HOUSTON — A funny thing happened on the way to Saturday's AFC Wild Card Game. A training camp rookie show broke out.
That's what happened when the Texans ended Cincinnati's watershed season in a second-half wave that claimed a 31-10 victory at deafening and delirious Reliant Stadium.
Houston defensive end J.J. Watt and quarterback T.J. Yates carried the day for the Texans rookies by pulling the trigger on stunning touchdowns while the Bengals rookie of the year tandem of quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green couldn't pull off another historic first and their season was history.
But Green has seen the future and it is the Bengals in the playoffs many times over.
"Andy and I were rookies just scratching the surface," Green said in a subdued but stubborn locker room. "We've got a lot of veteran guys that are going to show us the way, but next year we're not rookies anymore.
"They're just a better team. This team is young and we've got a lot of guys that are coming back next year and we can be like this every year fighting for the playoffs. Except we're hoping we can get the home spot because it's hard playing on the road. Especially in an environment like this."
The harsh lesson came from not just being on the road or even being 0-8 against playoff teams. After the Bengals raced to a 6-2 start they faced seven of the NFL's top 10 defenses in their last nine games and had an average of 17.5 points per game to show for it.
"We were going blow for blow and they got a huge play," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said of Watt's pick-six that broke up a 10-10 game in the last minute of the first half. "That's what the playoffs are all about. I've said it all week: great plays are what separate teams in the playoffs and he made a great play."
Even though the Dalton Gang couldn't bust out of Texas with Cincinnati's first-ever road playoff win, Whitworth and his mates are upbeat about the road ahead for the AFC's youngest team.
"We already have guys to build off of," Whitworth said. "Ending the season is a disappointment, (but) this is the greatest upside I've ever felt this team's had. We've got a chance to build off of it."
Dalton, battered by the Texans pass rush into his worst day as a pro, is the man the Bengals are building around after he did what no rookie quarterback ever did in throwing 20 touchdown passes while leading his team to the playoffs.
"I think we have a bright future. I mean, we've got a lot of young talent here and a lot of guys that work really hard and want to be good," Dalton said. "That's what you need to make a good team; we've just got to put it all together."
Head coach Marvin Lewis also kept it upbeat after the game when he spoke to his team that had been rocked by its youth as much as the Texans in the second half.
"It has a strong foundation and start for the future," Lewis said when asked in his postgame news conference about a message to the fans. "We don't get to start off where we did this year. We have to start and work. And when the offseason comes around we have to do the preparation and so forth and take advantage of the opportunity, hopefully we will do it from the start with a packed house at Paul Brown Stadium and people will come back there and enjoy what they are seeing. There are a lot of good things on this team."
Which isn't to say the spring and summer to-do list isn't busy. The needed upgrades during the offseason reflect why it went south on Saturday. After the Texans were able to protect their rookie quarterback with a 188-yard rushing effort and a defense that forced three turnovers while holding Cincinnati's top two running backs to less than two yards per carry, there is work to be done in both trenches.
In the first half of the season, the Bengals overcame their youth by running the ball and stopping the run but those strengths disappeared down the stretch. Running backs Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott were able to get only 25 yards on 13 carries compared to Texans running back Arian Foster skating to 6.4 yards per his 24 carries Saturday, and that is a real ego bruiser for a team that thought it had the physical side in its corner.
For the fourth straight game Benson didn't get four yards per carry and his two yards per on seven carries were his lowest output of the season. Meanwhile, a defense that earlier in the season went three straight games with a touchdown didn't generate a turnover for the fourth time in the last six games and surrendered at least 134 yards on the ground for the fifth time in the last seven games.
"It's frustrating because we've got guys flying to the ball and playing their tails off and they just found cracks in our D," said defensive tackle Domata Peko. "That's not cool. It's not acceptable. The worst part about it is that it's the last game of the year. You can't take it back."
