The 6-3-1 Bengals are looking to step on history's toes Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) when they look eye-to-eye at their recent post-season angst at the 5-5 Texans. The Bengals.com Media Roundtable says it will be closer than the 2011 and 2012 Wild Card Games as Cincinnati looks to remain in first place in the AFC North.
John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, the esteemed Pro Football Hall-of-Famer who has covered the NFL in his town since the Oilers' "Love Ya Blue," days, says the Texans are coming off the second biggest win of their regular-season history in Cleveland. Houston is now agog over new Texans quarterback Ryan Mallett and with tickets getting scalped and playoff fever racing through the populace, he sees the Texans riding the wave over the Texans.
Kevin Goheen, the versatile Bengals beat reporter for Fox Sports Ohio, is like everyone else and has trouble getting a grip on what they'll do next. But he doesn't see them fending off Texans superman J.J. Watt at home with the aid of a torrid running game.
Mike Sando, the estimable NFL national columnist for ESPN.com who likes to bolster his exhaustive coaching interviews with the metrics, crunches the numbers and comes up with a tight Texans victory.
Jarrett Bell, USA Today's relentless roving reporter, covered the Bengals' losses in New England and Indianapolis and still picks them over Houston even though he calls them the league's "biggest mystery." But after watching wide receiver A.J. Green take over a hostile building in New Orleans last week and running back Giovani Bernard return to the lineup this week, Bell senses another road victory for Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton.
Let's go around The Table. Visitors and Hall-of-Famers first.
One of the keys for the game is how the Bengals defense plays Ryan Mallet compared to Cleveland. Cleveland is not a blitzing defense and they blitzed early. He beat them on a 41-yard completion to wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and they didn't blitz any more. The previous four teams blitzed the heck out of Ryan Fitzpatrick, sacking him 15 times. That's one of the reasons he got benched. He was starting to hold the ball and Mallett has quick drops and he makes smart, fast decisions and he was able to hit the quick outs.
Nobody with a four and even a five-man rush has given the Texans problems. Will the Bengals blitz? Now Mallett has a game on tape. I'd have been curious to see what would have happened if the Browns kept blitzing.
Mallett might have had a little advantage against the Browns, coached by Mike Pettine, a guy that had been with the Jets and Bills. Mallett was in the system for three years that Texans head coach Bill O'Brien had in New England. If you've never started a game and you've thrown four passes in your career, it was a good situation because he preparing against a Pettine defense for the seventh time in four seasons. That might have helped him, but he showed tremendous poise, he was in command of the offense, he got rid of the ball quickly, he only got touched once. And he misfired on a couple of passes down the field, but he was rusty. He's got a big arm, but they used it only two or three times because they don't have wideouts that have great speed. They did a lot of short passes and he throws it so hard it's hard for the DBs to get there.
The Texans are coming off a franchise-best 54 carries against Cleveland for 213 yards and the Browns were ranked 28th against the run. Guess who is ranked 28th against the run this week and is in first place in the AFC North? I don't think running back Arian Foster is going to play, but I expect the Bengals to get a steady diet of rookie running back Alfred Blue because they haven't always been good against the run.
Blue had 156 yards last week and in the two games Foster has been out Blue has averaged 24 carries for 117 yards. He shows patience following his blocks and he gets around the corner quickly. Foster was having a big year and I didn't pick them to win in Cleveland without Foster and with Mallett, but the offensive line showed they can move the ball without Foster.
Wade Phillips, the Texans former defensive coordinator, was 3-0 against Dalton with a 3-4 defense that was more like a 4-3 defense where they shot the gaps and put pressure on the quarterback. In the past, new coordinator Romeo Crennel has played a more traditional two-gap 3-4, but now he moves around Watt where they think they can get a favorable matchup. He can be anywhere on the line. He only gets blocked by two guys and if the Bengals adjust and give the guy help, they'll put Watt elsewhere.
Watt is the only guy that has had a consistent rush. He's on pace to have 50 quarterback hits. Rookie outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney has not made an impact. He's playing his second game since he came back the second time. He's been close a couple of times, but he hasn't shown the explosiveness off the line or the closing burst we saw in two preseason games before he got a concussion.
