The Houston Texans host the Cincinnati Bengals in the wild card round of the NFL Playoffs for the second time in a row. The Bengals entered last year backing into the playoffs while the Texans were rolling behind a tough defense and then-rookie T.J. Yates. This year the script has been flipped as the Bengals come in hot while the Texans dropped from the one seed the the three after a tough final quarter of the season. Can Cincinnati avenge last year’s defeat? I think the Bengals get the win in the only upset of the weekend according to the oddsmakers and here’s why…
What to Watch for
When Houston is on offense: The Texans offense is all based on being able to run the ball. Arian Foster leads the attack with 1,424 yards and a league-high 15 rushing touchdowns. He added a couple more scores and another 217 yards on his 20 catches out of the backfield. Foster did struggle a bit at the end of the season being held under 50 yards rushing in four of the last five and not reaching the endzone multiple times since Thanksgiving. Ben Tate will also see some action as he’s recovered from a midseason hamstring issue.
An effective running game is necessary to set things up for Matt Schaub to use the play action which is when he’s most effective. Schaub has had decent completion percentages but has failed to throw for 300 yards or multiple touchdowns in his last four games. He threw a pair of tough picks last week against the Colts and was unable to throw a touchdown pass despite playing the whole game and attempting 36 passes.
Most of those 36 passes were directed to Andre Johnson as usual as he led the team in targets with 17 and finished with 164, fifth in the league. Johnson had 1,598 yards second to only Calvin Johnson while scoring four touchdowns on the year. The Texans lack a big-time second receiver but do utilize tight ends Owen Daniels, Garrett Graham, and James Casey extensively in the pass-catching game.
When the Bengals are on Defense: The task of slowing Foster and stopping Schaub will fall to the Bengals vastly underrated defense. Cincinnati is starting to finally get some recognition for their play this year this week in the lead up to this game. Their leading tackler was a longshot undrafted free agent Vontaze Burfict who everyone knew had game but had the dreaded “character concerns” resulting in him dropping all the way out of the draft. The former Sun Devil had 127 tackles on the year which is even more impressive when you realize he had zero the first week and only three in week two. He also recoverd a pair of fumbles, added a sack, and had six games with nine or more tackles.
Another playmaker to watch up front is Geno Atkins who had 12.5 sacks this year from his defensive tackle position. He’s emerged as one of the top tackles in the game this year and has forced four fumbles all coming in Bengals victories. He’ll be a force in the middle in this one as the Texans have shown to be a bit susceptible to pressure up the middle. Atkins leads a Cincinnati rush that finished tied for the lead in the league averaging over three sacks per game.
When the pressure comes from Atkins and his line-mates, look for the Benglas secondary to be there and waiting for the interceptions. The Bengals secondary had 14 picks this year led by three from Reggie Nelson and three from Chris Crocker. Overall the unit ranked seventh in the league in passing yards allowed and have been especially effective in the team’s late season winning streak.
When the Bengals are on offense: The passing offense for the Bengals has been a huge part of their late season run as well. Andy Dalton threw for 3,669 yards on the season but only threw for 300 yards three times all season. He totaled 31 touchdowns (27 passing, four rushing) while throwing 16 interceptions.
Although Dalton has played well, since mid-November the key to the Bengals offense has been BenJarvus Green-Ellis. “The Law firm” finished with 89 yards or more in five of his last six games. He did uncharacteristically lose two fumbles earlier in the year but was able to rush for six touchdowns and break 1,000 yards despite not playing in the season finale. He returned to practice Wednesday and should be back on the field Saturday against Houston.
The main play-maker in the passing game for Cincinnati is A.J. Green who saw as many targets as Andre Johnson and finished with 1,350 yards and 11 receiving touchdowns despite seeing limited action in the season finale last week. Green has proven to be far from the only weapon at Andy Dalton’s disposal though with the emergence the last few weeks of rookie Marvin Jones a fifth round pick from California. The Bengals also use slot receiver Andrew Hawkins on a lot of bubble screens and quick hitters and tight end Jermaine Gresham over the middle.
When Houston is on Defense: The Texans defense could be their ultimate undoing after carrying them in their playoff win last year. The Texans still have a star up front in J. J. Watt who fell just short of breaking the single-season sack record but constantly impacts the game through his ability to get to the passer and knock down passes as we’ve seen all season.
The problem that could doom the Texans has been behind Watt in the secondary of the Texans. They’ve allowed down the field passing plays and big gainers way to often over the past few weeks. If the Bengals can protect Dalton, there should be plays down the field which could give Cincinnati the edge they need to force Houston in passing plays when they can get to Schaub.
Straight-up: I’m taking the Bengals to pull the upset here against a fading Houston team. The Texans pass protection, rushing attack, and pass rush are all sputtering and I don’t think they have the veteran experience to throw the switch and turn it on in the playoffs. The Bengals have won seven of eight losing to Dallas by just one in a game they let get away. Cincinnati was 6-2 on the road this year and have a great opportunity to get their payback for last year’s playoff defeat.
Against the Spread: The Bengals are getting as many as five points in some places. It’s always risky to take the underdog but I think Cincinnati gets the straight-up win so I’d gladly take the five. The Bengals are 5-1 against the spread on the road while the Texans haven’t won any of their last four against the spread and only have one win against the spread in their last seven which came against Tennessee.
Final Prediction: Cincinnati Bengals 23, Houston Texans 16