Monday shows why Cushing is worth it

Brian Cushing (56) pulled the Texans even with his 18-yard interception return. Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports

SAN DIEGO -- Brian Cushing walked down the hallway from the San Diego Chargers' visiting locker room to an interview room clutching a football in his right hand.

Game ball?

"Interception ball," he said as he walked through the door.

That ball was a symbol of just how much things have changed for the Houston Texans' inside linebacker.

Not too long ago, things weren't going this well for Cushing. It was during another Monday night game, last October, that Cushing suffered a devastating torn anterior cruciate ligament. The Texans suffered without Cushing, their first-round pick in the 2009 draft, and he suffered without them. He said he felt helpless. He spent months rehabilitating the injury, sending general manager Rick Smith videos and photos of his milestones as he worked through a taxing recovery process. His progress literally paid off. Last week, he signed a $55.6 million deal, one with $21 million of guarantees, for most of which he's protected even if he gets injured.

Monday night showed a glimpse of why he was worth it. It was a game Cushing sealed with the first pick-six of his NFL career -- a comeback that needed him.

"That’s just how life is, I guess," Cushing said. "I just can’t get down in certain situations. There will be better days, and this was one of them. Playing again and helping the team win, I couldn’t ask for anything better than this."

Cushing was the difference for the Texans in a game they won 31-28. Sure, there were other factors that helped Houston overcome the 21-point deficit it faced in the third quarter. The offense became more productive, led by quarterback Matt Schaub's stellar second half. The defense began making the third-down stops it wasn't making in the first half, or the beginning of the third quarter. But Cushing's play sealed the Chargers' collapse. With Cushing in the lineup, the Texans stared at a double-digit deficit and beat it.

On that fourth-quarter interception, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers didn't even see him.

"We were hot -- we were one short to block him," Rivers said. "I couldn't hold it any longer."

Said Cushing: "Towards the end of the game, we started picking up some of our calls, showing some blitzes. We were able to adjust, show a blitz. I was able to read out of it."

He made a break on the ball, caught it, fell on top of it, then got up and started running.

"That play should let you know he's 100 percent healthy," cornerback Kareem Jackson said.

Cushing had never scored an NFL touchdown before -- he'd been close, but never quite found pay dirt. His first tied the game and sealed the biggest comeback in franchise history.

"Unreal," tight end Owen Daniels said. "It was a great play. You can’t say enough about that. To dive and catch that ball, be in the right place and have the awareness to get up. ... I don’t think he breathed until he got in the end zone."

Cushing was in the locker room with his teammates last season when the Texans played the Green Bay Packers, and both times they played in New England. All three of those games featured the Texans falling behind big and not being able to recover. And in all three of those instances, Cushing couldn't do anything about it. When the Texans lost him, they lost one of the best players on their defense -- a player just as insistent on greatness as more talked-about teammate J.J. Watt. Houston lost the tangible benefits to having Cushing on the field and the intangible benefits to having him in its locker room.

Watt and Cushing want to be talked about as a "two-headed monster" for opponents to fear. Monday night, the Texans' defensive turnaround coincided with a turnaround by the two of them. Quiet early, Watt finished with three tackles, two quarterback hits and a batted pass. Also quiet early, Cushing had five tackles and the interception that changed the game.

What was different this time from the games the Texans lost last season after falling into deep deficits?

"New England and Green Bay, I don’t want to say we didn’t think we could do it, but it was so doable today," Cushing said. "We felt that. First game of the year. We were so fresh, just ready to get back out to the second half and prove ourselves."

He didn't note his presence in San Diego versus his absence in those games.

Cushing has often talked about the helpless feeling that came with his injury.

It's gone now.