4:30 p.m. Eastern on Saturday
Straight Up: Cincinnati
Against the Spread: Cincinnati +3
Over/Under: Over 38.5 But this one is way too close to depend on.
Talk about a tale of two teams!
We didn’t expect much from the “rebuilding” Bengals in 2011. QB and last good WR jettisoned, chronically under-performing defense, unpredictable offensive line. If you say that you saw the Andy Dalton/A.J. Green era beginning this way—you’re either lying or shouldn’t be wasting your time with football. You should head straight for Wall Street.
Meanwhile the Texans had a “Playoffs or Bust” mentality. If this team couldn’t get over the hump, sweeping changes in personnel were to be expected.
They had two great strokes of luck immediately: Wade Phillips was available and agreed to become the defensive coordinator and Peyton Manning didn’t play this season.
Unfortunately, that was the last good luck Houston has had as injuries have made their team look like one of those folded-up paper cutout things you make when you’re a kid: Full of holes.
Can a team best described as “upstarts” triumph over a beat-up divisional champion? On the road?
Weather: Cloudy with highs in the 60s and 70s. The Bengals might be a bit hot out there on the field. Look to see if Houston forces Cincy to wear dark jerseys. Otherwise, no advantage.
Texans—There are 12 players on the injury report I saw. Seven of them are on IR. CB Sherrick McManis has an ankle injury that has sidelined him for a month. He is questionable, along with Guard Michael Brisiel. Brisiel had surgery three weeks ago on a broken fibula. Officially questionable, but—come on!
QB T.J. Yates (I just saw that the T.J. stands for Taylor Jonathan by the way) has a sore shoulder. All-World WR Andre Johnson’s hamstring is healed enough that he is probable and the word is he will be used sparingly to see how he does.
Bengals—They have five players out for sure. The most notable continues to be CB Leon Hall. This starter has been gone since Thanksgiving, but it’s still a hole in the secondary.
Of more immediate concern to the Cincy fans is Andy Dalton’s flu. The rookie QB was hospitalized for a day this week. The company line is that it was a 24-hour thing and Dalton can’t wait to get out there on Saturday. OK, we’ll see. I’m not sure that the relative heat will be helpful in this situation.
Personally, I think this has a lot to do with the famous “rookie wall.” First-year players have had very little time off since last December’s bowl games. They went immediately into the all-star games and the NFL Combine. Despite the summer lockout, most of these guys found some way to work with their future teammates and get a grip on the professional game.
Even someone as tough as Ben Roethlisberger has admitted that postseason play after a rookie year was very rough on a tired body. Even in your early 20s that’s not much recuperative time.
Houston offense versus Cincinnati defense
The key statistic here is that the Bengals gave up almost 200 yards to Baltimore RB Ray Rice in Week 17. They will now be facing Arian Foster and Ben Tate, arguably the best running tandem in the NFL (ranked second).
Over the past three weekends, the Bengals allowed opposing RBs six yards per carry and 125 yards per game. This could be the Cincy Achilles’ Heel, because otherwise the Houston offense isn’t that impressive.
Houston has lost the last several games and is hardly heading into the playoffs on anything even approaching a roll.
Having a third-string rookie QB under center is part of the problem. The Cincinnati secondary has held opponents to under 200 passing yards in the past three games. Uh-oh.
I think T.J. Yates has done a good job, all things considered. Since being thrust into the starting lineup Yates has a 61.2 completion percentage, 949 passing yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. But now he has a sore shoulder.
If this were my job on the line in my first Houston playoff game (yes, I mean you Coach Gary Kubiak), I would start Jake Delhomme.
When Yates was hurt last week, Delhomme completed 18-of-28 for 211 yards and one TD. What more do you want?
Plus, Jake has been to the big dance and probably knows how to keep a young and inexperienced group calm and focused. But, I just checked my voice mail and Mr. Kubiak has not called asking for my opinion. Go figure.
I expect Yates to start and get pulled by halftime.
