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.
Carson Palmer's pouty resolution to quit on Cincinnati is now a distant memory, as Andy Dalton and A.J. Green have heralded in a new era of Bengals football. Their undaunted rookie duo has grown up considerably over the course of a roller-coaster season, and even though they needed a lot of help to find their way here, they face a struggling Houston team (losers of three straight) that they feel they can beat.
But let's throw out the records—this is NFL playoff football, 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 now is not the time for the Bengals to be discouraged.
Here are four things Cincinnati needs to do to rebound and score a victory:
1. Get Over the Playoff Jitters
Don't let the mirage of points fool you—the Bengals have shown that they're not invulnerable to the nerves that afflict those who mount the elevated stage of the postseason for the first time. Dalton and Green have at times looked brilliant, at other times shaky—a microcosm of the regular season.
What is more, the Texans have tendered a fair share of help to the Bengals in the form of penalties. It was a long pass-interference flag that set up Cincinnati's first score, but that's not something that can be counted on as the game moves forward.
Marvin Lewis 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. Cut Off the Outside Run Game
As expected, the Texans featured a strong dose of the run game in the first half—just not, perhaps, in the way the Bengals expected.
Houston's offensive line is big, mean and ugly (hey, I needed a word to complete the triad), and they've made a living out of opening up holes for up-the-gut runs. Today, however, Arian Foster has been most effective using his sneaky speed to get to the outside and turn the corner.
By finding a way to cut him off, Cincinnati will take a powerful weapon away from the Texans and severely limit their offensive options.
3. Play the Short Game
I'm about to make a golf analogy, so bear with me.
"You drive for show, but you putt for dough" is one of the most well-known golfing maxims. It doesn't matter how far you can hit it—if you can't convert from short distance, you're depriving yourself of golden scoring opportunities.
Now I don't think this is what the Bengals are doing, but they do need to do a better job of exploiting Houston's soft defensive schemes. No doubt about it—the Texans are playing scared, perhaps due to the Dalton-Green long-ball threat. Cincinnati has done its best work so far, pounding the ball and executing quick passes off of three-step drops.
Continuing to employ this style of play will not only help Cincinnati move the ball, but also burn precious seconds from the clock.
4. Be the Aggressor in the Red Zone
Memo to Marvin Lewis and the coaching staff: do NOT allow a repeat of Week 14.
Despite several long drives, the Bengals haven't been as efficient as they could be at putting points on the board. Faced with a tied score midway through the second quarter and ready to pounce after a Texans personal-foul penalty, Cincinnati's drive faltered on a couple of uninspired pass plays and a 3rd-and-really-long draw play.
I don't think the Bengals can afford to settle for three points in the second half. They're playing on the road; the longer Cincinnati sits back, the more likely the Texans and T.J. Yates will accumulate enough confidence to work their late-game magic.