Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans — Saturday 4:30 p.m. ET (NBC)
In a rematch of last season’s playoff opener, we get a clash of two teams seemingly heading in opposite directions. After playing frontrunner in the AFC for most of the 2012 season, the Texans ended their season in a slump. With a bye seemingly locked up by mid-season, Houston dropped three of its last four, including losing a must-win game against Indianapolis in Week 17, and fell to the No. 3 seed.
On the flip side, the Cincinnati Bengals have been quietly playing some of the best football in the league over the second half of the season. While Houston’s JJ Watt has garnered headlines all year, Bengals DT Geno Atkins has become a force to be reckoned with. He’s played as big of a role as anyone in helping Cincinnati turn their woeful pass defense from the early part of the season into one of the best in the league by applying pressure. On top of Atkins and the rest of the Bengals’ impressive defensive line, their secondary has gotten healthy, giving them a crazy amount of depth and talent at cornerback. Over their last eight games, the Bengals allowed only 12.8 points per game.
In last year’s wild card matchup, Houston dominated Cincinnati despite the absence of quarterback Matt Schaub, who will be making his playoff debut Saturday. Schaub, however, has struggled along with the rest of the team in their late-season funk. Over their last four games, the ninth-year QB threw one touchdown against three interceptions, well short of his nearly 2:1 ratio for the season. Schaub will be matched up against Andy Dalton, who has matured in his second year. Dalton has been trusted to throw the ball more often in year two, upping his completion percentage by four points and throwing seven more touchdowns than in his rookie year.
Houston’s run game has suffered during their swoon. After putting up over 94 yards per game in September and October, Arian Foster’s yards per game dropped down to 85 over the last two months. Some of that can be attributed to a slightly decreased workload, but even that’s not a good sign for Houston. Foster has been carrying the load for Houston over the past several seasons, and his dominance is key to opening up the play-action passing game for Schaub and Andre Johnson.
Despite Watt’s dominance this year, Houston’s defense has fallen off significantly since their hot start. Injuries have wrecked the linebacking corps; Brian Cushing and Darryl Sharpton are both out for the year, while Brooks Reed is questionable for Saturday’s game. Cornerbacks Jonathan Joseph and Alan Ball were both banged up in the final stretch of the season as well.
The latter two will be key to shutting down the Bengals’ biggest offensive weapon: AJ Green. Joseph has been one of the better on-ball corners in the league for much of his career, and did an exemplary job in shutting Green down in last year’s wild card game. But he’s been struggling with health all season, and Green has taken huge steps in his second year in the league as his chemistry with Dalton continues to develop. Even when he’s seemingly shut down, like he was against Pittsburgh in Week 16, he still seems to manage to get open for crucial plays, as he did when he set the Bengals up for their game-winning field goal in that playoff clincher.
Despite their late-season struggles, Houston’s run defense actually stepped it up in the second half of the season. That should be worrisome for the Bengals, as an improved running game was a huge key to their hot streak in November. In four games that month, Cincinnati averaged over 144 yards per game on the ground, spearheaded by 84 yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry.
Even though Houston struggled late in the year, they remain one of the best teams in football. Cincinnati, while they have a bright future, might struggle to keep the defense off Dalton.
Prediction: Texans 24, Bengals 21