Keys to Cincinnati Bengals' 1st-Round Matchup with Houston Texans

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistJanuary 3, 2013

CINCINNATI, OH - DECEMBER 30:  Marvin Lewis the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals watches the game action during the NFL game against the Baltimore Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium on December 30, 2012 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It's going to take a strong performance for the Bengals to knock off the Texans in Saturday's NFL Wild Card Game.

Cincinnati and Houston played each other last year in the opening round of the playoffs, with the Texans winning, 31-10.

The Bengals simply looked like a team that wasn't ready for the postseason. They were only out-gained by 40, but it was silly mistakes that cost them.

2012 has seen a much more experienced and better overall Bengals team. Cincinnati has won seven of its last eight games going into the playoffs.

The Texans are going to be a very tough opponent if Cincinnati is going to advance to the divisional round.


Get the Running Game Going

In the loss last year, the Bengals only managed to get 76 yards on the ground.

The running game had been inconsistent at times in 2011. In particular, the offensive line was especially poor in creating holes for Cedric Benson.

Football Outsiders ranked the offensive line 20th when it came to run-blocking.

As a result, guard Kevin Zeitler was selected in the first round of the 2012 draft. Cincinnati also didn't re-sign Cedric Benson, instead opting for BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

The moves have made quite a difference in 2012. Football Outsiders now has the Bengals up to 11th.

Running the ball isn't necessarily a prerequisite for Cincinnati to pull off the victory, as evidenced by Green-Ellis' 14 yards on 15 carries in the 13-10 win over the Steelers.

It would be huge, though, for Green-Ellis to be able to take some of the offensive burden off the shoulders of A.J. Green and Andy Dalton.

More importantly at this stage, though, is the health of the Bengals starting running back. Green-Ellis strained his hamstring before last Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens.

He's listed as questionable on the injury report, but he told the Cincinnati Enquirer:

“I’m doing the best thing I can to get back out there on the field and try to help the guys on Saturday,” against the Texans, he said. “I’m confident in the rehab process, things I’m going through. I’m taking it day-by-day, doing the things that they have me lined up doing.”


Win the Turnover Battle

Cincinnati was in the game last year until J.J. Watt took a Dalton interception to the house right before halftime. That put the Texans ahead, 17-10, and it was a lead they would fail to relinquish, scoring an additional 14 unanswered points.

Dalton threw three interceptions total for the game. Houston, on the other hand, failed to turn the ball over once.

It was particularly galling for Bengals fans considering T.J. Yates was a rookie quarterback and had shredded Cincinnati earlier in the season.

The Texans are going to be favored for Saturday's game. Rarely does an underdog win when it turns the ball over more than the other team.

It could be an uphill battle for the Bengals. Houston recorded a turnover differential of plus-12, which is eight more than Cincinnati and second in the AFC.

In addition, Dalton has been far from perfect in 2012. His 16 interceptions ranked eighth in the league. If the Bengals are going to have a chance, Dalton is going to need to be as perfect as he can be.


Pressure Matt Schaub in the Pocket

Matt Schaub hasn't put up the kind of numbers he has in recent seasons, but he's once again managed games extremely well. With Houston's great turnover margin, it should be evident that Schaub doesn't turn the ball over often.

The Bengals pass rush will be key in forcing Schaub into turnovers.

Cincinnati finished third in the regular season in sacks, at 51.0, one behind the Denver Broncos and St. Louis Rams.

The defensive line is an often unheralded unit. Many consider it to be talented, but few will consider it one of the elite in the league.

Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson both finished with double digits in sacks.

Atkins' 12.5 sacks are even more spectacular when you consider he's a defensive tackle. In terms of sacks, the next highest defensive tackle was Ndamukong Suh, who finished with eight.

Then the Bengals also have Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry, both of whom had at least six sacks.

Getting pressure on Schaub will force him to get rid of the ball early, opening him up to more mistakes.


Rein in Arian Foster

Last year, Arian Foster ran roughshod over the Bengals defense. He went for 153 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries.

As the sixth-best rusher in the league, it's unlikely that Cincinnati will be able to stop Foster completely. More importantly, the Bengals need to make sure that he doesn't repeat the previous season's performance.

If Foster churns up the yards, it allows Houston to set the tone of the football game. In addition, the Texans will be able to keep the Cincinnati defense on the field for long periods of time.

Slowing down Foster would greatly increase the Bengals' chances of winning, as evidenced by the difference between his performances in wins and losses.

In Houston's 12 wins, he ran for an average of 103 yards. That average was down to 46 yards in the four games the Texans lost.