Take a deep breath, Houston Texans fans.
For a second straight season, the franchise that couldn't make the playoffs for the first nine years of its existence has sealed a postseason berth.
It didn't come in pretty fashion. The final quarter of the schedule undoubtedly left a sour taste in every fan's mouth. Fortunately for the Texans, that has absolutely no bearing on what will take place Saturday afternoon at Reliant Stadium.
The Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) will fly to Houston (12-4) for the second year in a row on Wild Card Weekend to take on a struggling Texans team. Last year's contest saw the Texans defense dominate the Bengals. Houston's third-string quarterback, T.J. Yates, out-dueled Andy Dalton and led the team to a 31-10 victory.
Both teams added to their win totals from a year ago in 2012. While the Texans lost three of their last four games, the Bengals were headed in the opposite direction, winning seven of their last eight.
The late-season slide cost Houston its No. 1 ranking in the AFC. Now as the third seed, the bitter Texans will face one of the hottest teams in the AFC on a week where they expected a bye. The sixth-seeded Bengals come to town essentially getting a mulligan for last year's playoff loss in Houston.
Something has to give Saturday. Here are some keys to this weekend's rematch of the Texans and Bengals.
The Texans didn't lose their right to win the Super Bowl by ending the season poorly.
It may feel like their chances have diminished significantly given the product on the field lately, but let's not forget what happened last year. The Texans lost three of their last four games and limped into the playoffs (sound familiar?). Once the bright lights of the postseason came on, they were a completely different team.
If last year's Texans could put the late-season nosedive behind them and beat the Bengals in the Wild Card Round, this year's team should be able to do it too. The playoffs are a brand-new season, and the Texans have shown they're capable of treating it that way.
Maybe this is just the type of team that needs its back against the wall before any sense of urgency sets in. Fans shouldn't need to be reminded that the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants from last year were 9-7. That team also lost four games in a row late in the year in the regular season. It didn't affect their play in the postseason when they caught fire, won four games in a row and brought home the Lombardi Trophy.
So for the Texans and their angry fanbase: Let the past be the past. Momentum can swing the other way in a hurry, and a win Saturday could be the beginning of a special playoff run.
In the Gary Kubiak era, the Houston Texans are undefeated (4-0) against the Cincinnati Bengals.
In those four games, Kubiak's Texans have averaged 28.5 points per contest. Simply put, Houston has dominated Cincinnati with Gary Kubiak at the helm.
Marvin Lewis hasn't had many answers for Kubiak's offenses despite facing different versions of it. Kubiak has found success moving the ball with different starting quarterbacks, running backs and offensive linemen throughout the years against the Bengals.
Cincinnati's head coach spoke about Houston's offense via the Bengals' official website:
The schematics of what they do and what they’ve done for as long as Gary (Kubiak) has been there haven’t changed. They just keep being able to do it with better and better players. That’s a credit to them, being able to find guys and plug them in and keep going.
They just keep plugging guys in. (Former Bengals WR) Kevin Walter plays the same. Andre Johnson is the same great player. They’ve got a great back (in Arian Foster), and (backup RB Ben) Tate missed a little time this year, so that’s a little different compared to this time last year.
The level of respect Marvin Lewis has for the Texans and this offense is apparent. Gary Kubiak and his teams over the years have earned it with convincing wins. Fans can only hope this trend of dominance continues.
Give the Cincinnati Bengals credit: They know how to get after the quarterback.
Cincinnati finished the year ranked third overall in the NFL in sacks (51). The Bengals were also the seventh-ranked defense in the league in fewest passing yards against. It's clear their defensive game plans are built around disrupting the quarterback.
Unfortunately for the Texans, pressure has been Matt Schaub's biggest nemesis for a few weeks now. The Texans quarterback was sacked just 15 times in the team's first 12 games. He's been sacked 12 times in the last four games alone.
This is one of the best pass-rushing defenses the Texans will see all year. It couldn't come at a worse time with the offense sputtering. The offensive game plan should feature a number of scheme gimmicks to counter Cincinnati's pressure. Quick throws on three-step drops, screens to every weapon on the offense and a heavy dose of the running game should help fight off the Bengals' vicious pass rush.
The pressure from Cincinnati will amp up in a hurry if Houston falls behind. The best way to fight off a team's pass rush is to get a lead, and the Texans are one of the best teams in the league at playing with a lead.
