The Houston Texans host the Cincinnati Bengals this afternoon in the opening game of the 2013 NFL playoffs. The game is a rematch of last season’s AFC wild-card contest at Reliant Stadium, where the Texans defeated the Bengals 31-10 in the first playoff game in franchise history. Teams have met in the wild-card round three previous times in league history. On all three previous occasions, the team that won the first meeting also won the subsequent meeting a year later.
That and the fact that Cincinnati has never won a playoff game on the road (0-5 all-time) bodes well for Houston. What doesn’t bode well for the Texans is the slump that they encountered to close the season, finishing 1-3. Nonetheless, the players say they have put those struggles behind them and the playoffs are a new season. Houston also lost 3 of their last 4 games going into the playoffs last season, and were able to respond and dominate Cincinnati.
All signs point to the game being much more competitive this time around. Cincinnati comes into this game having won 7 of 8 games to get into the playoffs. They were also 6-2 on the road this season, as Houston was also 6-2 at home. If the Texans are to win and advance, they will need their offense to play much better than they have over the last month. It will all start with how the offensive line protects Matt Schaub. After allowing only 14 sacks through the season’s first 12 games, they allowed Schaub to be corralled 12 times in the last 4 games alone.
The increase in pressure coincided with a decrease in Scahub’s play. Over those last 4 games, he passed for only 1 touchdown and 3 interceptions. If Schaub has enough time to throw, look for he and Andre Johnson to have a big game. Johnson led the AFC with 1,598 receiving yards on 112 receptions. The Bengals defense will look to contain him, as they have been playing well over that 7-1 stretch. Cincinnati had one of the top pass defenses over the second half of the season. That was mainly due to the pressure that they get on the quarterback. They finished third in the league with 51 sacks.
The Bengals have the ability to get pressure with their front four. That unit is led by DT Geno Atkins, who led the team with 12.5 sacks. The Texans offensive line will need to block Atkins and company not only when Schaub drops back, but in the run game as well. If they are able to do so, Arian Foster, who dominated the Bengals last season, should have another big game. In last year’s win, he carried 24 times for 153 yards and 2 touchdowns. Cincinnati’s defense had problems when Foster was able to reach the second level, as their linebackers and safeties were simply unable to bring him down. That is why it is essential that Houston’s offensive line wins the battle up front.
On defense, the key for the Texans will be their ability to get pressure on Bengals QB Andy Dalton. Dalton struggled as a rookie in his playoff debut last season, tossing 3 interceptions in his return to Houston. The Katy, Texas native had never lost in Reliant Stadium prior to that game, going undefeated at TCU and in high school. It may be another long day for Dalton this evening. He was sacked 46 times this season, third most in the league. He also has a high number of passes batted down. Dalton has had 32 passes batted or tipped since entering the NFL (third most), including five in two games against the Texans last season.
That can spell trouble against J.J. Watt, as Dalton discovered a year ago when Watt snagged his pass out of the air at the line of scrimmage and ran it back for a touchdown. The momentum turning pick-6 gave the Texans a 17-10 halftime lead and they never looked back. Watt carried that momentum he created in last season’s playoffs into this season. The likely Defensive Player of the Year led the NFL with 20.5 sacks and also had 107 tackles, 39 tackles for loss, 16 passes defensed and 4 forced fumbles. The Texans defense as a unit batted or tipped 37 passes this season and also recorded 44 sacks.
It will be imperative that Cincinnati’s offensive line controls the Texans pass rush if they want Dalton to be able to get the ball to his big play threat, WR A.J. Green. Green is dangerous, with 97 receptions for 1,350 yards and 11 touchdowns. The Texans secondary had given up too many big plays in the passing game over the second half of the season. If Dalton and the Bengals have a good day on offense, it will be because they hit some big plays down the field.
That being said, the Texans pass rush will be too much to handle. Watt, Antonio Smith, Connor Barwin and Whitney Mercilus will pressure and harass Dalton into hurried throws and turnovers. With BenJarvus Green-Ellis hobbling with a hamstring injury, Cincinnati will be unable to run the ball. At 97.5 ypg, the Texans had the seventh best rush defense in the NFL, even holding league rushing champ Adrian Peterson to 86 yards two weeks ago.
Run defense is the defense’s strong suit, and that will leave the game in the hands of Dalton. The Houston pass rush will rattle Dalton, while Schaub, who in two career games vs Cincinnati is 2-0 with 7 touchdowns and 1 interception, will continue his success against the Bengals. The Texans will control the clock, with Foster playing the role of ‘The Closer’ in the second half, and the Texans will end the Bengals season for the second consecutive year.
Texans 23 Bengals 13