In three of the last four games they've held the Steelers to 76 yards rushing, the Titans 36 and the Browns 58, 35 on one carry. But the Eagles came in here with 190 yards rushing in the fourth game and had success bouncing to the outside. The Bengals have two guys that can bounce it to the outside so they'll have to play with more discipline than they did against the Eagles.
THE EDGE: Texans, 23-20: I picked the Texans to lose to Cleveland. I've picked them to lose most games, but this time I broke down and picked them because they're at home and they're coming off their best game of the season. To me it was the second most important victory in their regular-season history, second only to the 2011 game in Cincinnati when they clinched their first playoff berth and first AFC South title. If they can somehow beat the Bengals, they've got Tennessee and Jacksonville next, so this is the game for the Texans. Tickets are being scalped, fans here have hope now. It's funny how one victory can change it. People were so down on Ryan Fitzpatrick and now they're so pumped about Mallett even though it is just one game.
Obviously what stands out is how they handle J.J. Watt and whether it's Andre Smith or Marshall Newhouse at right tackle, they're going to have to give him extra help. They can't let Watt dictate the game.
But the Bengals have done pretty well on the road. That's a really good stat. Andy hasn't turned the ball over yet on the road. As Justin Smith would say, "That bodes well for them."
Andy is an average to above average quarterback. I think the contract he signed showed that. He likes the organization. They like him. It's a good fit for both. He needs to play on a more consistent basis. You can't ask for two more wild swings than against Cleveland and New Orleans. Things don't really fluster him much. He needs to find the median. He's very capable of it.
Off of last week, now you're waiting to see if the defense goes back to the last couple of years or if it's more like the defense in the first half of the season when everybody ran on them. If they can be close to last week and get Ryan Mallett in obvious passing situations that helps. He's young and he hasn't played very much. He had a nice game against the browns, but he was paying with the lead. Do the Bengals get out and play with a lead? They've done well this year when they've played with the lead.
I don't think anybody can get their hands around this team. Bu look at the division. I don't think anybody has their hands around the whole division. A few weeks back everybody was on Baltimore. Then the Steelers got on a roll and then they went to New York and laid an egg before they almost lost in Tennessee. It's going to make for an interesting last six weeks.
THE EDGE: Texans 23-30. I don't think the Bengals go down there and win. There's J.J. Watt, the Texans' run game and the Bengals' history down there is they haven't played well and they've lost five straight to the Texans anywhere. Their run game gives them a little bit of an edge there. But last week, there's no way you would have seen a 17-point win in New Orleans. It's really hard to tell about this team week-to-week, but they're very capable.
One thing that intrigues me about this game is the history of the Bengals in Houston in the playoffs. Psychologically, this could be a cool thing for them. Both teams need to win. It all starts with the quarterback, what happens with J.J. Watt and if the Bengals can play their game.
I think the Bengals are the biggest mystery in the NFL. They can be so good and yet I saw them in New England and Indianapolis. The jury's out. But that New Orleans game last week stunned the heck out of me. I would have given them a better chance to win in New England. The Saints were desperate and in the dome.
The Bengals have had a bunch of injuries with wide receiver A.J. Green out earlier in the year on top of the injuries they already have at receiver. I just love watching linebacker Vontaze Burfict. He's the guy. Everybody has dealt with adversity. They've probably had more than their share of injuries, but look where they are. They can close this thing out with a strong run.
Houston on offense is not very prolific. There's the transition to Ryan Mallett at quarterback and running back Arian Foster dealing with some injuries. That helps Cincinnati. You're talking about a young quarterback and how much can you really expect? And the home-field thing, I don't know if that makes a big difference or not. I do know Watt is a difference-maker. They have to handle Watt.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 24-17. Because Cincinnati went into New Orleans and won. Had they gone in to New Orleans and lost, I would not have made this pick. They have not been good on the road, but they won in Baltimore. When they're on, they can go on the road and win. I think having A.J. Green in the flow makes that much of a difference for the rest of the offense. And if you're talking about having running back Giovani Bernard back and building off last week. It's a huge game for them psychologically. It's how they play. Now is not the time to take a step back.
We saw during training camp Dalton had improved against pressure and with J.J. Watt the Texans are going to go after you. You hate to put it all on the quarterback, but when he's average or better, the Bengals almost always win. He's been a variable for them.
The total quarterback metric we use at ESPN shows it and you can see it just by watching games. The average for that metric is 50. When Dalton is at 50 or better, they're 26-4. When he's below average, its 10-20. And if you're at 50 percent, you win half your games, 75 percent you win 75 percent of your games.
