After a week of simulating the conditions they'll find Saturday in Houston's Reliant Stadium, the Bengals are hopeful they can reshuffle the AFC Wild Card game (4:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) the Texans dealt them last year in a 31-10 roundup.
But this one looks like it's going to be a taut, one-card game of 21 and the Bengals.com Media Roundtable is giving the Bengals the odds to find that one play in any of the three phases that gets them to 21 first in what The Table sees as a game of defenses.
But it's a tight call, too, with most of our pundits being cautious. Mike Mayock, NBC's analyst for the telecast, doesn't like to predict games he calls and says it's going to come down to which offense makes a play.
Yet Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com and Hall of Fame scribe John McClain of The Houston Chronicle say the Bengals defense that has fueled this 7-1 finish by holding teams to an average of 12 points per game is going to be too much for the Texans offense that has lost three out of its last four in which quarterback Matt Schaub has thrown one touchdown pass.
Paul Kuharsky, who covers the AFC South for ESPN.com and is covering this one, doesn't like to make calls, but he thinks the Bengals "are due," and that the Texans are going to have a tough time overcoming a bad December for the second straight season.
Let's go around the table:
The Bengals offense hasn't been good lately, but I think they've got to get away from being so A.J. Green-centric. They've got to go to Marvin Jones. They've got to go to the singled guy. I think Jones, slot receiver Andrew Hawkins and tight end Jermaine Gresham have to come up big. I was at the Ravens game last week where they ran a play where Green ran a go route, cleared out everybody, and they brought Jones across the formation. It only went for a seven-yard gain, but it was a needed throw and needed design. They have to do more of that.
The one thing the Texans don't do is they don't defend the pass very well. All the good quarterbacks have carved them up. They don't rush the passer very well. The only guy that can rush the passer is J.J. Watt. He's got 20.5 of their 44 sacks.
Being in the Bengals locker room talking to these guys after the game last week, last year they seemed happy to be there. Now they feel like they belong. They've got talent on that team.
THE EDGE: The Bengals win because their pass rush gets after Schaub and to be honest, Schaub isn't playing very well. Watching tape on Schaub, he's not making the throws, he's not stepping into his throws. He looks a little jumpy in the pocket. That's not what you want against a good defense.
This is a fun defensive battle that comes down to which offense can make a play. To me, Zimmer's defense is playing at a high level. I love watching them on tape. It's a combination of great coaching and really good plays. I think you can say the same thing about Houston. They do it differently. We're going to see three of the best tackles in the league with Geno Atkins for the Bengals and J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith for the Texans. Those three guys are special.
If you're a Cincinnati fan, you're trying to hope to stop their run game a little bit and force Matt Schaub into the shotgun. They are nowhere near as good a team. They're an under-center-run-the-football-play-action team. If you can force them out of it … and that's what has happened the last four weeks. They've gotten behind, they've been behind in down and distance. Schaub's not that kind of guy.
The Texans have a run game that's more explosive. The Bengals have a solid run game. The Texans have a veteran quarterback, but he's not going to beat you just sitting in shotgun. And the Bengals have a young quarterback trying to figure it out a little bit, but he's a smart, talented kid.
I think the Bengals offensive struggles come down to two things. They need to run it efficiently. They don't need to run it 30 times a game, but if you're running it only 15 or 16 times, you better be averaging four or 4.5 per carry. And you can't get your quarterback sacked 46 times, and I'm a big believer in the pass protection starts with the quarterback. Andy Dalton's been at fault for some of it. The offensive line has been beaten cleanly on some one-on-one situations, and there are a few times the receivers haven't protected him.
Any team that doesn't double J.J. Watt is asking for trouble. When they go to sub-packages, Watt and Smith are inside. If you think you're going to get away with not doubling Watt and/or Antonio Smith, you're going to have a problem. I would think Cincinnati is going into this game with some idea of helping their guards.
THE EDGE: Games I do I don't usually try to pick them. It's what intrigues me about a game. I think you're going to see two really good defenses and then on offense, it's interesting because the Bengals have a playmaker wide receiver in A.J. Green and the Texans have Andre Johnson. Both teams have really good tight ends. But there's kind of a question after that first wideout, who is the next weapon? Is it Marvin Jones for the Bengals? Down in Houston, you lost Jacoby Jones, so is it Kevin Walter now? It's going to be a fairly low-scoring game and it comes down to which offense can make a play in the fourth quarter.
