The Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Texans feature superstars on both sides of the ball, meaning there are some incredible matchups to watch for when these two teams square off at Reliant Stadium on Saturday for an AFC Wild Card showdown.
You can bet the Bengals are hoping for a different result than what happened a year ago under these exact same circumstances.
Arian Foster ran wild, Andy Dalton threw three interceptions—one of which was taken back for a touchdown by none other than J.J. Watt—and the Texans blew the Bengals out at home by a score of 31-10.
The biggest difference this season is that Matt Schaub is healthy and will be leading the Texans offense, rather than T.J. Yates.
Winning this game will take a team effort, but there's no doubt individual matchups will have a huge impact on the outcome. With that in mind, let's take a look at the five biggest matchups that will determine which team gets to move on to the next round.
When these two teams last met, Arian Foster had a monster game for the Texans, racking up 153 yards and two touchdowns on just 24 carries.
Rey Maualuga was highly ineffective in the middle for the Bengals, and he finished the game with just three tackles, only one of which was solo.
Maualuga has some improved help in 2012, though, as rookie linebacker Vontaze Burfict has stepped up to the plate in a big way. He's been playing out of his mind of late—especially in run support—and has tallied 30 solo tackles in his last five games.
Both of these linebackers will need to play smart, aggressive football—getting off their blocks with authority and maintaining gap discipline—to keep Foster in check.
Foster is one of the game's best running backs, and if he gets going early, it'll be tough for the Bengals to control the tempo of the game—especially on the road.
J.J. Watt has been lauded by the national media for his exceptional work this season in the middle of the Texans defense, and rightfully so. But he's not the only dominant interior defender in this contest.
Geno Atkins deserves just as much praise as Watt, as he's a constant fixture in opponents' backfields, both in the passing game and as a run-stuffing defensive tackle.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Atkins has registered 16 sacks, 13 quarterback hits and an astonishing 49 quarterback hurries in 2012. He has also tallied 46 "Stops," which PFF defines as, "The number of solo defensive tackles made which constitute an offensive failure (including sacks)."
Atkins can, and regularly does, force offenses into situations they're not comfortable with.
It'll be crucial for the interior offensive linemen of the Texans (Wade Smith, Chris Myers and Ben Jones) to play with leverage and intelligence against this force of nature we call Atkins.
Besides Arian Foster, the single, most devastating offensive weapon for the Texans is wide receiver Andre Johnson.
Even with T.J. Yates at the helm in last year's Wild-Card tilt, Johnson caught five balls for 90 yards and a touchdown, and he's been on a tear the second half of the 2012 season.
Matt Schaub has been targeting Johnson an average of 12 times per game since Week 6, and he's been hauling in an average of 8.6 receptions for 119.5 yards per contest.
Granted, the Bengals are among the best teams in the NFL at keeping opponents' passing games in check (ranked No. 7 in the NFL), but Leon Hall, Adam Jones and Terrence Newman will have their hands full keeping track of the veteran Johnson.
If the Bengals can figure out a way to minimize Johnson's production on Saturday, they'll have an excellent chance to pull out the upset on the road.
Getting A.J. Green involved on Saturday will be of utmost importance for the Bengals to get going on offense. He's undoubtedly the most dangerous weapon for the Bengals, and if he's shut down like he was in last year's playoff game, Cincinnati will struggle to move the ball.
The Texans feature one of the NFL's top-ranked run defenses (No. 7, allowing just 97.5 yards per game), and there's a good chance the Bengals will either live or die based on how Andy Dalton and his passing attack fare.
Fortunately for Cincinnati, the Texans' secondary has proven vulnerable to exploitation this year. Aaron Rodgers went off for 338 yards and six touchdowns in Week 6. And in the past four games, Houston has allowed 847 passing yards and nine touchdowns, while failing to force a single interception.
Dalton's no Rodgers, but he is capable of finding Green on a regular basis, when given enough time to throw, meaning Johnathan Joseph will need to bring his "A" game to Saturday's contest.
Speaking of having time to throw...
There isn't a more dominant interior lineman in the NFL these days than J.J. Watt.
Technically, he's a defensive end, but in the 3-4 scheme Wade Phillips runs in Houston, Watt is just as likely to line up over a guard or center as he is against a tackle.
And he'll line up all over the place when these two teams square off on Saturday.
Watt finished the 2012 season as the NFL's sack leader, tallying 20.5. He wreaks havoc in so many other ways, though—against the run, as a pass defender (aka "J.J. Swatt") and on the edges against screen plays.
The Bengals have allowed 46 sacks this year (No. 26 in the NFL), and Dalton struggles with his accuracy when he's being pummeled—especially up the middle.
If Watt isn't kept in check by the Bengals offensive line, it won't matter that the Texans secondary can't cover—the Texans will win at home.
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