Let's just face it, if you don't have one of those four future Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks (Brady, Manning, Rodgers, Brees), everyone else is in the same boat. You're trying to help your quarterback. If he doesn't play well, you're probably going to lose. I'm looking for consistency. You don't have to be great, just consistent and what hasn't helped him this year is he's been without a couple of weapons.
Here's the real difference for the Bengals this season. Last year at this time, they had scored 10 more points, but they've allowed 221 this year after giving up 186 at this time last year. I went back and looked to see who's playing and not having right end Michael Johnson doesn't seem to have helped them or Tampa. Plus, they've had new faces at linebacker because of injuries. But look around the league. Great defenses last year like San Francisco, Seattle, Carolina and the Bengals aren't having the same kind of year. There are probably 10 reasons why and none of them are a headline. And they're not a horrible defense, they've just been average after being so great and we'll see what happens when they get some people back.
It seems like the Bengals are having such a tough season, but they've actually got a better record than last year at this time. 6-3-1 compared to 6-4. Last year they lost their five games by an average of 5.8 points, fifth best in the league. Even though they lost they had a chance to win. Now they can lose by 25. You don't know what you're going to get. It's a bit of a mystery.
THE EDGE: Texans, 24-20. I like Houston at home and I shouldn't with their young quarterback who hasn't played. I just have a hard time trusting the Bengals right now. Houston seems somewhat consistent. When they've lost it's been by eight to 10 points. They've lost their last two at home, but they played the Eagles and Colts close. I think Cincinnati is the better team, you just don't know what you're going to get. But you see a lot of volatility in the division. It's what you have with the Steelers and to a certain extent with the Ravens. Cleveland wins blowouts and loses to Jacksonville. We're waiting for one of those teams to get in stride. You can't trust anybody.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Bengals are driving Las Vegas into Des Moines with their schizophrenic play and now we have to figure out if they're getting hot or getting ready to unload another road egg in the nest next to New England and Indy.
With people getting healthy, a two-pronged running game getting oiled up and the run defense flexing its muscles, it would appear to be they are getting ready to make the run they've made their last two seasons.
The Green-Dalton Bengals know about grinding in November and December. In 2012 they won seven of the last eight to make the playoffs and in 2013 they won five of the last six to win the AFC North. And wouldn't it be poetic justice if they christened this run against the team that literally ran them out of the '11 and '12 playoffs with nearly 300 yards from slippery running back Arian Foster?
Better yet, what if they run the ball like the Texans have against them in the last five games since 2008? Houston has controlled the clock and the game against the Bengals with its confounding zone-blocking scheme. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has coached in all five of those games, but this time on his side is former Texans secondary coach Vance Joseph and a guy that coached against them in the playoffs.
The Bengals don't have Pro Bowl WILL backer Vontaze Burfict, but they are still more athletic against the run at safety and at linebacker then they were in '12. That was rookie free agent Emmanuel Lamur's first start at SAM and he played just 32 snaps. He'll double that Sunday. Rookie safety George Iloka played only special teams in '12, but he comes into this one with the experience of 26 straight starts and is coming off a big game against the run in New Orleans.
The Texans aren't blessed with experience at quarterback in Ryan Mallett's second NFL start or speed at wide receiver, or stardom with Foster not expected to play. So if the Bengals can gang up on rookie running back Alfred Blue like they did Saints running back Mark Ingram last week, they won't be faced with Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham in the air.
Plus, the Bengals look to be better on offense than they did in the Wild Card Game of '12, when they didn't have Bernard or Jeremy Hill in the backfield. Wide receiver Marvin Jones is a big loss, but Green and Dalton have more experience and the offensive line, bolstered by rookie center Russell Bodine and rookie fullback Ryan Hewitt, look to be playing more downhill than they did then.
And they'll have to be downhill with Mr. Watt jumping all over. The best way to beat him is to stick with the running game even if it starts slow.
Think 30s. The stat line for a Bengals victory in Houston has to include a time of possession greater than 30 minutes, more than 30 passes from Mallett and more than 30 runs from the Bengals. They can't let the kid QB get 46 rushing attempts like New England did against them or the 34 the Panthers and Colts, got or the 52 of the Browns.
Think lead, too. They are 4-0 when they score first.