HOUSTON — While the Texans used their big-play people to blast open Saturday's AFC Wild Card game, the Bengals couldn't scrape much out of their own offensive weapons as their improbable season slipped away in the din of Reliant Stadium as Houston rolled to a 31-10 win.
For the second time in six days, the Bengals offered little resistance in the running game. Texans running back Arian Foster and his offensive line took over the game in the fourth quarter and he topped it off with a 42-yard touchdown run with 5:15 left when he rolled around the right edge virtually untouched. Safety Chris Crocker had a shot at Foster at about the 20, but Foster stiffarmed him and tightroped down the sideline to finish it.
That gave Foster 153 yards on 24 carries, marking the seventh time in the last nine games the Berngals have allowed a team 100 yards rushing after giving up only one in the first eight games.
It was set up by rookie quarterback Andy Dalton's third interception of the game when he overthrew rookie wide receiver A.J. Green on a bomb down the sideline and safety Danieal Manning came over from the middle.
After the Texans took a 24-10 lead late in the third quarter, they poured the pass rush on Dalton, sacking him for a nine-yard loss when tackle Antonio Smith came up the middle between center Kyle Cook and left guard Nate Livings. It was the most Dalton had been sacked this season.
But the Texans also came up with a coverage pick when on fourth-and-3 Dalton backpedaled and threw one up for grabs and former Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph did the grabbing.
Green had four catches in the first half, but only one in the second half and Joseph punctuated it as he knocked down Cincinnati's last pass of the season in the end zone on a fourth-and-five play with 2:32 left in the game.
Houston took that 24-10 lead into the fourth quarter when rookie quarterback T.J. Yates found five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson running past cornerback Adam Jones after he buckled him to his knees with a double move. A few plays before, Jones limped off the field with a foot problem and when he came back, the Texans went right after him.
Johnson was wide open for a killing 40-yard touchdown catch that gave the Texans a huge 14-point margin with 1:08 left in the third quarter.
A few snaps earlier, with 2:32 left in the third, Crocker looked like he was going to change the game when Yates threw a ball at him that was intended for tight end Owen Daniels over the middle. With Crocker flying up the field for what looked like could have been a pick-six to tie it at 17, he dropped it.
The karma said the next play would happen. Facing third-and-six from his 49, Yates hit Johnson over the middle, but he bobbled and juggled the ball. Yet he recovered in time to barely get the first down.
The turnover that Dalton has meticulously avoided the past six weeks came out of nowhere in the final minute of the first half when Texans rookie defensive tackle J.J. Watt spiced this rookie show with a shocking 29-yard interception return for a touchdown that gave Houston a 17-10 lead at halftime. And it was more of an unbelievable play by Watt instead of a poor one by Dalton. On first down from his own 34, Dalton dropped back, had time, and whipped a ball to the right side for Green. But after right guard Mike McGlynn blocked Watt, Watt leaped straight in the air, caught the ball one-handed instead of batting it down, and rolled untouched past the disbelieving Bengals with 52 seconds left in the half.
It was just Dalton's second interception since he had three Nov. 20 in Baltimore, his first since the Dec. 18 win in St. Louis, and spoiled a good effort by the Bengals in controlling the clock. The Texans came in leading the NFL in average time of possession with more than 32 minutes, but they had it just 12:45 in a first half the Bengals had it 17:15 and took leads of 7-0 and 10-7.
With 1:48 left in the half, the Bengals forced a field goal when cornerback Kelly Jennings got his head around just in time to defend Yates' throw into the end zone on third-and-nine. Former Bengal Neil Rackers snuck in a 39-yard field goal inches inside the left upright to tie the game at 10 to set up Watt's heroics.
Dalton returned home to Houston and was doing OK until that. In this first playoff game between two rookie quarterbacks, Dalton was more productive than Yates in the first half. He was 13-of-18 for 120 yards while Yates went 6-of-13 for 79 yards. But the pick killed him and Yates went on to a careful 11 of 21 for 159 yards that gave him a 97.7 rating compared to Dalton's 51.4, his second worst of the season. The difference were the pick and the touchdown.
To make matters worse, the Bengals ran out of challenges for the game with 4:33 left in the first half when they failed to overturn their second of the day, which came on a third-and-four conversion pass the Bengals thought was juggled.
The Bengals had trouble running the ball in the first half with the longest runs by running backs Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott three yards each and they finished with just 76 yards on 19 runs.
Meanwhile, Dalton took seven shots at Green in the first half and got him four times for 42 yards, as well as a ball that drew a 52-yard pass interference penalty and set up the lone Bengals touchdown.
But tight end Jermaine Gresham had no catches and had one ball thrown to him in the first half and the only non-Green receiver with a double-digit catch was backup tight end Donald Lee on a 36-yarder down the seam.
