way 2020 ended, it didn't look so bright.

The Houston Texans, who fired their coach and general manager -- Bill O’Brien -- after a 0-4 start in 2020, were coming off a 4-12 season and had little in terms of game-changing talent, outside of quarterback Deshaun Watson and his off-the-field issues.

Watt acknowledged ahead of Sunday's matchup between the unbeaten Cardinals and one-win Texans (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS), he saw the huge shift coming for a team with a new front office and coaching staff. He said it was one of the reasons he chose to ask for his release and sign elsewhere.

“It's not the same organization that I remember and that I was a part of,” Watt told reporters in Arizona on Thursday.

Watt said there wasn’t a single moment during the 2020 season when he realized it would be his last playing for the franchise. Early in the offseason, though, he had a conversation that helped him decide about his future. Watt ultimately asked the team to release him, and they did so in mid-February.

Watt was right about a rebuilding phase coming for the Texans, as evidenced by the roster turnover in general manager Nick Caserio’s first offseason in charge. When Watt faces Houston, he will not see many familiar faces.

“I had to use the scouting report,” Watt said. “There’s so many guys that I don’t know, it’s just a pure numbers game. When you turn on the tape, I think there’s two, maybe three, maybe four guys on the starting offense that were there last year. And other than that, they’re all new guys.”

Watt isn’t exaggerating about the turnover that has happened at NRG Stadium. Of the players on the Texans’ 53-man roster who played with Watt last season, 21 remain. Of the offense that he will go against Sunday, five starters are in those roles.

Watt, who was drafted by the Texans in the first round in 2011, spent 10 season in Houston. He was the face of the franchise, winning three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards, but he and the Texans were never able to come close to winning a Super Bowl. Only one player who was on the roster when Watt was drafted -- long-snapper Jon Weeks -- is still on the roster.

For wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who will face his former team for the first time since he was traded in a deal that sent running back David Johnson to Houston in March 2020, 14 players on that Texans roster remain. It’s similar to when the Texans played defensive end Jadeveon Clowney in Week 2 in Cleveland. Only six players on the current Texans roster played with Clowney, who was traded one week before the 2019 season started.

The turnover illustrates the change in Houston, not just because of the coaching staff, but the state of the franchise since it won the AFC South division four out of five years and was up 24-0 on the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round of the 2019 playoffs, a game that ultimately ended the Texans' season before the Chiefs went on to win the Super Bowl.

One person still in Houston is offensive coordinator Tim Kelly, who is used to his offense going against a Watt-led defense in practice and said the Texans need to make sure they don't let Watt "wreck the game" Sunday.

“Every time we went against him in training camp and practice, we worried about him,” Kelly said. “He’s playing at a high level. He’s still very disruptive. You still see all the things he did when he was here. He’s playing at a high level. They are moving him around. He’s playing inside. He’s playing outside. Looks like he’s kind of picking his spots to the particular matchup he may want.

“But he’s playing at a high level. So, it’s going to be a concern obviously. We got to do a great job making sure we know where he is and taking care of him and not let him wreck the game.”

Watt has played a new role in Arizona. He is no longer the focal point of every offensive game plan because of the supporting cast he has around him. In six games this season, Watt has 15 tackles, including four for loss, one sack, one forced fumble and two batted passes.

Watt, who last year went on a rant about how poorly the Texans had played, says he feels bad for the fans and the people "who care so deeply" about this team, seemingly in response to a lack of professionalism in the Houston locker room.

“The thing that’s really making this thing go so far is the business-like atmosphere of every single day,” Watt said. “Guys come in, they go to work, they do their job. [Coach] Kliff [Kingsbury] sets a great culture where he handles what he handles, and then he lets everybody else handle what they handle. He trusts us to do our jobs, he trusts his coaches to do their jobs. ... Nobody here is complaining. Nobody here is making excuses.”

Defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who was drafted by the Texans in the first round in 2012, was released Monday and signed with the Green Bay Packers later in the week. Watt said he related to Mercilus’ experience because of the years they spent playing together in Houston.

“We were there during the best times the organization ever had,” Watt said. “We’ve also been there for some of the most difficult times the organization's ever had. And I would say, that’s one of the toughest parts for me, is knowing how unbelievable that fan base is and knowing how unbelievable that city is and the support that they show for the team when everything’s going great and it is at its peak.

“And it’s a beautiful thing, and I wish that for that city, and I know what it was like, and I hope that someday that can happen again there.”