The Texans could always count on their offense and now they can't. With Schaub at quarterback they've scored three offensive touchdowns in the last four and a half games. Schaub has one touchdown pass in the last four games. Against Minnesota in Week 15, I was never more sure about the Texans beating a team and they must have felt the same way because they got their butts kicked, 23-6. It's the first time since 2006 when David Carr was their quarterback that they didn't score an offensive touchdown. They've got three offensive linemen in the Pro Bowl, but their line has been a problem. Schaub got sacked 15 times in the first 12 games and 12 in the last four.
They've had a revolving door at both right guard and right tackle. And you know what they say, if you have four you have none. When they let right tackle Eric Winston go in free agency, the guy that was going to replace him, Rashad Butler, blew out his shoulder in camp and never played and Derek Newton, a seventh-rounder from last year, has played most of the time there. They're rotating two rookies at right guard in Ben Jones and Brandon Brooks, so I would expect Atkins to have a big day.
Their pass defense has hurt them and it hasn't been their cornerbacks, it's been their safeties. Former Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph had a great year last year, but he hasn't been as good this year because of injuries. He's got a pulled groin and hamstring and he's still been good and he can turn and run for 20 yards, but he can't turn and run for 50. The other corner, Kareem Jackson, has been almost as good.
But they have trouble in their two-deep coverage, when they put safety Glover Quin in the box and bring Quintin Demps off the bench to put him back there with Danieal Manning. Against the Colts twice in the last month Demps made a mental error on the 61-yard TD to T.Y. Hilton and last week's 70-yarder. I would think the Bengals would be crazy if they don't keep sending A.J. Green deep as much as they can.
Last year they gave up 18 TD passes. This year it's 29. And of the 54 passes of at least 20 yards they've allowed, 13 have gone for TDs for an average of 33.5 yards, second-worst in the league next to Detroit.
People say they've played Peyton Manning and Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, but Chad Henne threw four TDs against them and Andrew Luck had four in two games with no interceptions.
The one thing they've done consistently all year is stop the run even though they've been playing without their top two inside backers in Brian Cushing and Darryl Sharpton. They're worried they may be down to their fourth backer with Tim Dobbins not practicing this week. But they've held running backs Adrian Peterson (86 yards), Stevan Ridely (72), Chris Johnson (51), Matt Forte (39) and Ray Rice (42).
I've never seen a guy have a year like Watt has had on defense. He made that interception of Dalton last year, went to Baltimore the next week and got 2.5 sacks and almost beat them by himself, and he hasn't looked back. And he makes big plays when they need him. Sure, he's got 95 plays that went for zero or negative yardage and 39 of them on running plays. But five of those 95 came in overtime against Jacksonville.
This is a different Texans team than the one the Bengals played last year. It's Schaub's first playoff game and he's getting hammered down here. The joke is that he's asked T.J. Yates how to beat the Bengals. After Yates beat the Bengals twice last year and once in the postseason, he's got as many playoff wins as Tony Romo and one more than Schaub.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 26-23. I'll be surprised if the Texans win this game. Right now, I have no confidence in anything the Texans do. They've had a monumental collapse. It's right there with the '93 Oilers and the Astros of '80 and '86. The teams that squandered incredible opportunities and they have nobody to blame but themselves. The Bengals are hot, the Texans are not and the Bengals have the revenge motive for last year.
These are two teams on offense that haven't done much lately, which makes you think a defensive play will be the difference. We know what kind of defensive play the Texans got last year that propelled J.J. Watt into this season doing what he's done. Somebody who gets in the quarterback's face and catches a point-blank interception and returns it for a touchdown, I expect that would win it.
Matt Schaub is a good guy. The dude has done a a lot of work. He's been waiting for this opportunity. Last year he missed out on the playoffs and I believe it means the world to him. I've talked to him this week. He's trying to stay level, keep the same approach.
I don't mean it in an offensive way, but he's a system quarterback. He needs not only to play well, but he needs things around him to go well. If they can't run play-action that sets him up for the bootleg and be in down and distances equally believable they'll be running or passing, he's not going to fare as well. It's more like the offense has to keep him up and boost him up to play well. I don't think he picks up the offense and makes them play well.
I will be surprised if the winner scores more than 23 and there's not a defensive play that figures in a large way. If I'm the Texans I wouldn't want it to come down to a big kick from Shayne Graham from a great distance. He missed one last week from 52 (on the fourth play of the fourth quarter that would have cut the Colts lead to 21-19). I don't know if he's gotten any better under pressure. I don't like the idea.
THE EDGE: I feel like the Bengals are due to break through. I've underestimated them for much of the year. I expect their defense to give an offense that has been struggling some serious problems. After the New England loss and the Minnesota loss, I expected the Texans to rebound and thought they could survive things. But after the showing in Indianapolis last week and loss of control of the AFC playoff scenario, it's hard not to be down on them.
