To kick off the NFL’s postseason slate, the Cincinnati Bengals will travel to Reliant Stadium on Saturday afternoon to take on the Houston Texans in a game featuring two teams headed in the opposite direction.
If not for Week 14's 20-19 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, the Bengals would be entering Saturday's contest on an eight-game winning streak and playing a home game with the Indianapolis Colts as the AFC North champions.
Instead, Cincinnati is the sixth seed and draws, quite possibly, a more favorable matchup in the Texans—who enter the playoffs losers of three of their final four games, falling out of the AFC's top spot they held for much of the season.
On paper, these two teams are quite comparable. However, the NFL has shown itself to be a league that thrives on momentum.
The NFL has also taught us that anything is possible.
Here are five bold predictions for Saturday's Bengals-Texans tilt.
The Houston Texans wouldn't be where they are without the play of defensive end J.J. Watt, who is probably the front-runner for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Predicting a big game from Watt is the easy way out. But forecasting three sacks and a forced fumble is kind of going out on a limb, right?
Watt led the NFL with 20.5 sacks while also forcing four fumbles. The defensive end was also the only non-defensive back in the top 36 in the league with 16 passes defended.
The Cincinnati Bengals allowed opposing defenses to sack quarterback Andy Dalton 46 times this season—a total that ranked third worst in the league.
Though the Bengals could expend tons of energy in mitigating Watt's impact, that approach hasn't stopped him from performing at a high level in 2012.
Though the Houston Texans defense finished 16th in the NFL in passing yards allowed (225.8 yards per game), their 29 touchdowns yielded through the air tied for sixth worst in the league.
Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green is one of the more dynamic wideouts in the NFL. Quarterback Andy Dalton found his favorite target 97 times for 1,350 yards and 11 touchdowns—all totals good enough for a top-10 ranking in the NFL.
While the Texans should be able to focus on shutting down Green, Dalton will stop at nothing to keep his main man involved the entire game.
Houston's stout run defense could help force the Bengals into passing the ball more than they would like to, also leading to more opportunities for Green.
Though it may not have a direct impact on the outcome of the game, look for Green to tally at least eight receptions for 125 yards and one touchdown.
Though the Houston Texans made the playoffs in 2011, Matt Schaub was unavailable due to injury. Saturday's game with the Bengals will be his postseason debut.
The Texans lost three of their final four games and during that stretch, Schaub threw for just 946 yards and one touchdown to three interceptions.
The Cincinnati Bengals finished the season ranked seventh in the NFL in passing yards allowed at just 212.5 yards per game. Their 16 touchdown passes yielded was good for third in the league as well.
While the Texans will be playing in front of their home crowd, Schaub could get off to a sluggish start with this being his first taste of the playoffs and with the Bengals sure to get after him early on.
As that is surely to dictate the pace of the game, Schaub could struggle to pass for 225 yards against Cincinnati on Saturday. Throw in a couple interceptions and a handful of sacks, and the quarterback's postseason debut could be ruined.
The Cincinnati Bengals have only scored one special teams touchdown this season—a punt return by Adam Jones. While that number doesn't necessarily scream success, it is significant in Saturday's matchup with the Houston Texans.
The Texans allowed three touchdowns on special teams this season—a total tied for second worst in the league. Their 25.7 yards yielded per kick return was sixth worst, while their 10.1 yards per punt return allowed was 13th.
Look for both Jones and Brandon Tate to have multiple opportunities to break a play on a kick or punt return.
The recipe for a game-changing play is here. The Bengals could to take advantage of their special teams edge with a touchdown.
While both offenses feature dynamic players (Arian Foster, Andre Johnson, A.J. Green, among others), the Houston Texans and Cincinnati Bengals both play a very defensive brand of football.
Both teams ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in both yards and points allowed this season.
With both teams still very green in the postseason department, this game could get off to a sluggish start. And as both defenses look to mitigate the impact of the opposing team's playmakers, it will create a very grind-it-out brand of football throughout the entire game.
This game could also be played well into the upper 40s or even 50s on the scoreboard, but neither team wants to get involved in a shootout here.
Look for neither the Texans or Bengals to crack the 20-point mark and for the total score to stay under 37.
Follow Jeremy on Twitter @KCPopFlyBoy.