Houston Texans vs Cincinnati Bengals: Five Key Match-Ups
The Houston Texans face off against the Cincinnati Bengals at Reliant Stadium on Wild-Card Saturday for the second consecutive season. The Texans finished the regular season at 12-4 and the #3 seed in the AFC, while the Bengals ended up at 10-6 in the #6 seed in the conference. However, these two teams come in on opposite ends of the momentum spectrum. Cincinnati won 3 out of their last 4 games to get into the playoffs while Houston lost 3 of their final 4 contests to fall from the top seed to the third seed. In last season's wild-card game, the Texans dominated the Bengals 31-10, but these two teams are very different a year later. This season, the Texans have their starting quarterback, Matt Schaub, for the playoffs after he missed last post-season with an injury. The Bengals quarterback-wide receiver combo of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green were rookies a year ago and now they return to Houston a more experienced and lethal combo.
This season's game figures to be a much tougher affair for the Texans, as the Bengals also bring a much improved defense to Reliant Stadium this time around. The fact that the Houston offense has been struggling in the last quarter of the season doesn't help matters in that regard. There are several key match-ups that will decide who will win this game and advance to the AFC Divisional Playoffs. Houston is a 4.5 point favorite in this one, and if is that close of a game, the Texans can take solace in the fact that they are 5-0 this season in games decided by 7 points or less. If the Texans win, they will be heading to Foxboro, Massachusetts for a second round game with the #2 seed, New England Patriots. Should the Bengals pull the upset, and win their first ever playoff game on the road, as they are 0-5 all time away from home in the post-season, they will travel to Denver to take on the #1 seed Denver Broncos. First things first however, as following are five important match-ups that could decide which team is victorious Saturday.
The Texans offensive line did not have a good last quarter of the season, coinciding with the team's play as well. They will have a tremendous challenge Saturday against a stout Bengals front four that has wreaked havoc on offenses all season. The Bengals finished second in the NFL with 51 sacks, and 40 of those came courtesy of the defensive line. Led by Pro Bowl DT Geno Atkins with 12.5, and DE Michael Johnson with 11.5, Cincinnati is adapt at getting after the quarterback. Houston's offensive line will need to protect Schaub better than they did in December, although they were excellent most of the season allowing a total of only 28 sacks, tied for fifth fewest in the league
The Bengals offensive line will need to give Dalton time to look for Green, TE Jermaine Gresham, and WR's Andrew Hawkins and Marvin Jones downfield. In contrast to Houston's offensive line, Cincinnati's line allowed 46 sacks, seventh highest in the league. The Texans secondary has been vulnerable to the big play, particularly in the season's second half. If the Bengals want to attempt to take advantage of that and utilize one of the best deep threats in the NFL in Green, they will have to keep Dalton upright. The Texans pass rush will look to keep him under duress with sacks, pressures, and qb hits. The Bengals were only 17th in passing yards a game at 224, but Green made the Pro-Bowl and finished with 97 receptions for 1,350 yards and 11 touchdowns. Houston's best defense against him will be a harassing pass rush on Dalton.
That harassing pass rush will be led by none other than J.J. Watt, who will look to terrorize Dalton for the second season in a row. Dalton isn't the only Bengal who will have his eye on Watt. The whole Bengals offense will need to account for #99, as he makes his mark on more than rushing the passer. Watt was the single most disruptive defensive player in the NFL this season. Not only did he lead the league with 20.5 sacks, Watt had 23 tackles for a loss, 16 tipped passes, 4 forced fumbles, and 2 fumble recoveries. Watt will move around on the defensive line, so every Cincinnati offensive lineman will need to account for him on every snap. The Bengals running backs will also have to be wary of holding on to the ball when Watt makes stops in the backfield.
Wade Phillips and his defensive schemes got the best of the then rookie Dalton in last year's playoff game, picking him off three times and holding him without a touchdown pass. Phillips did a good job of confusing Dalton by disguising coverages in the secondary and sending blitzes from different angles. The Katy, Texas native Dalton was never able to get comfortable in his homecoming, and his playoff debut was one he would like to forget. He started off hot this season, but just like his counterpart Schaub, struggled through the final month of the season. Phillips will need to have a similar game plan this time around, one that will help the Texans secondary from preventing big plays in the passing game. That means there should be no slot receivers running free with off coverage on 3rd and 23, which is what happened in the season finale last Sunday.
After an injury plagued 2011, Andre Johnson had his customary All-Pro season this year. He finished with 112 receptions for 1,598 yards and 4 touchdowns. It was his third 100 catch, 1,500 yard season, joining Jerry Rice and Marvin Harrison as the only players to do so. Returning from his injuries in last season's playoff game, he burned the Bengals secondary for 5 catches for 90 yards and a touchdown in which he badly beat Bengals CB Adam Jones on a double move. Jones and his fellow defensive backs will have their hands full again coming Saturday. It will help that Cincinnati will have their top corner, Leon Hall, available this year. He missed last season's game with a torn ACL and his return has bolstered the Bengals secondary this season. In fact, the Bengals had the top pass defense in the season's second half. They will need to be that good to contain Johnson Saturday.