A year ago this weekend, in the same line on the AFC bracket and in the same made-for-television time slot, the Cincinnati Bengals went to Houston and were promptly eliminated from the playoffs.
Take Two can be different.
That's not to say it will be, or that the still young and still very much unproven Bengals are ready to win a road playoff game against a talented Texans team. But there are reasons to believe the Bengals can win this time around, and three primary reasons are listed below.
The Bengals are playing a serious brand of defense, and that defense isn't just the biggest reason they closed the season on a 7-1 run. It's the biggest reason that the Bengals can make some sort of postseason run, too.
In Houston they'll have to stop the run first, as Arian Foster scored twice in last year's 31-10 Texans playoff win and remains one of the NFL's best backs. The Bengals finished the season ranked seventh in total defense and seventh in run defense, succeeding with an athletic front that forces opponents out of its strength and experienced secondary that's helped limit big plays both on the ground and through the air. Geno Atkins might be the NFL's best defensive tackle, and he's not the only young Bengal who's playing his best football right now.
Last season was a wild one, one that ended with the Bengals just making the playoff cut. This season wasn't without bumps, but the Bengals are a totally different team than they were at 3-5. Over the last eight games, the defense has allowed opponents to reach the red zone just 17 times and has allowed only five touchdowns in those 17 trips.
The Bengals have forced 19 turnovers in those eight games, too. Their only loss since the first week of November came when the Cowboys rallied for a late win on Dec. 9.
Last year, quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green were rookies -- and they weren't the only players on the NFL's big stage for the first time. The Texans scored the final 24 points in last year's playoff game, including a 29-yard J.J. Watt return of one of Dalton's three interceptions. Green saw double and even triple coverage throughout the game, and the Bengals never established a run game or another receiving threat.
The offense hasn't been perfect, but it's grown up nicely. The defense is also older and peaking, and with the exception of veteran safety Chris Crocker it's a healthy group headed into Saturday's game.
The four-game losing streak that sunk the Bengals to 3-5 was a total team effort; bad throws, bad tackling and bad mistakes all played a part. This current hot streak has been carried by the defense but has seen Dalton play smarter, the offensive line find a new confidence level and new pass-catchers emerge, even as rookie Mohamed Sanu was lost for the season.
The Bengals went 2-3 last December, a stretch that saw the wins come over the struggling Rams and Cardinals and the losses at home to Houston on the game's final play, plus deflating divisional losses to Pittsburgh and Baltimore. This season was about getting over the PittsburghBaltimore hump, and the Bengals lost to both in the first half of the season. Last week's win over Baltimore was largely meaningless, but winning two weeks ago in Pittsburgh punched the Bengals' ticket back to this game -- and left reason for those both inside and outside of the Bengals locker room to believe they can win it.
3. The Texans appear vulnerable
Last year the Texans were a first-time playoff team, and were playing backup quarterback T.J. Yates after Matt Schaub suffered a season-ending injury. But the Texans showed they belonged, even in a tough loss in Baltimore in the divisional round, and carried that momentum to an 11-1 start this year.
The Texans are still a dangerous, talented team, but they lost a first-round bye by losing last week, part of a 1-3 finish. Schaub in the last four games has thrown one touchdown vs. three interceptions, and the Texans enter the postseason with no real momentum. The Texans will look to establish Foster and hope the combination of a dominating defensive line and a loud home crowd can rattle Dalton.
The Bengals have a plus-four turnover differential for the season and a plus-eight over the last seven games. If they can win the turnover battle Saturday, they can win the game.