In honor of the biggest Cincinnati-Houston NFL game since the Bengals beat the Oilers twice in three weeks at the end of the 1990 season and in the first-round of the playoffs at Riverfront Stadium, the Bengals.com Media Forum is going retro with two scribes from that era that are headed to the Hall of Fame in the Houston Chronicle's stately John McClain and ESPN's ubiquitous Chris Mortensen.
But we also have to give a nod to that species not yet born when Oilers quarterback Warren Moon broke his hand and the hearts of Houston on Bengals linebacker James Francis's helmet and go to the Web sites. So also breaking down Sunday's game at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-WLW-AM 700) are Pete Prisco at CBSSports.com and Nick Scurfield of HoustonTexans.com.
McClain covered those games in '90 and has presided over Houston's first 10 seasons. Amid the franchise's longest winning streak at six, he's going to pick the Texans until they lose. If people are raving about Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton's poise, the Texans coaches love their own rookie quarterback T.J. Yates's cool as he heads into a chilly PBS.
Scurfield offers no score, but gives the edge to the Texans defense while Prisco is going with the Bengals because of their defense, which he thinks is going to rise to the desperation of the moment. Mortensen is going with the Bengals, too, because he senses they are good enough for a win at home against a contending team.
Let's go around the table.
The Texans are playing great defense and controlling the ball, but they haven't reduced the game plan for Yates. The big question is going to be what he does without Andre Johnson because that was his go-to guy last week when they beat Atlanta at home.
He really showed off a good arm with a perfect 50-yard pass as well as 22-yard route over the middle and 30-yard out, but they were all to Johnson. I thought his most impressive throw was against an all-out blitz and he hit running back Arian Foster as a safety valve for a 26-yard gain.
Yates is a more mobile quarterback than Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart and when he got the job, we got unsolicited calls from media members that covered him at North Carolina saying how cool and calm he is, and the Texans have done a really good job of coaching with their first two quarterbacks down.
They've really bought into head coach Gary Kubiak's theme of "Next Man Up" because of all the injuries, and the hiring of Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator has turned around the league's worst defense to one of the best. Signing Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph was one of their biggest moves. They were thinking about going after Nnamdi Asomugha in free agency and with Joseph's agent wanting an answer they got it with $23.5 million guaranteed and he's been everything they hoped. He not only covers the best receiver, he's been a very good leader for them.
They rush the passer very well. They didn't sack Matt Ryan last week, but they hit him 10 times. The outside backers have the most sacks, but rookie defensive end J.J. Watt has been great. They were looking to draft Alden Smith, but it has worked out.
THE EDGE: Texans, 19-16. I'm going to stick with them until they lose. They're playing with a lot of momentum and they've been very difficult to score on.
Looking at it, these are two similar teams. They've got strong running games and they've each got a wide receiver that makes big plays downfield. That will be the question. Can the Texans survive the loss of Andre Johnson? They do have other capable guys like a Jacoby Jones that is a fast guy that has made some big plays in the past and will have to step up Sunday.
The Texans have two impressive backs. Foster is a glider and Tate is a more violent runner, but they both have been able to have big days and Foster is almost as big a threat catching it out of the backfield.
The pass defense has been just the opposite of last year when it was the fourth-worst in history. Joseph has been great. He's done whatever they've needed. He plays the best guy, he's physical, he covers. It seems like he's able to stop guys one or two yards short when it looks like they've got the first down. And strong safety Glover Quinn is playing at a high level.
THE EDGE: Texans have an advantage with their running game and defense.
I think the Bengals are due not for a signature win, but a must win to stay in the playoff race. The Texans are playing for a lot. They're in that hunt for a first-round bye, but the Bengals are really in need of a quality win and I think against a rookie quarterback at home it should turn out for them.
