The Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Texans face off today in the AFC Wildcard Round of the NFL Playoffs. Although this is a rematch of last season’s wildcard matchup between the two sides, this year’s game should be very different from last season’s, when the Texans won out by a convincing 31-10 scoreline. Even though this game features two completely different teams, with Matt Schaub healthy for the Texans, Brian Cushing not and another year added to each of the Bengals’ key young players, that is no guarantee that the result will be any different.
The Texans do enter the game as the favorites, but this should prove to be a close game. Andy Dalton may not have had the best second season to his career, but AJ Green has established himself as an elite wide receiver, while Geno Atkins has flourished into an Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Green and Atkins will be crucial for the Bengals’ chances in this game. If both do not perform to a high level, then the Texans could escape to a large lead early on, before running the ball down their opposition’s throats. Green and Atkins are so pivotal because the game plans of each side will put the pressure on them to perform.
Last year, in his playoff debut as a rookie, Green had five receptions, but was limited to 47 yards as he consistently battled with the excellent Johnathan Joseph. Joseph, the former Bengals’ cornerback, has dealt with injury issues this year as well as a dip in form. Green will feel confident going against him this year even though this won’t be considered a matchup advantage for the Bengals. Green will have to work to beat Joseph, and if he can do that, then the offense will open up. Despite the presence of Dalton and BenJarvus Green-Ellis in the backfield, the Bengals’ most important offensive piece is Green. They won’t be able to run through the Texans defense the way they have others this season, but they may be able to get big plays through the air.
If Green can force the Texans to over-commit to him in coverage, then that will open up space for players such as Marvin Jones, Andrew Hawkins and Jermaine Gresham, who have big play potential. Provided Green steps up, then the pressure will only be on Dalton to deliver good service to his other teammates, and allow them to expose the Texans’ secondary.
On the opposite side of the ball, Atkins needs to have a big day because he is the Bengals’ best defender and also the key to stopping Arian Foster. Foster appeared to be slowing down this year, likely from the punishment accrued during a long season, but his work from last season’s playoffs will remain in the minds of every Bengals’ defender. The all-pro running-back talent ran for 153 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries last year, despite the Texans starting TJ Yates under center. With regular starter Schaub back in the starting lineup, the Texans presumably will run a more balanced attack.
Should the Texans be able to spread the ball around, or even simply serve Andre Johnson better than they did last year, then the Bengals won’t be able to drop an extra defender into the box. That will put the pressure on the front seven to stop the run on their own. Each defensive lineman and linebacker will have to win their individual matchups, but Atkins in particular will be expected to make plays behind the line of scrimmage to put the Texans in situations that they don’t handle well, ie. second-and-eight, third-and-six.
Even though the Bengals appear to be a much better team this year, and the Texans are entering the playoffs somewhat struggling with their form, the away side must be wary of suffering another big loss as they go in pursuit of their first playoff win during the Dalton era.