Just like last month's game between the Bengals and Texans was split down the middle by halftime, so is the Bengals.com Media Forum (2-2) as it tries to get a handle on the NFL's first playoff game Saturday (4:30 p.m. Cincinnati's Channel 5) in Houston. So are the celebrity pickers we brought in for the postseason, Peter King of Sports Illustrated and T. J. Houshmandzadeh of the Oakland Raiders.
King calls it, 19-16, for the Texans: "Foster and Tate average 4.8 per carry and are incredibly productive in a game the Texans are going to need run it a lot," while Houshmandzadeh admires the Bengals defense and the weapons around quarterback Andy Dalton in giving the nod to Cincinnati in a close game.
"They should have won the first time they played," Houshmandzadeh says of the 20-19 loss to the Texans back on Dec. 11 at Paul Brown Stadium. "What was really surprising was their rookie quarterback going down the field on a Mike Zimmer defense at the end of the game. That won't happen again."
We bring out the heavy hitters for the postseason, so ESPN's The Professor, John Clayton, joins Hall of Fame scribe John McClain of The Houston Chronicle, as well as legendary Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham and ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky, the man that blankets the AFC South.
Clayton gives the edge to the Bengals in the NFL's first playoff game in history matching rookie quarterbacks. So does Lapham. McClain, who covered the last NFL playoff game in Houston on Jan. 16, 1994, gives the Texans a tight game because of home field. Kuharsky thinks the Texans pass rush working amid an electric crowd gives Houston the edge.
Let's go around the table:
It's a 19-17 game and it comes down to Neil Rackers for the Texans or Mike Nugent for the Bengals kicking it through. The place is going to be pumped up for the first playoff game in 18 years. The Texans have some pressure on them with losing the last three, but the only reason I make them the favorite is the home field. It will be loud.
The Texans haven't won since they won in Cincinnati last month, but the only real bad game was Carolina when they gave up a lot of points (28-13). Last week it would have gone into OT if they didn't go for two and they lost, 23-22, to Tennessee. They continue to play good defense and that's how they're going to play it. They'll still try to get the ball to wide receiver Andre Johnson, but they are looking for rookie quarterback T.J. Yates to keep them in the game and not make any turnovers.
I think Yates is going to be fine. He hurt his non-throwing shoulder on the first play against Tennessee and stayed in to go 4-for-4 for 47 yards in a scoring drive. He could have stayed in, but they took him out to protect him. He's their guy. The coaches have a lot of confidence in Yates. No way they go to Jake Delhomme. The only way they play Delhomme is if Yates throws a lot of interceptions.
THE EDGE: Texans, 19-17. Tight game. Tossup. Rackers or Nugent.
This is going to be the best game of the weekend. Three blowouts and this one is probably going to be decided late.
The big thing here is the way the Texans swarm on the pass rush with so many different people. I haven't seen anything like it since I've been covering the league. It's really remarkable when you consider they don't have Mario Williams. The Bengals have size up front, but the Texans have speed. I would think that Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is going to come up with ways to exploit that and make Dalton uncomfortable and they can do that.
And the Texans are excellent covering the pass. The Bengals know all about cornerback Johnathan Joseph. I made the argument this week that he has been the most valuable free agent in the league this season and in our poll he lost out to Darren Sproles. Their entire secondary has had a huge upgrade and they're just getting better and better makes things even tougher on a rookie quarterback.
Yates had his best yardage game against the Bengals and I know the Texans are saying they're not going to restrict him in the passing game, but we'll see what happens. You know they have some tricks up their sleeve with Andre Johnson back, but they're going to come out and try to run it so they can get to their signature stuff with boots and play-action and move Yates out of the pocket. This talk about Delhomme is baffling to me because Yates has played well enough.
THE EDGE: Texans. I wouldn't be surprised if the Bengals won a tight one, but Yates beat them for a reason and this time they're at home, so I give them the edge.
To me this one is a chess match between Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and Gary Kubiak. Do the Bengals load the box to stop that great running game with eight guys? Then that leaves you vulnerable in coverage against guys like Andre Johnson and tight end Owen Daniels. You've got to be able to stop the run with seven.
The Bengals gave up the two long runs to Ravens running back Ray Rice last week and it was a matter of not being in the right gap. On that third-and-one, the Ravens caught them in a blitz and there was nobody home in the back end. And on the first one they got caught too far over on a fake reverse and prevented the backside from shutting down. What worries me about run-blitzing the Texans is their offensive line has great lateral movement and there can be issues if you get caught up in a gap.
On offense, the Texans have not been great stopping the run. They give up (4.1) yards per carry and the Bengals obviously took advantage in the first half of the last game. They showed they can do it, so they've got to get back to it because they really pressure the passer. They've got 44 sacks and they're No. 1 in completion percentage allowed and No. 2 in opponent passer rating. They're very difficult to throw the ball on.
