Updated: 1-4-13, 6:20 a.m.
Any game, especially a postseason game, with Pro Bowlers A.J. Green and Andre Johnson, makes the wide receiver position pivotal. Such is Saturday's AFC Wild Card game between Green's Bengals and Johnson's Texans (4:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) in Houston.
Johnson is one of the receivers Green admires, everything from his similar long, lean style and the way he professionally goes about it with nary a word. And everyone in Bengaldom knows that Green is going to be shadowed by old friend Johnathan Joseph in a battle between two Bengals first-round draft choices five years apart.
Johnson won't have it easy, either, with a Bengals secondary that in the last half of the season has blanked Dwayne Bowe of the Chiefs and Darrius Heyward-Bey of the Raiders, and held down Victor Cruz of the Giants (three), Jeremy Maclin (four) and Mike Wallace of the Steelers (one) when it comes to making catches.
So it could come down to the No. 2 receivers in what is another battle of Bengals products, fifth-rounder Marvin Jones vs. former Bengal Kevin Walter. Walter is making his 92nd start (his first two came with Marvin Lewis's first playoff team in '05) while Jones makes his sixth in what has really been the first half of the season for him because he didn't get into the starting lineup until he came back from a sprained knee at the end of November.
"For Marvin Jones to go out there and play another game like that, that's big for him," Lewis said of Jones's effort in the season finale against Baltimore. "He has to keep playing and keep coming all the time."
Here he comes; the man the Bengals believe is going to be Green's running mate for a couple of terms. After battling the No. 1-ranked Steelers defense for 65 yards on five catches in what amounted to his first playoff game on Dec. 23, Jones followed it up with five more catches last week for 45 yards and his first NFL touchdown on an 11-yard play. The Bengals are hoping their prized speedster is finding his stride just in time as he searches for the deep ball he consistently found in training camp and preseason but hasn't seen yet in his first 18 catches, the longest of which is 23 yards.
The deep ball is a must Saturday. Colts speedster T.Y. Hilton has strafed the Houston secondary for 61- and 70-yard TDs within a span of two weeks and of the 29 touchdown passes the Texans have allowed, nearly half of them have come outside the red zone.
"As my snaps increase—I'm out there getting experience and catches—it's obviously giving me experience and confidence between Andy (Dalton) and I and the group of the offense. For it to continue would be great," Jones said.
Jones burst onto the scene in August with a burst as he hauled in everything deep. And when he did drop passes as he adjusted to an NFL deep ball, he ran by people. But since he's been in the lineup, Green has noticed something else.
"He's physical. A lot of people think he's small, but he's one of the most physical receivers I've seen in there blocking," Green said. "He doesn't take crap from anybody. He's got a good attitude."
One of the reasons the running game throttled into gear back in November is that Jones and fellow rookie wideout Mohamed Sanu were taking the cue when they got into games from Green and slot receiver Andrew Hawkins and hit anything that moved.
"I've always taken pride in that; being an all-around receiver and being real physical," Jones said. "I feel like whoever I'm going against, a linebacker, whatever, I can win that matchup. That's the approach I take. When I'm in motion, I'm going into the trenches. Blocking (by the receivers) is real key for our running game and running back."
Green says the 6-2, 195-pound Jones is faster than he is and Jones should know because if Green is watching Johnson, Jones is watching Green.
"What's good is it's only his second year and he's a veteran; he leads by example," Jones said. "I've learned to keep running through the deep ball. I struggled with that early. I wasn't used to the ball being in the correct spot, but watching him has made me better."
The Bengals are having deep thoughts given how opposing quarterbacks have attacked the Texans safeties. In losing three of its last four games, Houston has allowed four TD passes of at least 37 yards and three of at least 61.
"We can't force it," Jones said. "We have to make sure we're clicking on all cylinders."
BROWN NAMED: Bengals kicker Josh Brown hasn't even been in the AFC for 30 days and on Thursday he was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Month.
"Things are going well. We'll see what happens next month," said Brown, on the way to board a bus for practice at the University of Cincinnati's bubble Thursday morning. "Hopefully we can cap it off with a good five-game winning streak."
Since Brown signed Dec. 6 in the wake of Mike Nugent's kicking calf injury, he's helped carry the Bengals into Saturday's Wild Card game (4:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) with a blistering four games. He's hit 11 of 12 field-goal tries and his 43-yarder with four seconds left in Pittsburgh on Dec. 23 secured Cincinnati's playoff spot. His only miss came from 56 yards earlier in that game at Heinz Field, where no one has kicked a field goal longer than 52.
Brown, who spent his nine previous seasons in the NFC with Seattle and St. Louis, won the award in October 2008 while with the Rams, but he couldn't remember when.
"They don't give you reminders. A cash bonus would be nice," Brown said.
Brown keeps showing up in key moments. With Brown's selection, the Bengals this season have won a franchise-best seven of the NFL's weekly or monthly AFC awards. They had six in 1988 and 1989.
Suddenly, in a span of 28 days, Brown has gone from the unemployment rolls to just a flat-out roll. He heads into Reliant Stadium as the Bengals leader in postseason games with 10, a surface he compares to University of Phoenix Stadium where grass is secured in movable trays. According to Elias, Brown is 11 of 13 on his field-goal tries against the host Cardinals in that building.
"I would much rather be in Houston than New England right now," he said.
The other Bengals award winners this season:
» Tackle Geno Atkins named AFC Defensive Player of the Week after he recorded two sacks for 17 yards Dec. 23 in Pittsburgh. Atkins provided consistent pressure and led the defensive line with eight total tackles (four solo) and one forced fumble.
» Left end Carlos Dunlap earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week for his Dec. 2 performance at San Diego. He had had two sacks, and on each one he forced a fumble. He recovered one of the fumbles late in the game to help preserve the win, and he totaled five tackles and four additional QB pressures in the game overall.
» Quarterback Andy Dalton earned AFC Offensive Player of the Week for his Nov. 11 performance vs. the Giants. He passed for a career-high four TDs, with no INTs, and passed overall 21-for-30 for 199 yards.
» Wide receiver A.J. Green was AFC Offensive Player of the Month for September. In four games he led the conference in receptions (27), was second in receiving yards (428) and was tied for most receiving TDs (three).
» Right end Michael Johnson earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week for his Sept. 23 performance at Washington. Johnson recorded a career-high 3.0 sacks for minus-17 yards, while totaling seven tackles (six solo).
» Cornerback Adam Jones earned AFC Special Teams Player of the Week for his Sept. 16 performance vs. Cleveland. His three punt returns for an average of 30.0 yards included an 81-yarder for a TD, the only non-offensive score for either team in a seven-point (34-27) Bengals win.
*THURSDAY PRACTICE: *Safety Chris Crocker (quad) has been saying he'll be OK for this game, but he showed up in sweats after he went limited on Wednesday. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis (hamstring) and safety Taylor Mays (hamstring) were limited Thursday for the second straight day. Cornerback Jason Allen (hamstring) was also limited. Defensive end Wallace Gilberry (illness) was limited after missing Wednesday. Cornerback Leon Hall was also limited for a non-injury reason. Cornerback Terence Newman (groin) was back to full go Thursday.
New University of Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville surfaced in the bubble and chatted with Bengals president Mike Brown and head coach Marvin Lewis.
Some quick math by left tackle Andrew Whitworth. Only three current starting AFC tackles have been to the playoffs four times with their club and they're all from the AFC North: Whitworth, Baltimore's Michael Oher, and Pittsburgh's Max Starks.