Five and a half days after stunning the Steelers without their leading passer (Joe Burrow) making a throw, their leading rusher (Joe Mixon) taking a handoff and their leading receiver (Tyler Boyd) catching a ball, the Bengals are looking to take down the Texans Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Fox 19) in Houston riding the karma wave.
Even though they are again without their big guns, the bulk of the Bengals.com Media Roundtable sees the Bengals defense keeping them in it until Texans gunslinger Deshaun Watson settles matters.
The Houston Chronicle's tandem of Pro Football Hall of Famer John McClain (44 seasons covering the league) and Aaron Wilson (20) is the gold standard and they've got this one blanketed, of course. McClain, also a Hall voter, saw the Texans do everything to the Colts but beat them in two of the last three weeks and he thinks they break through against the Bengals. Wilson, the long-time Ravens beat reporter, sees Watson staying hot for the win.
In another time, Texas native Ben Baby, the Bengals reporter for ESPN.com, would have been home for Christmas. But not in 2020, a surreal year he thinks the Bengals can end well gathering momentum for 2021 with back-to-back wins over the Steelers and Texans. The Cincinnati Enquirer's Tyler Dragon, who had a brief Texas stint in Dallas covering the Cowboys, won't give the Bengals the nod in a road game until they do it.
Let's go around The Table. As usual, visitors and the alphabet first.
The Texans are coming off a disappointing loss in Indy two weeks ago, 26-20, where they were trying to score from the 2 but there was a bad snap and a fumble and then the next week they got killed in Chicago, 36-7, in their worst game in more than year. We thought they had the engines running in the parking lot ready for the offseason, then they go to Indy and again they get down to the 2 with a chance to force overtime or win on a two-point conversion, but they fumbled into the end zone. So the Colts beat them by six and seven with the Texans at their 2 at the end of both games.
Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson has been playing great. He's on pace to set highs in every statistical category and his best receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, got traded, Will Fuller is suspended for the last five games and slot receiver Randall Cobb is on injured reserve. Yet he leads the league in average yards per attempt and he's tied with Patrick Mahomes for the best passer rating.
He has no running game, they're last in rushing, and for some reason in the last three games they gave up as many sacks as they did in the previous 10. After this last game they put right tackle Tytus Howard on injured reserve. Watson is always throwing on the run and he's been tremendous. You would think they'd be good in the red zone with Watson, but they're 25th because they can't run the ball. If they get inside the Bengals 5, they shouldn't panic.
Their defense has struggled. Anthony Weaver is in his first year as a coordinator and a lot of people feel badly for him because he's got seven guys out. Other than J.J. Watt they've got backups playing on their line, although they're OK at inside linebacker and safety. They can't stop the run. They're 31st and it's a problem that started nine games into last season and it's continued. But I've got to say in their last five games they've given up 120 yards rushing a game and for the first nine it was 167, so they have improved, but the Bengals will still work hard to establish the run.
They don't get a lot of pressure on the quarterback. Watt always gets double-teamed and they rely on blitzes to get pressure. Whether they start Brandon Allen or Ryan Finley, expect him to get blitzed quite a bit by defensive backs. Their best defensive players are Watt and inside linebackers Zach Cunningham and Tyrell Adams.
THE EDGE: They're better than the Bengals and they're playing them here and that should help them even though this year home field advantage is almost a moot point. Watson is good enough to win this game and they'll finish 5-11. TEXANS, 27-20
What do the Texas have going for them? Deshaun Watson, Deshaun Watson, Deshaun Watson. Deshaun's ability and poise and accuracy all have combined to make him one of the league's best passers this year. He's coming off completing a career-high 80 percent of his passes last week even though the Colts sacked him five times. He still had two touchdowns and no interceptions and had a season-high 373 yards and he was voted to his third straight Pro Bowl. He's worth every penny of his big contract. He's able to build chemistry with receivers he hasn't been able to be with much.
The Texans do not have a good running game. They have a very poor inside running game. Running back David Johnson had 11 catches out of the backfield last week. They haven't been using him enough in the passing game and last week they did. A shifty little slot guy, he will fumble sometimes as he did last game and cost them the game. They have a talented left tackle in Laremy Tunsil. The rest of the line other than center Nick Martin is fairly suspect
On defense it's been a season of struggles against the run. They miss defensive tackle P.J. Hall, out for the year with a torn pec. J.J. is having by J.J. standards a bad year. For everybody else, it's a solid season. He's playing fine. Still capable of getting into the backfield and making a play for a loss. The secondary is kind of a mess with suspension and injuries.
THE EDGE: Deshaun Watson keeps rolling as Houston breaks its losing streak. TEXANS, 24-13
What's interesting about this being a short week and given the type of win the Bengals had, you might be able to carry over some of that momentum and confidence into the game week and into Sunday's game. So even though the Bengals are in a short week I think it can actually come out to their advantage because of the type of game they had on Monday night. They have a really big opportunity here. They ended one streak by beating the Steelers for the first time since 2015 and if they're able to end this road losing streak on Sunday that can do wonders as they go into Baltimore and the rest of this offseason.