But Dalton is going to be pumped about going back home and I think it's going to be tough for a rookie quarterback to win two straight against Zimmer.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 21-17. I'm picking the Bengals to advance. This is how it's gone all year. What? Six of the seven losses by a combined 30 points? Another tight one. They might be in trouble if they don't score 20. The Texans are 10-1 when they give up less than 20, but the Bengals have scored 23 and 20 the past two weeks and I think that gets them there.
It was a one-point game the last time and not much has changed except that Yates is hurt. I know it's his non-throwing shoulder, but it's just too much to ask of a rookie quarterback to have him carry you on your shoulders and, by the way, one of those shoulders is banged up.
Dalton is a rookie, too, but he's got 16 starts and he's got excellent chemistry with A.J. Green. I think that's a trend you're going to see now more and more after teams like Carolina and St. Louis are getting in line to get their young quarterbacks hooked up with big-play wide receivers like Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon. The thing with Green is that Dalton doesn't have to throw it perfectly all the time because Green can go get it.
The Texans have Andre Johnson back and he didn't play the last time, but, I'm not sure how healthy he is if he's going to play 40-50 plays and he hasn't played a full game yet. He'll be able to make some plays, but I think the Bengals are more equipped to go downfield.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 19-10. The Texans numbers are going down and they've lost the last three. I think Dalton has the edge over Yates.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The one thing the Bengals want to repeat from the last game is jumping out to a double-digit lead. With the Texans No. 2 in the league rushing the ball, No. 2 in defense, and No. 1 in opposing quarterback completion percentage, falling behind is a recipe for a long day. Especially on the road. Throw in Houston leads the NFL in time of possession average at 32:41 and there are no fourth-quarter comebacks lurking here.
On defense, it will come down to Cincinnati's ability to stop the run, with the matchups to keep an eye on being defensive tackle Domata Peko vs. Texans center Chris Myers and Bengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga on fullback Lawrence Vickers. In Cincinnati the Bengals did allow Ben Tate's 44-yard run, but not much else and they got a big game from Maualuga with two forced fumbles and 10 tackles. With Baltimore's Ray Rice blowing up the middle for two runs of 121 yards last week, all eyes are on Maualuga.
The running game sets up everything else for Texans head coach Gary Kubiak's clever offense of play-action and bootlegs to open up tight end Owen Daniels and wide receiver Andre Johnson. A big loss for the Bengals is safety Taylor Mays, a guy that came off the bench to cool off Daniels in the second half last month. Daniels didn't get a catch working against Mays, but he ended up with seven for 100 yards and outside linebacker Thomas Howard has to make sure Daniels doesn't get off like that again. Johnson, the great Pro Bowler coming back from a hamstring injury, figures to go about 40-50 snaps and the Bengals cornerbacks have to play as well against him as they did against Ravens rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith when they held him to five catches for 33 yards last Sunday.
For the Bengals it all gets back to letting the rookie QB beat them. Get Yates in third-and-long and if he doesn't cough up a sack-fumble or a pick, which he didn't in the fourth quarter last month, make him do it again.
Since rookie wide receiver A.J. Green sprained his shoulder late in the first half in St. Louis Dec. 18, the Bengals offense has struggled. Green makes them go and in the 10 quarters since his injury, Dalton has thrown the ball to him 20 times for six catches and a long of 18 yards.
Defenses are clearly taking Green away, so it's time for tight end Jermaine Gresham to become a household name in the playoffs. The second half last month showed what the Bengals can't do against the Texans offensively. Running back Cedric Benson had minus yardage while outside linebacker Connor Barwin burned rookie tight end Colin Cochart in pass protection for a sack-fumble of Dalton that turned the game around.
With 44 sacks led by Barwin's 38.5 sacks and hits, that's what the Texans do. Four players have at least 5.5 sacks. With the Bengals fifth in the league in allowing sacks per pass, it is strength vs. strength. Don't look for Barwin to be matched up on any more tight ends. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right tackle Anthony Collins held up against Barwin and rookie outside linebacker Brooks Reed (six sacks) in the first meeting. This time right tackle Andre Smith, who was out with an injured ankle in the prior game against the Texans, will take on the task of slowing down the Houston pass rushers.
Benson ripped the Texans for 92 yards rushing in the first half, the Texans adjusted, now the ball is back in the Bengals court. The Bengals interior has a big challenge against defensive ends J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith, big reasons Houston is fourth defending the run. Since that first half against Houston a month ago, Benson is averaging three yards per carry. In his last 59 carries he's gained 176 yards and the running backs have gained 281 yards on 90 carries for 3.1 yards per rush. A three-per effort on Saturday and it's a long day.
If the Bengals can pull off the formula they used in the first half of the season and the first half against the Texans, they should be OK. Rush the ball for four yards per carry, hold the Texans to 3.3 yards and get a couple of big plays from Green while keeping Dalton clean in the pocket. Make their rookie QB throw the ball to you while your rookie QB doesn't throw it to them, and the plane for Providence, R.I., leaves at 3 p.m. next Friday.