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J.J. Watt Gets The Finish He Wanted, The Cardinals Just Reach The End Against 49ers

Retiring defensive end has two sacks but year ends with 38-13 defeat

J.J. Watt walks off the field for the final time with two minutes left in the Cardinals' loss to the 49ers at Levi's Stadium on Sunday.
J.J. Watt walks off the field for the final time with two minutes left in the Cardinals' loss to the 49ers at Levi's Stadium on Sunday.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The story Sunday, at least from the Cardinals side, was about J.J. Watt and his final game.

It was about his two sacks and excellent play up until the end, and not so much of the Cardinals' season-ending 38-13 loss to the 49ers at Levi's Stadium.

"I know I still can," Watt said of his play. "I'm just choosing not to."

But the story of the last game really began the night before, with the team at the San Jose Marriott, with a video, and overwhelming emotion that the retiring future Hall-of-Famer had managed to avoid in the two weeks since he said he was going to leave the game.

"I have not been emotional through the whole process," Watt said. "I had not been emotional back when I made my decision, I wasn't emotional last week really, I wasn't emotional at the last practice, I wasn't really emotional at the meetings (Saturday) night. I was just ready to go to bed.

"Then (defensive line coach Matt) Burke got up and explained putting together the video. The second that video turned on, I lost it. I absolutely lost it. I was bawling like a baby, and I didn't stop until well into the night."

The video was gathered, Burke said, almost as a crowdsource – with everyone who saw the original email asked to pass it along – and was culled from 30 minutes of testimonials. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers all took part. It was opened by Watt's brother and Steelers All-Pro T.J. Watt, and ended with his wife, Kealia.

Watt called it "one of the greatest gifts I've ever received."

"The first week (videos) were kind of slow coming in, and I was like, 'This is going to be the all-time backfire,' " Burke said. "But over the last week they started pouring in.

"It snowballed."

It had an impact, because Watt did what he wanted Sunday, sacking 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy a pair of times to bring his season total to 12½ and his career total to 114½. His final game included five tackles, three tackles for loss, two quarterback hits and a pass defensed.

He didn't get the win he desperately wanted. The Cardinals (4-13) lost their seventh straight, while the 49ers (13-4) won their 10th straight as they hurtle into the playoffs.

The big non-Watt result out of Sunday for the Cardinals? With the Broncos' victory over the Chargers, the Cardinals will have the No. 3 overall pick in the draft, behind the Bears and Texans.

The completely undermanned Cardinals got an early highlight when wide receiver A.J. Green – who seems likely to be retiring himself – hauled in a 77-yard touchdown pass on the game's first possession from David Blough. After that, though, the game eventually slid sideways, Watt's farewell the story to watch.

He played hard the whole game, until coach Kliff Kingsbury pulled him off the field at the two-minute warning, the Levi's crowd giving him an ovation that Watt called "classy" afterward.

"We were going let him go until the wheels fell off," Kingsbury said.

Kingsbury knew his future would be a story postgame – "Like I said earlier in the week, it's been all about trying to win this game," he said – and praised Watt for what the veteran provided.

"Watching the professionalism, the effort, he never left the building really for two years," Kingsbury said.

Watt said he took a different role in his two years with the Cardinals as a leader and a mentor. That helped his energy and was appreciative of that. The majority of his career was elsewhere, but Watt made his mark as a Cardinal, and they on him.

"There is no other player that in just two seasons made a bigger impact on our team and the Arizona community than J.J. Watt," owner Michael Bidwill said.

So when Watt was asked, his career over and emotions tempered, if he had any advice for the franchise going forward after a difficult season, he nodded.

He cares about what happens with his now-former team.

"I've got thoughts," Watt said. "I don't think this is the forum to share it, but I am happy to assist in any way because I want (the organization) to be successful. I don't want this organization to go 4-13. I don't want us to go through a season where we have high expectations and do this. I want those guys in the locker room to experience the highs of this game, the fun of this game.

"I do believe it is possible. I'm happy to help. But I do not want to see this organization go through a year like this again."