The name of the game here is running the ball with how bad Houston has been against the run. I think this is going to be a big game for Bengals running back Giovani Bernard. It's going to be a homecoming for another Bengals running back, Trayveon Williams. He went to high school at Houston's C.E. King and played college ball just down the road at Texas A&M. They've been rotating those running backs the last couple of weeks and I wouldn't be surprised to see them rotate again. It's a perfect recipe. You want to limit the amount of times you drop back the quarterback and put this offensive line in pass-blocking situations against J.J. Watt. I hate that phrase, but if the Bengals can establish the run early, I think that can probably go well for them this week.
The defense has played well and the offense hasn't put them in a lot of great positions. The 30 points they gave up against Dallas wasn't indicative of how they played. I think you have to give defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo and that staff and these players a ton of credit for how they've responded. The run game is important because if the Bengals can eat up clock like they have since Joe Burrow has been out, it's the best way to stop a hot Deshaun Watson by just keeping him off the field. The Bengals have improved but they've still been unable to put pressure on the quarterback and the secondary has been suspect throughout the year. The Texans still have good enough receivers to make the Bengals pay in pass coverage.
THE EDGE: From a matchup standpoint and what they're doing well and how it could unfold, you can find a recipe for success. Houston is playing with a lame duck coaching staff and while they haven't shown any signs of a give-up, the Bengals have a chance to steal one on the road. And that would have been the case if Joe Burrow was playing or not. I think the Bengals right now might be playing better than the Texans. BENGALS, 21-17
The Bengals defense has to have a carryover performance and create some takeaways. They've only won the turnover battle four times this season and they're 2-1-1 when they do and if they're able to get pressure on Watson and create some turnovers on defense, they've got a good chance.
I think it's going to be paramount for them to put the offense on short fields since the offense has been struggling without Joe Burrow, Joe Mixon, C.J. Uzomah, Jonah Williams, the list goes on and now includes Tyler Boyd. They need to be put in prime field position to capitalize for some points.
They also have to limit Watson's off-script plays. He's been a master at that his entire career and going back to his collegiate career. The Texans are third in the league in passing yards and a lot of that is Watson's ability to be able to extend plays outside the pocket and push the ball down field, so I think the Bengals will have their hands full trying to contain him.
THE EDGE: I think Watson is the best player on the field and that's a little too much for the Bengals and they haven't won a road game in my two-year tenure here. So I'm not going to pick them anywhere away from Paul Brown Stadium until they actually prove to me they can do it. TEXANS, 24-13.
THE BOTTOM LINE
No slide rule needed here. No Periodic Table of Elements. No calculator or Bartlett's Familiar Quotations or even a GPS.
The Bengals' blueprint for victory Sunday is in Monday night's gamebook and it doesn't matter if Brandon Allen or Ryan Finley is the quarterback. The Bengals beat the Steelers without Burrow, Mixon and Boyd because they ran it 41 times and kept the ball for 32 minutes.
Yes, they won the turnover thing by three and you really would need an atomic formula to figure out which teams lost doing that.
But the key to Sunday is Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson. Wrong guy if you're looking to get a turnover or just try to plain outscore. He's a disputed call away from going nine straight games without an interception with the NFL's longest pass per attempt. He's playing a heck of a lot better than Ben Roethlisberger.
But not if he's on the bench.
It helps that the Texans not only have the NFL's next-to-last run defense, but the NFL's last-ranked run offense. Only the Jets average having the ball less (27:13) than the Texans and it's only by six seconds. At 31:15, the Bengals keep it longer than anybody in the AFC but the Bills and Raiders. On a day like Sunday, a day that could be spent calculating how many changes the 2021 Opening Day starting lineup is going to have compared to their last game played in 2020, a five-minute pad is exactly what they need against Watson.
Plus, there's the added incentive of keeping Watt, the Texans Hall-of-Fame pass rusher, away from the quarterback. That probably means the carries for Bernard and company grow, as does the absence of Boyd, although A.J. Green and Tee Higgins are running through a secondary giving up 252 passing yards per game.
The Bengals gutted it out Monday night for 152 yards on 3.7 yards per against the Steelers sixth-ranked run defense. Houston's front may have Watt, but it desperately misses D.J. Reader, the injured Bengals nose tackle whom played for the Texans the previous four seasons. Without Reader (and their own injured tackle P.J. Hall) the Texans give up five yards per carry and they'll face a Bengals offensive line starting intact in back-to-back games for the first time since Oct. 18-25.
The one major gap between the Bengals and Texans besides quarterback appears to be in the kicking game. The Texans may be 23rd in the Football Outsiders special teams rankings, where the Bengals are ninth, but Houston's coverage teams are in the top 10 of the NFL rankings.
On Monday the Bengals clocked Big Ben. On Sunday they need to detain Deshaun.