I think if they hit some big plays early and the Texans are playing from behind, Houston is going to be in trouble. The Bengals can't let them run the ball and they have to get their own running game cranked up. People around the league are still high on Dalton and they should have the edge in the quarterback play.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 23-17. Last week in Houston, Matt Ryan had a chance to make a couple of plays early for the Falcons but some passes were missed and dropped and Houston took advantage. If the Bengals can do that and get ahead with Dalton and Green, it will be tough for Houston to come back.
I'm surprised at the Bengals defense. They haven't played as well as they were lately. I think losing Carlos Dunlap has hurt them and they have to be careful because Yates is a quick, athletic guy that can hit rollout passes off play-action like Schaub can.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 23-20. The Bengals need this one more than the Texans. They're desperate and I think at home their defense is going to get back to playing like it did earlier in the year. The Texans not having Andre Johnson helps.
THE BOTTOM LINE
We're with Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth on this one. He said this week that the key to the game is how both lines play up front and truer words were never spoken.
It is another way of saying the Bengals must match Houston's intensity. Never before in recent memory have the intangibles meant more than personnel or Xs and Os for Cincinnati. The Bengals are at home and must impress their will on an indoor team without its top two quarterbacks and one of its biggest playmakers. With four games left and five teams with a shot at one playoff spot, this is a front-seven game.
Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is extremely impressed with how hard and fast the Texans play on defense and the offense rides a two-back running game that never stops trying to grind it. It is even ratcheted up a notch with the presence of a rookie quarterback.
The Texans bring a relentless and versatile pass rush from Phillips's resourceful 3-4 that has claimed 35 sacks and because they're usually rushing five, Gruden says the Bengals are going to have to stand up one-on-one for the most part.
Last week's protection suffered mainly because the Bengals were down 21 on the road early. But Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau caught them once in the wrong protection when he unleashed outside linebacker James Harrison as a free runner, Dalton held on to the ball too long on another Harrison sack, and Whitworth got his foot stepped on and didn't recover in time to give up his first career sack to Harrison. All things that can't happen at home.
With third-year backer Connor Barwin and his 8.5 sacks opposite Whitworth and rookie backer Brooks Reed and his six sacks opposite limping Andre Smith (ankle) at right tackle, injured sack ace Mario Williams is a distant memory. But the Bengals inside people also have to be stout against the combined nine sacks of ends J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith.
And the conventional wisdom is that Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is going to do everything in his power to bottle up the crisp and efficient Texans running game that has allowed running backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate to combine for nine 100-yard games. With Yates in his second NFL start not being able to throw to the target that rescued him in his first one, the Bengals have a chance to cut the head off the snake.
You just need to look at one place on the stat sheet at 4:10 p.m. Sunday to see if the Bengals won. If the Texans rush it more than 20 times for more than four yards per carry, they're probably going to win because their running game sets up their lethal play-action passing and Yates's effective rollouts.
And those are two things that have given the Bengals defense fits this season. Going into last week's game, Stats Inc., had the Bengals giving up the most yards in the NFL off play-action passes. So while the linemen up front have to keep play well against the Texans zone scheme, the backers have to be good in space against a dangerous tight end in Owen Daniels and Foster coming out of the backfield with excellent hands.
Two years ago at PBS, Daniels and running back Steve Slaton killed the Bengals in the pass game. It will be recalled that while Andre Johnson had eight catches for 135 yards in that one, he had 59 of them on one play and he didn't score a touchdown. The Bengals have a different corps of linebackers (they believe they are the best they've had under Marvin Lewis) and they need to prove it and play better than those guys did two years ago.
There's no question that the most intriguing matchup is former Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph against Bengals rookie sensation A.J. Green at wide receiver. And there is former Bengals kicker Neil Rackers performing on the surface he never had during his first three seasons in the league on the PBS grass.
And the Bengals can only hope the new Texans punter, Matt Turk, gift-wraps this one for them like he did the game in Jacksonville back in October.
But that won't decide this one. The intensity of the guys up front will in a front-seven game with four left.