Regardless of signal-caller choice, don’t lose track of Texans FB James Casey (No. 86). The kid not only blocks for the two aforementioned stellar RBs, he has caught 18 passes for over 260 yards. Honest. Too bad the “secret” part of this secret weapon is probably over.
The Texans held the ball with their running game for almost 35 minutes last week. They should employ a similar strategy as they try to keep the rock away from Andy Dalton’s throwing arm.
Cincinnati offense versus Houston defense
Matt Hasselbeck is a better-than-advertised QB and Houston has lost a lot of defenders this season. But the Texans loss last week came from one source: They let Hasselbeck beat them.
Tennessee RB Chris Johnson ended his lackluster 2011 season in unsurprisingly underwhelming style in Week 17. Houston’s game plan was to shut Johnson down and force Hasselbeck to beat them throwing the ball to WRs no one outside of Nashville has heard of (although Jared Cook is climbing the charts).
And Hasselbeck did it. No. 8 threw zero interceptions. He did, however, throw two TD passes and covered 297 yards through the air.
The Titans only won by one point against this No. 2 Houston defense. But they won.
However, Andy Dalton is not Matt Hasselbeck. He’s a tired rookie recovering from the flu. Not that I don’t think he can have a good, possibly great, game. I’m just saying.
On the year, Dalton completed 58.1 percent of his passes for 20 touchdowns and almost 4,000 yards. He threw 13 interceptions.
Let’s not forget that the red-headed passer is throwing to outstanding rookie WR A.J. Green.
Dalton’s critics prior to the NFL draft pointed out his inaccuracy on the deep ball. Green has proven to be a powerful antidote.
It’s not so much that Dalton’s deep balls have improved; it’s that Green can apparently adjust and catch almost anything. I hope Andy got him a nice Christmas present.
It’s also hard to double-cover A.J. Green because if he isn’t available, Dalton can throw to gymnast WR Jerome Simpson and excellent young TE Jermaine Gresham.
To top it all off, Andy has that best of all QB friends: A good running game.
Starter Cedric Benson is an excellent player when he isn’t fighting people in bars. (You can’t tell me that the Bengals can’t arrange some anger-management work here.) He has 273 carries for over 1,000 yards, six TDs and averaged almost four yards per carry.
And if Benson has a bad day, Dalton can hand off (or dump off) to backup Bernard Scott, who brings a bit less power but a bit more dash to the field.
All of this sounds as if I think Cincy is going to steamroll into the divisional round.
Not so fast. Despite losing one of the best defenders in the NFL (Mario Williams) early in the season, the Houston defense has been simply stellar.
Rookies Brooks Reed and J.J. Watt couldn’t possibly have been bigger home-run draft picks. Watt plays with a constant intensity that is truly admirable and Reed (45 tackles and six sacks) is so good that there are even rumblings that he could permanently replace Mario Williams if Williams leaves in free agency. I certainly wouldn’t go that far, but he’s good.
I think that the only relatively weak point is the secondary, which has given up almost 220 yards per game over the last three weeks. Of course, that is assuming that the pass rush doesn’t flatten Dalton before he can release the ball.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Texans have surrendered almost 24 points every week in the last month. Cincy’s offense has been in a bit of a slump, only scoring 19.7 yards per game over the same period.
Bottom Line: Cincinnati made the playoffs as the third team in the rough AFC North. This means that, after having played Pittsburgh and Baltimore twice each, they won enough games to get a wild card berth. I think that is extraordinary.
Houston won this division because Manning got hurt and Tennessee’s Chris Johnson forgot how to run the football.
Over the past three weekends, Cincinnati has only given up an average of 17.7 points. That’s almost six whole points less than the Houston D.
The Houston offense has significant injury problems. Unless the Texans run early, often and all day long I’m taking the Bengals in an upset.
Game Trivia: (from nfl.com) "Dalton is expected to play at Houston's Reliant Stadium, where he has never lost. The second-round draft pick grew up in the Houston suburbs and played two games at the stadium in high school and another for TCU."