The defense, solid on third down in the half on a 2-for-6 effort, rescued the Bengals from Mike Nugent's 50-yard field goal miss without sacrificing field position and Dalton's 36-yard pass to Lee got Nugent back on the field so he could hit a 37-yarder with 7:09 left in the first half that gave the Bengals a 10-7 lead.
On the snap after the 50-yard miss, defensive tackle Geno Atkins came up with a sack that led to a big three-and-out.
The Bengals lost their first timeout when they couldn't overturn a challenge on the spot when Benson was called inches shy on second down, but Dalton got it on a sneak before he hit the wide open Lee down the middle. Lee, a nine-year veteran who had 11 catches this season after coming over from the Super Bowl champion Packers, was wide open down the middle and hurdled a defender before Texans defensive tackle Antonio Smith was called for unnecessary roughness to put the ball on the Texans 20.
From there, the Bengals spread out the Texans on three straight passes (the last a shovel pass) but could only get a yard. Dalton tried to get it inside to Green, but cornerback Brice McCain knocked the ball away.
Nugent, who hadn't tried a 50-yarder all year until that miss, got it back by hitting the 37-yarder.
The Bengals jumped on top 7-0 when Green drew a 52-yard pass interference call on strong safety Glover Quin that put the ball on the Texans 20. With offensive coordinator Jay Gruden making sure the Bengals weren't going to leave Texas without feeding their Pro Bowl wide receiver, Dalton rolled out on a play-action fake and went deep to draw the penalty.
Gruden then made a great call third-and-seven and running back Brian Leonard caught a screen wide open against the blitz and lugged it 16 yards to the 1. From there Benson walked in over left guard for the touchdown with 7:34 left in the first quarter.
But the Texans responded in less than three minutes to tie it. Foster, racking up 47 yards on his first four carries, got stuffed going right but he cut it back left and there was nobody on the back side for a 15-yard gain. He had just 41 yards on 15 carries back in Cincinnati last month.
Yates then hit Daniels over the middle and for the second week in a row safety Reggie Nelson was called for hitting a receiver high. A 15-yard penalty got tacked on to put the ball on the Bengals 20. Foster did the rest on three carries, the last eight yards for a wide-open touchdown run on a play that Foster widened as he got to the pylon. That tied it at seven with 4:57 left in the first quarter.
Foster ended the half with 70 yards on 5.8 per his 12 carries.
PREGAME NOTES: The Bengals showed up at Reliant Stadium for Saturday's Wild Card Game against the Texans with the only active regular not dressed safety Taylor Mays, a core player on all four special teams.
Mays injured his hamstring early in the Dec. 24 win against Arizona and hasn't played since. The semi-surprise became the activation of rookie tight end Colin Cochart in place of Anthony Collins, the backup at both tackle spots. Collins has been fighting an eye infection the past few weeks, but played last Sunday while Cochart was inactive for the third straight game.
It could be a clue that with three tight ends active the Bengals are intent on running the ball. The Bengals are extremely high on Cochart's blocking, but he was involved in a big play in the loss to the Texans last month. Outside linebacker Connor Barwin beat him for a sack and strip of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton in the red zone on the first series of the second half and it led to a quick touchdown that cut the Bengals lead to 16-10.
Also inactive for the Bengals were safety Robert Sands, linebacker Dontay Moch, guard Otis Hudson, wide receiver Armon Binns, and defensive tackle Nick Hayden.
ATKINS HONORED: The NFL's Associated Press awards season has begun and with head coach Marvin Lewis up for Coach of the Year and Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton up for various rookie of the year awards, defensive tackle Geno Atkins kicked it off when AP named him a second-team All-Pro.
Atkins, 23, a second-year player whose 7.5 sacks made him the co-leader among NFL tackles and led the Bengals, became the club's first second-teamer since cornerback Leon Hall in 2009. The last AP first-teamers were right tackle Willie Anderson and wide receiver Chad Ochocinco in 2006.
CLOSER: For the eighth time in nine games, the Texans closed the Reliant roof. If the temperature is between 50 and 80 degrees and there is no rain, it is their call. The NFL has the say in an AFC championship game.
The Texans did it, of course, for the noise and a crowd that hasn't tasted the playoffs in 18 years and the now defunct Houston Oilers. Old Oilers coach Bum Phillips was introduced and the crowd didn't stop cheering. The Bengals sent out for captains left tackle Andrew Whitworth, left end Robert Geathers, running back Brian Leonard, outside linebacker Brandon Johnson, center Kyle Cook and defensive lineman Frostee Rucker. They won the toss and deferred to give the ball to the Texans and Mike Nugent hit it nine yards deep.