Had I an affinity for sentimental monikers, I would dub this Wild Card clash between the Houston Texans and the Cincinnati Bengals "The Destiny Bowl." Both of these teams backed their way into the playoffs after scorching starts, overcoming a ton of adversity along the way.
To say the Texans have "limped into the postseason" has a certain metaphorical resonance, but the expression also does a decent job of describing exactly how Houston arrived here. Absorbing season-ending injuries to Matt Schaub and Mario Williams, losing All-Pro wideout Andre Johnson for long stretches during the season, and suffering defeats in each of the final three weeks of the season, Gary Kubiak's bunch still managed to raise a division championship banner in the rafters.
Well, Andre Johnson is back, the rabid Reliant Stadium faithful are behind them, and all bets are off. To nobody's surprise, we enter halftime with the outcome very much in doubt. The Texans scored a late defensive touchdown to take a 17-10 lead, but they can't rest now.
Here are four things Houston needs to do to secure victory:
1. Get Over the Playoff Jitters
On just the Texans' first possession of the game, Arian Foster nearly coughed up the ball, a false start penalty negated a 5-yard run, and T.J. Yates overthrew a wide-open target on 3rd-and-5. This is a team that had never experienced postseason football before, and it shows.
In a loser-goes-home situation, ball control is essential. Now that they have a half of football behind them, and the benefit of reflection, Houston should be able to correct what amounts to a purely mental problem.
Kubiak needs to strike a balance between calm and urgency in the second half. Thirty minutes stand between his team and the second round; now is not the time to be nervous.
2. Put an Extra Man on Green
Wade Phillips has done a lot of things right this season, elevating the Texans' defensive reputation around the league. But with that swagger comes a certain responsibility.
A.J. Green is clearly the Bengals' biggest offensive weapon, and too often in the first half, he was allowed to exploit single coverage on the outside. Green's size and strength has been a valuable weapon all season for Cinci's offense, and Dalton knows how to hit his largest target.
This is not to say the Bengals don't have other guys who can beat you, but Phillips and co. need to place special emphasis on Green, not allowing the University of Georgia product to make game-changing plays.
3. Mix Up the Looks in the Running Game
This should be pretty straightforward for the Texans, but it bears emphasizing since it could be the difference between advancing and starting the offseason early.
Cincinnati clearly came into the game with an idea about how to stop the run. When lanes up the middle haven't been available for Foster and Tate, they've found success getting to the outside and turning the corner.
Now, you can expect the Bengals to adjust back by distributing its personnel more evenly along the defensive front. It's likely going to be a guessing game from here on out, but a few play-action passes and unpredictable play-calling should keep the defense on its toes and open up both more opportunities and more chances to get everybody involved.
4. Remember Week 14
Remember when Houston went into the Bengals house and crushed their spirits by scoring a last-second touchdown and squeaking out a 20-19 victory? That sure feels like it happened ages ago, but don't underrate the benefit of being able to invoke those memories.
Rest assured that if the Texans can stay close in this one, they'll convert those good vibes into a confidence boost that should give them the decisive edge.