On the other side of the coin, they haven't been a very good team playing from behind. Much of that can be attributed to the increased pressure the offense sees when Schaub has to throw the team back into the game.
There's no excuse for the Texans being caught off-guard by Cincinnati's pressure this week.
How will J.J. Watt follow up his epic performance in last year's playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals this year?
Fans all remember the legendary pick six that gave the Texans a 17-10 lead heading into the half. The play essentially won the game and sparked a rally that never saw the Bengals score for the rest of the game. Watt's 3.5 sacks and dominant play in the playoffs last year paved the way for his giant MVP-like season this year.
So how will the Bengals try to contain him this Saturday? Marvin Lewis came up with an idea in his conference call with the Houston media (via the Texans' official website):
I wrote a letter to the commissioner to petition for 13. I figure if we put a guy on each side of him and a guy in front of him, we’ve got a good opportunity.
Joking aside, Lewis expounded on why Watt is so effective:
You can see he understands the slides and the protections of the offensive line. He knows how to work back against the slide when he feels the slide go away from him. The coaches say well that guy always when he’s hearing we’re going to slide and we’re going to protect and we’re going to move this way and he’s going to be here. Then he jumps back outside the guy and puts that offensive tackle in a very precarious situation or an offensive guard, if he’s on it. You can tell he understands the offensive tendencies and so far and then he does a great job of physically putting himself back in position to make a play.
Watt saved the best football of his rookie season for the playoffs. If he does that again this year, it's scary to think how good of a game he could have this weekend.
With all the worries over how Houston's offense will get back on track, fans are forgetting about Cincinnati's best player.
A.J. Green is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the NFL, and he's just beginning to carve out his place in the league. The Texans can't afford for this game to be the 24-year-old Pro Bowler's coming-out party for the rest of the country to see.
Johnathan Joseph will have his hands full with Cincinnati's No. 1 receiver. The biggest concern for Houston's secondary is Green's ability to beat a defense vertically. His speed combined with his ridiculous catch-radius allows him to make big plays down field routinely. Texans fans see Andre Johnson do this often, and Green is just as capable of making those same highlight-reel catches.
The key for the Texans will be holding Cincinnati's playmaker under 100 yards. The Bengals are 7-2 when Green goes for 100-plus yards in a game in his short two-year career. The Texans have held him under 60 yards in each of the two games they've seen him in so far (both Texans wins).
Containing A.J. Green should be priority No. 1 this week.
This is a great week for the Texans to get their pass rush cranked up. The Bengals come into this game giving up the third-most sacks in the league (46).
While Cincinnati's offensive line has the talent to control a game in the trenches, it didn't show it enough on the field this year. It hasn't gotten any better lately either, as it's given up 19 sacks in the past four games.
The outside linebackers are familiar with Cincinnati's tackles, Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith, by now. Though Connor Barwin, Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus combined for only 11.5 sacks this year, they're capable of having a big day against a struggling line like this.
Houston's interior pass rush has been more productive and consistent than the edge rush all season. J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith will take on a young, inexperienced interior offensive line for Cincinnati. This is the biggest mismatch on the field when these two units square off.
The Texans forced three interceptions out of Dalton with pressure in last year's Wild Card Game. Winning the mismatch against Cincy's o-line will be key.
A major factor in favor of Houston will be the noise from its home fans at Reliant Stadium.
Cincinnati struggled with the elements of Reliant Stadium in last year's playoff game. Dalton and his offensive line weren't in sync, and it led to a rough day at the office for Cincy's signal-caller. The noise appeared to have the Bengals rattled, and it seemed like by the second half, it wore on the entire Cincinnati team.
Comments made by Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden following last year's playoff game confirmed the unfriendly nature of Reliant for visitors (via Kara Cook through the Houston Texans official website):
“The environment was brutal,” Gruden said, via Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com. “It was very loud, and it's something we're going to have to deal with and hopefully going in we'll be a little better prepared, but it's hard to prepare for that type of noise. So we've just go to prepare for that type of noise and the energy level they play with."
Connor Barwin spoke about the specific benefits of Reliant's noise level:
The crowd noise is huge for us on defense because it allows us to kind of jump the cadence when the other team’s on offense. It’s very important for the defense, most importantly for the pass rush.
There's no question Reliant will be rocking Saturday. If Dalton and the Bengals struggle to overcome the noise again this year, Texans fans should expect similar results to last year's game.