Cincinnati’s 23-17 drubbing of the Baltimore Ravens marked the completion of a 7-1 second half and allowed them to notch their first back-to-back winning seasons since the Paul Brown and Bill Johnson eras of 1975-1977 and repeat post season appearances since 81-82. More importantly, it marked the complete turnaround from a 3-5 start and earned them a return trip to Houston—the site of last season’s 31-10 playoff loss. Last season the Bengals were an upstart team with a rookie quarterback, Andy Dalton, leading the way. This post season the expectations are different for the Bengals. An only slight underdog, Cincinnati has a year of seasoning under their belt, an aggressive defense, and could very easily be riding an 8 game winning streak into the playoffs. A rematch with Houston will provide a year-over-year litmus test and the 2011 goal of making the playoffs has been replaced by strong hopes that the Bengals can deliver their first playoff victory since 1990 when Sam Wyche patrolled the sidelines.
For the Houston Texans expectations coming into the season were set with all eyes on a February trip to New Orleans. 2011 saw Houston get over the hump by winning the AFC South and entering the post season for the first time. However, expectations were quickly tempered when a season ending injury limited Matt Schaub to 10 starts. A subsequent injury to backup QB Matt Leinhart gave way to TJ Yates—even further dashing Super Bowl hopes. The Yates led Texans managed to notch the first playoff victory in franchise history against the Bengals before bowing out to the Ravens. This year, fully loaded and healthy, Houston started 11-1 and appeared a virtual lock to earn some wild card weekend rest and home field advantage through the playoffs. Then, four consecutive matchups against teams currently playing in this post season led to three losses and Saturday’s once unlikely rematch. Nonetheless, Houston enters this weekend boasting both an offense and defense ranked in the league top ten.
The Keys for Cincinnati
For the second consecutive season Mike Zimmer’s defense is amongst the top 10 in the league and particularly strong against the run. However, in the first playoff game against Houston the Bengals defense was gashed for over 150 yards by Arian Foster and a Houston offense that lacked their starting quarterback and typically strong passing attack. Geno Atkins and company cannot afford such a letdown this season and must limit the production of Foster by all means necessary. If Cincinnati can limit Foster’s production and also put pressure on Matt Schaub they will find an offense that is not as dissimilar to their own despite what the numbers indicate. While the Bengals have limited downfield receiving options beyond AJ Green and Jermaine Gresham, the same can be said for Houston beyond Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels. If Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and company can be effective up front versus Foster and also apply pressure then the Bengals and their talented secondary will gain advantages over all receivers not named Johnson.
BenJarvis Green-Ellis is banged up and even healthy it would be unlikely that the Bengals could gain an advantage against the Houston front seven to sustain a strong rushing attack. The key for the Bengals is for the offensive line to limit JJ Watt and the Houston pass rush long enough for Green, Gresham, and a supporting cast of supplementary receivers led by deceptively talented Andrew Hawkins to do damage in the secondary. Andre Smith must do his best to contain Watt who devastated the Bengals in last season’s matchup. If Dalton is to reverse the results of his 0 touchdown 3 interception performance in his playoff debut it will start with pass protection.
The Keys for Houston
As Houston limps into the post season the key elements to reverse the recent course of failure are very similar to the pertinent areas of focus documented for Cincinnati to pull off their own victory. If the Bengals need to hold up to Watt and win at the line of scrimmage the same can be said for Houston. Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson have accounted for 33 of the Bengals 50 sacks on the season and Schaub has found himself on the receiving end of nearly a dozen sacks in the last three games—this will need to change for Houston to be successful. The Texans zone-blocking scheme will need to find its early season success so that Foster and the running game can run the ball to protect Schaub. It will also be useful in setting up Foster both in the red zone and allow him to be successful on screens in the flat. Like the Bengals, Houston is going to be hard pressed to find a consistent third vertical threat against the talented opposing secondary—but that does not mean they will be unable to do enough to make Johnson, Daniels, and Fosters big enough threats in the passing game to be victorious.
Defensively, Houston will have to use their pressure game. Watt, quite possibly the most dominant defensive player in the NFL, leads an attack that is duly adept at getting to the quarterback and stopping the run. They must both pressure Dalton and render the already injured Green-Ellis a non-factor. If they do so the matchup of Jonathan Joseph, with some help from Danieal Manning, against Green becomes much more manageable.
This game has all the makings of a classic defensive battle pitting two of the NFLs finest defensive units and coordinators in Wade Phillips and Mike Zimmer against each other. Cincinnati has been superb with its season on the line—which it was from the point they fell to 3-5 until they clinched a post season spot in week 16. Andy Dalton looks more like a QB poised to take the next step than the rookie who faced the harsh reality of playoff football a year ago. However, one needs to take a deeper look at the Houston late season slump before dismissing them as a team bound to finish the season with a fizzle. In two of the three late season losses they faced mad bombers Tom Brady and Andrew Luck both of who trump Dalton’s deep passing prowess. In the other loss, one in which they contained the passing game, they were dominated by the juggernaut that is Adrian Peterson—of whom Green-Ellis is not.
Houston’s season has resembled a powerful heavyweight prizefighter that dominated early on in battle only to run seemingly out of gas late in the fight. Fortunately, they racked up enough points on the scorecard to survive to win a decision and live to fight another day. The playoffs mark a new fight and Houston should have enough in the tank to win an early round home game.
Houston Texans 21 – Cincinnati Bengals 14