The first game of the 2013 NFL postseason is a rematch of last year's wild xard matchup, as the Cincinnati Bengals look to end their four-game postseason losing streak against the AFC South champion Houston Texans.
After a 3-5 start to the season, the Bengals have been one of the hottest teams in the AFC. They won seven of their last eight games to make it to the postseason in back-to-back years for the first time since 1981-82.
The Texans appear to be in serious danger of seeing their fantastic season blow up in their faces. They had to win one of the last two games to earn a first-round bye, but wound up losing both games and the defense was dreadful. Who are the real Texans, and can they turn things around now?
Where: Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas
When: Saturday, Jan. 5 at 4:30 p.m. ET
Live Stream: Audio Pass on NFL.com (Subscription required)
Radio: 700 WLW Radio (Cincinnati); SportsRadio 610 (Houston)
Spread: Houston (-4.5), according to Bovada
How Cincinnati Got Here
The Bengals locked up a playoff berth after a last-second Week 16 victory over division rival Pittsburgh. It was the first time since 2009 that the Bengals beat the Steelers. They were locked into the No. 6 seed following that victory.
How Houston Got Here
The Texans locked up the AFC South for the second consecutive season with a Week 15 victory over Indianapolis. They were poised to be the No. 1 seed in the AFC after that game, as they were 12-2 and held a victory over the second-best team, Denver.
Two losses in the final two weeks of the season cost the Texans more than just the No. 1 seed. They went from looking like a lock for at least a first-round bye to hosting a game on Wild Card Weekend.
Injury Report (courtesy of USA Today)
Probable: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis (Hamstring)
Questionable: S Chris Crocker (Quadricep), CB Terence Newman (Hamstring), CB Jason Allen (Hamstring), TE Richard Quinn (Hamstring), DT Devon Still (Back)
Probable: TE Owen Daniels (Hamstring)
Questionable: LB Tim Dobbins (Shoulder), LB Brooks Reed (Groin), CB Alan Ball (Foot), G Antoine Caldwell (Hamstring)
What They Are Saying
Even though it doesn't get talked about as much as it should, defense is the biggest reason that the Bengals were able to turn their season around.
They have had touchdowns in three straight games. The Bengals have set a club record with 51 sacks this season. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins has 121/2 sacks, defensive end Michael Johnson has 111/2 sacks. It’s the first time since 1981 that the Bengals have had two players with double-digit sacks. The defense ranks sixth in the league in yards allowed—12th against the run and seventh against the pass.
With the Texans offense being unable to get anything going in the last two weeks, that Bengals defense will be something to keep an eye on early.
Quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green make the Bengals offense exciting to watch, but this team is better equipped to win in the playoffs because the defense is playing so well.
Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, who missed last year's postseason with an injury, has to prove that he can make a play against the Bengals. He has really struggled the last two weeks, throwing for just 178 yards against Minnesota and throwing two interceptions against Indianapolis.
Bengals Player to Watch: WR A.J. Green
The biggest problem the Texans have had during their month-long swoon has been stopping the pass. Even going back to their blowout loss against Green Bay in Week 6, they have had issues in coverage and haven't been able to find a solution to the problem.
Green had a phenomenal second season for the Bengals. He had 97 receptions for 1,350 yards and 11 touchdowns. He is a matchup nightmare for any team, let alone one with problems in coverage, because he has great length and is physical off the line.
He was basically a non-factor in last year's game, catching five passes for just 47 yards. He has evolved so much in the last 12 months that he should be a much bigger part of the game plan for the Bengals this time around.
Texans Player to Watch: QB Matt Schaub
It is so easy to single out the quarterback, especially in a big-game situation, but with the Texans, their offensive woes of late can be attributed directly to the performance of Schaub.
Too often Schaub is caught throwing off his back foot, which causes the ball to sail on him, making it easy for defensive backs to pick him off. He has a great arm—he threw for more than 4,000 yards this season—and looks the part of a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback.
However, based on what he has done this season, particularly against teams like Green Bay, New England and Indianapolis (one touchdown, five interceptions), he needs to step up in big-game situations.
Key Matchup: Bengals wide receivers vs. Texans secondary
Two years ago, the Texans had one of the worst pass defenses in NFL history. Wade Phillips was brought on last year and turned things around thanks to his scheme, as well as some free-agent signings that panned out.
This year, while the pass defense is not nearly as bad as it was in 2010, there have been a lot more moments lately where they remind you of that group. They finished the season 16th in pass defense with just under 226 yards allowed per game.
Even more alarming than the yards they are giving up, which really isn't that many given today's standards, is the number of touchdowns. They gave up 29 passing touchdowns, tied with Kansas City for 26th in the NFL.
The Bengals have a big-play passing offense. Green is the star of the show, but Jermaine Gresham is one of the best tight ends in the league, Brandon Tate is a great downfield threat and Andrew Hawkins had five catches of at least 20 yards.
Whoever wins this battle is going to come out on top.
Even though we are all probably too down on the Texans right now, I think Cincinnati is the better team. The Bengals are playing better football. I trust Andy Dalton a lot more than I do Matt Schaub, and the Cincinnati defense is just as good up front as Houston's.
Bengals 24, Texans 21