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Opener features two top defenders in Justin Houston, J.J. Watt

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Justin Houston and J.J. Watt, two of the NFL’s dominant defensive players, spent the week downplaying their imminent meeting.

But the rivalry is there and it goes like this: When the Kansas City Chiefs negotiated a long-term contract with Houston, the process was protracted and didn’t get done until the Chiefs had given him a deal worth $101 million and more than $52 million guaranteed.

That’s slightly more than the $100 million and more than $51 million the Houston Texans gave to Watt a year earlier.

It’s not a coincidence Houston would settle for nothing less than what Watt previously received. It stands to reason he will accept nothing less than what Watt produces in Sunday’s game between the Chiefs and Texans in Houston.

“I hold my standards high," Houston said. “I put them above the sky."

Because the two play different positions and have different responsibilities, it’s difficult to compare Houston and Watt. Houston is an outside linebacker, Watt a defensive end.

Both are superb all-around players and top pass-rushers. Houston won the NFL sack title last year, getting 22 and finishing a half-sack from the NFL single-season record. He has 48.5 sacks in his last 48 games.

Watt finished right behind Houston last year with 20.5 sacks. It was the second time he’s finished with more than 20 sacks in a season.

Watt is a two-time NFL defensive player of the year.

“They’re both really good but when you’re defensive player of the year twice, you’ve kind of set yourself apart from everybody else," ESPN NFL analyst Herm Edwards said. “He almost won the MVP in the league as a defensive player.

“But Houston is right up there. He’s one of the top five players in the league defensively. You’re also talking about [Ndamukong] Suh. He’s in that conversation even though he won’t have the numbers those other guys will have. [Darrelle] Revis is there. Maybe Richard Sherman, too."

The Chiefs have spent the week preparing for Watt. But that’s difficult to do because Watt lines up in a variety of places and dictating his place in the lineup.

“He’s kind of an unpredictable player," Chiefs tackle Eric Fisher said. “He kind of does what he wants sometimes."

Edwards said, “He’s versatile. You could rush him inside. You can rush him outside. The guy plays offense, too. He not only rushes the passer. He’s a good run player. He intercepts passes. He knocks passes down at the line of scrimmage. He has more deflections than some DBs have. He’s just a big, powerful guy, unique."

Chiefs coach Andy Reid reached into the Pro Football Hall of Fame for an appropriate comparison for Watt. He chose Reggie White, who played for Green Bay for several seasons in the 1990s while Reid was a Packers assistant coach.

“I was lucky to be around Reggie White. who will probably go down as one of the all-time greats," Reid said. “You could put him anywhere. He’s one of those big guys that played about that far off of the ground and could go full speed. J.J.’s got that same type of thing. He’s not quite as big as Reggie was, but he’s big enough and he’s a good football player.”

Nobody this week would compare Houston to a Hall of Famer. He is 9.5 sacks behind Derrick Thomas, who had 58 sacks in his first four NFL seasons. Houston doesn’t control a game as a pass-rusher the way Thomas frequently did.

But Thomas never had 22 in a season.

“Twenty-two doesn’t just happen," Watt said. “I think he did a great job last season and obviously having him and Tamba [Hali] both come off the edges, that’s a very formidable duo there.”

Houston is a better all-around player than Thomas. He’s better against the run and in pass coverage.

“Very difficult," Houston coach Bill O’Brien said on preparing for Houston. “He’s athletic, he’s got a real good nose for the ball. He’s tough. He’s got a long reach so it’s hard to get inside and get your hands inside on him. He bats balls down. He’s an instinctive player. It’s very difficult.”