During the first half of the season, the Bengals were a second-half team when five of their first seven wins were secured in the fourth quarter. But in December and January they were outscored, 68-36, in the second half. While the Texans adjusted their coverage at halftime to hold Green to one catch for five yards, Peko said Houston switched up its running game.
"We had a good game plan coming into the game," Peko said. "It seems like they made some adjustments on us and started busting their runs outside. We've got to have better perimeter run force. They simply made more plays than us."
But Peko still had Lewis's words in his ears as he zipped up his travel bag.
"We're one of the younger teams in the AFC and the sky's the limit and we've got to make the playoffs a norm around here," he said.
Green, the first Bengals rookie to make the Pro Bowl in 30 years, has bags to pack, too.
"He said it was a pleasure to coach us and how we fight and we're a family," Green said of Lewis's postgame message. "That's the great thing about this team: we don't care what the situation is. We keep fighting.
"I accomplished some big things, but I'm just getting started. I'm going to take a couple of weeks off and I'm back to work."
Dalton saved the worst day of his rookie year for his last. He tied his career high with three interceptions (Nov. 20 against Baltimore) and his 51.4 passer rating was his second worst behind a 40.8 against San Francisco.
But he didn't get a lot of help and this one came in his hometown. The Texans chased him for a career-high four sacks to force him into two desperate interceptions in the fourth quarter when the Bengals were down two scores. One was on fourth-and-and three and was as good as a punt when old friend Johnathan Joseph picked off the jump ball.
"I mean, it was fourth down, I had no chance," Dalton said. "So, we had a chance to convert, but I think that's the point. I mean, you're not going to take a sack back there."
Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden left no doubt how highly he regards this rookie tandem. In the biggest game of the year he had Dalton throw it 18 times in the first half while Benson and Scott ran it eight and seven of his throws were to Green.
When the Texans went zone to take away Green in the second half, no one surfaced while Green was making only one catch for five yards. Tight end Jermaine Gresham didn't have a catch until 20 seconds left in the third quarter and he combined with Jerome Simpson, the other starting receiver, on eight catches for just 79 yards.
The Texans said Watt's crushing line-of-scrimmage-jump-and-pick return for a 29-yard touchdown rattled the unrattleable Dalton.
"I mean the crowd couldn't have helped anymore. It was just a tremendous environment in there," said linebacker Brian Cushing. "It was loud. You could tell he couldn't communicate as well as he wanted to, and I think after J.J.'s interception, it really got to him a little bit, and we were able to just get pressure on him after that."
Watt: "Once you get a quarterback rattled, it's tough for him to get unrattled. That interception was nice and then we just kept coming, kept coming. Antonio (Smith) with the sack, Earl (Mitchell) with the sack, J-Joe with the pick. It was nonstop."
But the Bengals didn't think Dalton lost his customary cool. No QB is going to look good down two scores on the road to the NFL's second-ranked defense.
"No I don't think it did," Lewis said when asked if the Watt interception shook up Dalton. "I think he just came back and played. It is a game where you have more opportunity when you aren't playing from behind."
Green has seen Dalton do too much to believe the Texans got in his head.
"Andy's a key reason why we're here today; you don't see a lot of quarterbacks make the playoffs their first year," Green said.
Whitworth thought Dalton held up well in the din.
"Like a champ," he said. "You hear people say it all the time. You don't know how to explain poise and composure. The kids got it. He's not rattled, he's not scared. That's why he's special. If he gets the time to actually be groomed and get the actual preparation most rookies receive that he didn't get to do, this offseason ought to be a great time for him to build."
Whitworth, the father of the Lockout Twins, is well familiar with to-do lists. He already knows what is on this offseason to-do list that is no doubt already stuck to Lewis's frontal lobe.
"People want to say to say it's not an excuse to be young. But what he and A.J. did this year is extremely special," Whitworth said. "They're not only very solid players, they very solid people. They're going to have a lot of success in this league. And it's our job to find ways to make them more successful and complement them."