The outcome of Saturday’s wild-card playoff game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Houston Texans hinges on the play of Bengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. No matter what anyone says, it is that simple. Really.
NFL experts will spend loads of air time, web space and column inches focusing on the big names before the Bengals and the Texans take the field. They will try to convince you the game will be decided by the legs of Arian Foster or Cedric Benson. They will salivate over the potential highlight-reel catches by Andre Johnson and A.J. Green. Expect a thoroughly dizzying dissection of Andy Dalton and T.J. Yates in the first ever playoff meeting of rookie quarterbacks.
The pregame talk will be fun and informative, but in terms of predicting the winner, it will miss the mark. This sort of chatter is nothing new.
Sometimes in sports, the national conversation centers on the stars and dismisses the plot. Thoughtful analysis is lost in a whitewash of names that spark an instant response from the audience. This also happens with movies; enough familiar faces are thrown together to dazzle the public into buying tickets only to discover the same flimsy plot lines of thousands of films that have come before it.
New Year’s Eve, I am looking at you.
Don’t be distracted by the star-power in Reliant Stadium on Saturday, focus on the plot. Rey Maualuga must move laterally faster than he has all season to shut down the Texans' ground game and force T.J. Yates to beat the Bengals' seventh-ranked defense with his arm.
If you tuned in to CBS’ coverage of the Bengals game against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 17, you know that Dan Fouts is an excellent beard groomer and a wizard with the telestrator. He draws clean, straight lines in either case.
Several times during the broadcast, Fouts used his magical yellow pen to demonstrate how Baltimore fullback Vonta Leach charged to the second level and lit up Maualuga as Ray Rice dashed 70 yards for a Baltimore touchdown on a simple off-tackle run. Rice’s touchdown broke open the game for the Ravens, and hushed the Who Dey faithful at Paul Brown Stadium. Neither the team nor the crowd recovered from this monster play.
Leach’s block was excellent, but emblematic of Maualuga’s play all season.
He is lightning quick in the pass rush and a tremendous downhill runner, but when he is forced to play east and west, Maualuga is always a step behind and rarely able to shed a block. Maybe he is adjusting to playing the middle in the NFL, maybe his flowing locks are slowing him down; I’m not entirely sure. In any case, Maualuga’s ability to fill gaps to his right or left has been inconsistent all year.
Don’t fall for the hype; don’t be distracted by the All-Star cast.
The plot of this game is simple: Can Rey Maualuga play laterally fast enough to prevent the Texans from breaking off big runs?
If he can, the Bengals win. If he cannot, the Texans will run all the way to the divisional round of the playoffs.