It's been since the 1981-1982 seasons that the Cincinnati Bengals have reached the playoffs in back-to-back years and since 1990 that they've won a postseason game. The Bengals have successfully broken the former slump, but it won't be until Saturday that they'll have the chance to snap the latter, when they take on the Houston Texans in the Wild Card Round.
This is the best time for the Bengals to be facing the Texans. At one point, Houston was on the brink of being the No. 1 seed in the AFC, possessing both a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the postseason. Between Weeks 1 and 13 they had lost just a single game. However, with the end of the season came a Texans collapse, with three losses in their last four games. Their bye week and top seeding disappeared.
That doesn't mean the Texans aren't a dangerous team or that pulling off a win on Saturday will be easy for the Bengals. However, this isn't the Texans team from the middle of the season. There is a clear path for a Cincinnati victory, and here's how they can walk it.
Defense, All Day
By far, the Bengals' biggest asset is their defense. They're No. 6 overall in yards allowed, at 319.7, have given up just 283.7 on average over their last three games and 303.9 in away games in the regular season. They've allowed an average of only 13.3 points per game in their last three contests, and rank third overall in sacks, with 51.
The best thing about the Bengals defense, however, is that they've been consistent. These statistics aren't just a result of a late-season push or because an injured player became healthy—this is their baseline performance, throughout all 16 regular season games. This makes them particularly dangerous to the Texans this week.
Clearly, the Texans' biggest offensive strength is their run game behind Arian Foster. Though Matt Schaub is a serviceable quarterback, conservative but effective, without taking too many risks, his biggest weapon is Andre Johnson—and if a defense can shut down Johnson, there's practically no passing offense to speak of. However, the Bengals defense cannot simply key in on Foster and call it a day—pressure on Schaub can affect both the run and the passing games.
With the Texans so reliant on running the ball, their passing offense benefits greatly from the play-action. Schaub has thrown play action passes 25.7 percent of the time—the sixth-most play-action attempts in the league—and has completed 65.4 percent of them, for 10 touchdowns to three interceptions, and they make up 1,182 of his 4,008 passing yards.
Though this approach could trip up lesser defenses, the Bengals and their excellent defensive front can bring pressure to Schaub even when he attempts a play action pass, and when they actually run the ball, that front seven can blow up the offensive line and tackle Foster for little or no gain—especially considering how well their linebackers have stepped up to match the play of the defensive line. Upfront pressure can thus effectively stop Houston's entire offense.
Though the Texans rank seventh in average yards per game when the entire season is taken into account, with 372.1, they've averaged just 318.7 over their last three games, the equivalent of the 24th or 25th-ranked offense in the league. Seven of Schaub's 27 sacks have come in the last two weeks and Foster was held to just 15 yards in the team's Week 16 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, who have a strong defense, though still not as good as Cincinnati's.
If the Bengals defense can continue performing as they have all season long, Houston's offense doesn't stand a chance.
Run the Ball
From Weeks 11 through 15, the Bengals run game seemed to finally break out. Behind BenJarvus Green-Ellis, they managed to run the ball for no fewer than 128 yards during that span. However, in the final two weeks of the season, the run game faltered. Green-Ellis had just 14 yards on 15 carries in their Week 16 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers that got the team into the playoffs, while last week, in their defeat of the Baltimore Ravens, the team combined for just 47 total rushing yards, with Green-Ellis sidelined after tweaking his hamstring in pregame warm-ups.
One of the strengths of the Bengals this season when they have played well is their offensive balance, with effective running enhancing a good passing game and each enabling the other's success. Green-Ellis must return to the field and run as well as he did earlier in the season if quarterback Andy Dalton is going to have a good day passing the ball and if the offense as a whole is going to effectively move down the field.
Teams generally aren't running against Houston's defense all that often, averaging just 24.3 rushing attempts per game. That number has jumped to 33.3 in the last three games, however, and with it, their average rushing yards allowed per game. Though their season average is just 97.7, it's 126.3 over the last three weeks.
Plainly put, Houston's defense has been wearing down. Though their star defensive end J.J. Watt is among the contenders for Defensive Player of the Year, he's but one man and he cannot do everything alone. Where Cincinnati's defense's stamina seems limitless, their once-stout Texans counterparts are slowing—and it's not just because they lost linebacker Brian Cushing to a knee injury in October.
Though Dalton and his top receiver, A.J. Green, are considered the shining stars of the Bengals offense, the day will be long for the two if the run game cannot bounce back. Just as with the Texans, the run opens up the pass. Forty-seven rushing yards aren't going to further that cause.