Jan 052013
 

Bengals-TexansCincinnati’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 A rematch with Houston will provide a year-over-year litmus test and the 2011 goal of making the playoffs has been replaced by strong hopes that the Bengals can deliver their first playoff victory since 1990 when Sam Wyche patrolled the sidelines.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.

The Outcome
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

Dec 082012
 

My friends often call me a “homer” for the Patriots, and the accusation is both understandable and at the same time unfounded. While I pick the Patriots to win nearly every contest that they play, that’s also because I have the benefit of being a fan of the winningest team on the NFL over the past decade. They win most of their games, so it’s easy (and mathematically pragmatic) to pick them almost every week. And because the Patriots have not lost a game in the second half of the season in more than two years, it would be tempting to look at this contest and think that the Patriots are going to find a way to win this game at home, because that’s what they normally do.

But in truth I actually feel more confident about next Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers than I do about this week’s contest with the Houston Texans. While the Niners are seen as a more physical opponent, they are inconsistent performers and are relying on an inexperienced quarterback. The 49ers make mistakes, and the Patriots are a team that capitalizes on mistakes; just ask Mark Sanchez. The Texans however, are not prone to making many mistakes, and have been a very consistent team this season, even if they are not flashy. Although their defense has struggled in recent weeks, this is due to injuries, and the Texans have still have a way to win the contests they were in, just like the Patriots do. And like the Patriots the Texans are a solid running team who also excel at stopping the run. Finally, for more similarity, Houston is an efficient passing team that also struggles against the pass. This is the type of match-up that the Patriots are entirely capable of winning, but the Patriots are very banged up right now, and are more focused on having healthy players for the post-season than they are in rushing players back for a Week 14 contest. In short, anyone who thinks I am going to be a homer this week is in for a disappointment.

When the Patriots run:
Stevan Ridley has emerged as the Patriots’ lead back this season with 1,010 yards (7th in NFL) with a 4.5 ypc average and nine touchdowns. He is complemented by Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead, and Brandon Bolden, who is returning from a suspension. While the Patriots have the 8th best rushing attack in the league (140.8 ypg), they will likely find it difficult to run consistently against the Texans, who only give up 87.6 ypg. Shaun Cody is back from a serious injury at defensive tackle and is strong against the run. He is flanked by JJ Watt and Antonio Smith. Tim Robbins and Barrett Ruud are the inside linebackers, and are a far cry from where the Texans started the season with Brian Cushing inside and Brooks Reed outside. Expect the Patriots to seek to exploit the edges and take advantage of the pass rush to find running room. The Patriots should be able to rush for about 120 yards this week.

When the Patriots pass:
This is normally an automatic advantage for the Patriots, who rank sixth in passing. The Texans are not strong against the pass, and Jonathan Joseph is returning this week but is not having a great year. He is playing opposite Kareem Jackson, who has four interceptions this season. Danieal Manning and Glover Quinn struggle to cover in space, so the Patriots should be able to exploit a mediocre secondary. The trouble for the Patriots is who is left to do so? Welker and Lloyd are the primary receivers, while Hernandez is playing his way back into shape after an extended absence. Edelman is done for the season, so the Patriots signed re-tread Donte Stallworth, who can play both outside and in the slot. I would expect to see the Pats throw in a heavy does of screens in an attempt to get the ball into the hands of Vereen in space. Watt and Smith both excel at bringing pressure, and Connor Barwin also gets in on the action. It is critical that the Patriots’ makeshift offensive line be up to the task of neutralizing the pass rush, which will be aided if the Patriots utilize the spread formation. While Logan Mankins is expected back, Sebastian Vollmer’s back seems to be bothering him, as he did not look sharp last Sunday against the Dolphins. Look for Brady to throw for over 260 yards, but also look for the Texans to create a big play off of a Watt deflection or off a sack.

When the Texans run:
Arian Foster is one of the best in the game, and he currently ranks fifth with 1,102 yards this season, along with a league-leading 13 rushing touchdowns. He is complemented by Justin Forsett, who has rushed for 364 yards and one touchdown. The Patriots are solid against the run. Wilfork generally requires double coverage, and Mayo and Spikes are big hitters who force turnovers; the Patriots should be able to stuff the middle. They are however, susceptible to edge rushing. Foster has great vision and burst, and has tackle-breaking strength. Look for Foster to rush for over 100 yards as he rips off several big gains.

