The Texans are a confusing bunch. This 2012 campaign has been wrought with lop-sided victories early in the season against some solid football clubs, near wins against the bottom feeders of the NFL and routs against the NFL elite late in the season.
In the warmer days of this season, the Texans looked to be juggernaut crew of young and well-coached talent that were always one step ahead of their opponents physically and mentally. They won 8 of their first 9 games that included a win against Peyton at mile-high and a 30 point thrashing of Baltimore at home. Week 10 brought a highly-anticipated prime time game against a Bears team that had been imposing its defensive will on their opponents winning 8 of their first 9 as well. After edging the Bears, Houston looked lost. After barely escaping with wins in two overtime games against the Lions and Jaguars, the Texans never got their swagger back on offense.
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In weeks 1-12 the Texans posted 352 points on their opponents with their big-play ready balanced offensive attack. In weeks 13-17 they posted a feeble 64 points as they have struggled to even cross the 50-yard line. Even in their week 15 win against division rival Indianapolis Colts, 22 of their 29 points came off of 5 Shane Graham boots and a blocked punt for a touchdown. The Texans have backed into the playoffs wearing their pads sideways, but you won’t see any Texans fans too worried about it. As any Reliant-goer or sports personality in the Houston area will tell you, the Texans basically look like they sandbag to end the season. Last year the Texans lost their last three games to go from 10-3 to 10-6 to end the season before laying a 21-point rout of a very similar Bengals team in the postseason. Eventually being out played in a divisional playoff matchup between the Ravens and the Texans, Houston looked to carry their momentum into the next 16. This year losing their last two and looking bad in their last 6 may be the blueprint for the Texans to come out firing on all cylinders when it matters most.
In the past 5 or so years, the Texans have been defined as an offensive team, often lacking in some department on defense that was often exploited by their opponents. You heard a lot of talk about how if the Texans had a solid defense they would be in the NFL’s elite. Well, the solid defense is here, and making a lot of noise at that. J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith are animals. They have gotten into quarterback heads by knocking them on their backs and swatting and disrupting offensive rhythm all year. Andy Dalton needs that rhythm to do his two-step with the Bengals offense. A streaky passer in an all or nothing offense means that the key to this matchup is the Bengals offensive line against the monsters that Houston has on the other side of the ball.
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Unlike Houston, the Bengals have busted into their playoff berth winning 7 of their last 8 after starting the season 3-4. Much like Houston, they have a balanced offensive attack and a stout defense that is very opportunistic when the ball is in the air or being errantly dropped on the ground. Lineman Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson have had no trouble getting to the quarterback this season, racking up 24 sacks between the two of them.
Though I give the slight edge to Houston in talent and coaching, these two very similar squads matchup with each other very well. Let’s break down the talent, shall we?
(QB) Matt Schaub vs. Andy Dalton:
These two have put up very similar numbers all season. Dalton has really fine-tuned his decision-making skills in his sophomore season and has led some impressive late drives with veteran-esque poise. Schaub has controlled games whether it be by tempo or risk-management very well when the Texans have looked their best, and very poorly in games where they struggled. As far as the postseason goes, I have to give the edge to Schaub for two reasons: 1. He’s been on his back nearly half as much as Dalton has this year as he is well-protected. 2. There is the “been there, done that” factor with Schaub’s albeit limited playoff experience solely because Dalton’s experience in the postseason has only been losing to Houston. Advantage: Texans
(RB) Arian Foster vs. Benjarvis Green-Ellis:
Two backs that are defined by their versatility, block vision, and patience face off in Saturday’s matchup. Fosters 1,424 yard and 15 touchdown performance has been over-shadowed by stellar years by the NFL’s rushing elite this year, but it should be seen as a great accomplishment. Green-Ellis has proven himself a reliable weapon for the Bengals offense but has been playing through injuries that may make him a step too slow when it matters. Foster has had a bit of trouble with a twitterpating heartbeat that is likely not to affect his performance. Both backs are great check down options, but again the edge goes to Foster with his 17 combined touchdowns in the air and on the ground. Advantage: Texans
(TE) Owen Daniels vs. Jermaine Gresham:
Again, we have two players that are neck and neck at playing their position. They aren’t quite the beastly tight ends that other teams have utilized this season but they are both sure-handed possession receivers that are vital to their offenses and to sustaining drives. I have to give the ever-so-slight edge to Gresham as he has a very impressive vertical for a big guy and carries a bit more of a payload with his 6’5” and 260 pound frame. Advantage: Bengals
(WR) Andre Johnson vs. A. J. Green:
There aren’t many wide receivers that would make this one close with Andre Johnson. However, the young and very talented A.J. Green has really made a name for himself, edging his way into talks of the NFL’s wide receiver elite in the near future if not already. Green is the favorite target of Dalton’s and has brought down 11 touchdowns, 7 more than Houston’s Johnson. Green looks very similar to Johnson early in his career with his body control, vertical, hands, and ability to break tackles. It’s very impressive that this one is close, but again Andre Johnson’s veteran experience is vital to getting open and avoiding/attracting calls from referees, and keeping an even keel in clutch moments. Advantage: Texans
(OL) Bengals vs. Houston:
This one is clear. Though Cincy has some speedy lineman that are great for pulling and run blocking downfield, they are a liability in pass protection. If it weren’t for Dalton’s quick release, the passing game would be in trouble. Dalton has been sacked 46 times this year, while Schaub has only been sacked 27. In a game where they will likely have to double team either Watt or Smith in certain downs and distances, it’s likely that Dalton will be hearing footsteps all game. Advantage: Houston
(ST) Bengals vs. Houston:
After losing the Noodge to the IR this year the Bengals made a very good investment in Josh Brown who has gone 11-12 this season. Shayne Graham is a lock from close but has struggled when asked to put in field goals from 45+, especially in late game situations. Not enough attention is paid to kickers in the postseason…that is until their kicks mean a win or a loss. After trying it out with mighty mouse Trindon Holliday, the Texans moved on to Keshawn Martin after Holliday went to Denver. Martin has an impressive average return and though he hasn’t housed one yet this season, he is definitely primed to do so. Speedster Brandon Tate will likely be seeing punt and kickoff returns for the Bengals and much like Martin is plenty able to break one loose. Advantage: Bengals
(DL) Watt and Smith vs Johnson and Atkins:
Both teams have no trouble striking fear into the eyes of quarterbacks in and out of the pocket. Johnson and Atkins have combined for 24 sacks this year and show no signs of slowing down. Watt and Smith have combined for 27.5 sacks 20.5 of those coming from man-beast J.J. Watt. Smith has a knack for stripping the ball while tackling and has 2 forced fumbles this season. If it were only about sacks then this would be close, but the versatile and dynamic game that Watt and Smith play together gives Houston the clear advantage in the pass rush. Advantage: Houston
(Secondary) Bengals vs. Houston
Both teams have speed at defensive back but are prone to the possession receiver passing game which both teams utilize. The Bengals have put up much more impressive numbers as far as opponent yardage and success through the air, but are nearly even in turnovers. The Texans have a very fast group of corners which allows them to make up for their mistakes quickly in the open field. Cohesively however, the Bengals have a much more solid secondary which will prove key to their success. Advantage: Bengals
There is almost a sense of this game being between an older and younger brother. The Texans looked nearly identical to this team years ago and showed their superiority almost exactly a year ago. The Texans are simply just a more refined version of the Bengals, and Saturday will come down to whether or not the Texans will come out and lay an egg or be the team that we all know they can be. The Bengals would have to carry their momentum and go for the throat on any mistakes the Texans make early in order to pull this one out. I see a 24-20 Texans win in a close one.