That said, last year they lost their last three in a row and beat Cincinnati pretty assertively. But that's asking a lot for them to bounce back two years in a row in the playoffs after struggling to end the season.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Most everyone seems to think it's going to be a one-play game and it does have all the feel of the march into Pittsburgh that got the Bengals into the playoffs with a 13-10 win two weeks ago. The game-changer that day didn't show until 59:46 had been played and Bengals safety Reggie Nelson picked off Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Then, as now, the sense is that defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and his guys are going to pitch another eminently winnable game and it is up the offense to get something like the 21.8 points it averaged in December for a defense that has been smoking in the last eight games of the season in allowing just 12 points per game.
But the offense can't play like it did in December. A total of 61 yards rushing in the last two games isn't going to cut it. People are getting on Schaub in Houston for the Texans first offense scoring just six TDs in December. But the Bengals also scored only six. That won't cut it in January.
Yet this is a favorable matchup for the Bengals. Zimmer, in the Belichick mold, is brilliant at making offenses one-dimensional and if the Bengals take away the run and Schaub's ability to play-action, the Texans are in trouble. Although Schaub's passer rating is still a solid 84 when he's not in play-action, it's still not triple digits, which Pro Football Focus says he is throwing after faking a run.
There is concern that safety Chris Crocker (thigh) can't play and it's a blow because when he showed up the last week of September the defense began to fall into place. But this is still not the defense that Texans running back Arian Foster crunched for 152 yards last year.
Even without Crocker, the Bengals have cornerbacks Leon Hall and Terence Newman that tackle as well as any corners in the league, two guys Cincinnati didn't have last year. The Bengals also have Pat Sims, the huge run-stopping tackle they didn't have in this game last year. And they have a healthier and lighter middle linebacker in Rey Maualuga, a guy that played against the Texans on one ankle last year. Plus, the Bengals have rookie WILL backer Vontaze Burfict and his 174 tackles that were still in the desert at this time last year.
Texans Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson is a beast, he's coming off what may be his best year, and he killed the Bengals last year even though he missed most of the season with an injury. But as good as the Bengals have been against the run (97 yards per in the last eight games), they've been better against the pass.
Only one receiver has nicked the Bengals for 100 yards (Danario Alexander of San Diego barely got them for 102), and they've allowed the third-fewest TD passes in the league with 16. The last time the Bengals allowed multiple TD passes in a game was Nov. 4 against Peyton, the game before they started the 7-1 run.
But can the O-line protect Dalton? Can it contain Watt? No one has run much on the Texans this year and Houston has stopped some good ones. Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis figures to be good to go after not playing last Sunday with a tight hamstring. The Bengals had a great November running the ball and a not so good December, but if they could plod out the 128 yards they gouged out against San Diego on 32 carries for a 33:18 time of possession back on Dec. 2, that would do it. But 35 yards on 15 carries won't.
That's what the O-line has to do to keep those huge tackles, J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith, from harassing Dalton and forcing him into the decisive turnover. He needs the time to take shots and take advantage of a secondary that has been hit deep by Tom Brady, Andrew Luck and Chad Henne. But while the Bengals are looking to recapture the run game, maybe the deep ball is hiding in the same place. In the month of December the longest pass to a wide receiver was 23 yards to Marvin Jones, and Green's longest catch was 21.
That's the question. Can the Bengals find this stuff in the heat of the playoffs, a hostile building, and against a top 10 defense?
But the nice thing to know is they travel better than blazers. When teams have a solid defense and special teams, they can go 6-2 on the road, and if Dalton can manage this thing and do what he does and find a way (he's not 11-5 on the road for nothing), you figure Zimmer and special teams coach Darrin Simmons can find an X-factor.
It just may be named Adam Jones on a punt return. The Texans have allowed one for a TD, are 20th covering them, and one of their best special teams tacklers, Alan Ball, is limping. Or it could be kick returner Brandon Tate. The Texans have allowed two kickoff TDs this season, are 27th covering kicks, and haven't been helped by old friend Shayne Graham's inconsistent kickoffs.
And if the Bengals kickers had a huge foot in the Pittsburgh win, they are waiting in the wings indoors. Punter Kevin Huber leads the league with punts inside the 5-yard line and kicker Josh Brown is the AFC Special Teams Player of the Month.
It sounds like it's a one-play game. It just may not be in the hands of Dalton, Green and Watt. Now that we're inside and in the cozy confines of the playoffs for a week, it could very well be on the foot of the kickers.