When the Texans pass:
Matt Schaub isn’t heralded as an elite quarterback, but he is certainly one of the best. Schaub has a passer rating of 94.5 with 3,062 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions. He is not prone to making big mistakes, so the Patriots pass rush, which is inconsistent at best, will have to force Schaub to make errors. Chandler Jones is looking like he might return this week, which would be big for a team that is struggling to generate pressure on the opposing quarterback. Andre Johnson is having a solid year with 74 receptions for 1,114 yards and three touchdowns, while Owen Daniels has 50 receptions. Arian Foster is often the third option in the passing game, and Kevin Walter is a sturdy and reliable target. The Texans like to use two tight end sets, and could take advantage of the Patriots’ linebackers and get some big gains down the field. The Patriots’ secondary is starting to gel, but they will be challenged by the Texans, and Schaub is not likely to miss the types of throws that Ryan Tannnehill missed last week. McCourty is a more natural fit at safety, while Talib and Dennard are both capable of making big plays, but also can get burned. Talib will be matched up with Johnson, and must have a good game for the Patriots to slow down the Texans’ offense. Arrington is looking much better now that he is playing a more limited number of snaps. Expect Schaub to throw for around 250 yards.

Special Teams:
The Patriots’ kicking game is good but not great. Gostkowski is generally a reliable kicker who has struggled this season, while Mesko doesn’t have a booming leg, but can pin opponents deep. The Patriots’ return game took a hit with the loss of Edelman, while Devin McCourty is an inconsistent kickoff returner who can occasionally rip off a big return. For Houston, Shayne Graham is a good, but not spectacular kicker, while Donnie Jones is one of the best punters in the league. Keshawn Martin is a dangerous returner, particularly in the punting game.

Intangibles:
Injuries are never an excuse for losing in the NFL, and the Patriots historically personify the concept of “next man up” better than any team in the league. None the less, the Patriots will be tested to stay competitive in this contest. Rob Gronkowski remains out, while Aaron Hernandez is still playing his way back into game shape, and the loss of Julian Edelman hampers the receiving corps. The offensive line can’t seem to stay intact for an entire series, let alone an entire game, so the Patriots will be challenged to stop Watt and the Texans’ pass rush. On defense the Patriots are healthier, particularly in the secondary, but the loss of Jermaine Cunningham to suspension while he was having his best season raises concerns for the Patriots’ pass rush. The Texans have already adapted to life without Brian Cushing, and are getting healthier in the secondary with the return of Jonathan Joseph, and otherwise appear a bit healthier coming into this contest. The war of attrition slightly favors the Texans.

With regard to turnovers, the Patriots are the league’s best, with 33 takeaways and only 9 giveaways this season, for a difference of +24. The Texans are tied for second in the league with 26 takeaways and 12 giveaways, for a difference of +14. Both teams know how to create turnovers and how to protect the ball, but the Patriots get a slight edge here.

The Texans win if…
Arian Foster gets some early yards, forcing the Patriots’ safeties to bite on play action. Matt Schaub is more than capable of putting the ball over the top to beat one on one coverage. The Texans also win if they force multiple Patriots’ turnovers.

The Patriots win if…
they beat the pass rush by spreading the field to pick apart a weak Texans’ secondary, complemented with screens and single-back draws. Forcing Arian Foster to put the ball on the ground would be very helpful as well.

Prediction:
If these two teams meet in the post-season with Gronkowski, Cunningham, Bolden, and Hernandez in the line-up along with a healthier offensive line, I will pick the Patriots because I am confident that the Patriots’ passing attack would be the difference. As it is I really want to believe that the Patriots are going to find a way to pull out a win, but there are simply too many question marks across the team to allow me to go there. In Week 14, with the Patriots’ seriously banged up, and with this being the team’s first look at the Texans, I think the advantage goes to Houston. Look for JJ Watt to be a disruptive force against the Patriots’ line, pressuring Brady and challenging his passing lanes. Brady looked decidedly uncomfortable last week against the Dolphins pass rush and was was not as effective as usual as Miami recorded four sacks, and I expect Houston to be just as disruptive to the New England passing game. The depleted receiving corps offsets an advantage that the Patriots would otherwise have against the Texans’ secondary. After Welker, who is going to step up? On the other side of the ball, Arian Foster is exactly the type of running back that can drive the Patriots’ defense nuts, and Justin Forsett is a very capable change of pace back. Matt Schaub is having a solid season throwing the ball, and while the Patriots’ secondary is improving, Schaub is far better equipped than Ryan Tannehill was last week to take advantage of the Patriots’ lapses and miscues. Look for Schaub to throw for more than 250 yards, and look for Foster to be the second back to rush for 100 yards on the Patriots this season. I look for a conservative first half before the Patriots make a mistake or two (or the Texans create one). The Patriots will play catch up in the 4th quarter, but I am expecting a 31-27 game in favor of the Texans.