HOUSTON Rookies grow, rookies learn.
Andy Dalton learned a lot about playoff intensity and the importance of every play Saturday in the Cincinnati Bengals' 31-10 wild card loss in Reliant Stadium. In the playoffs, one quick pass can change the momentum of a game.
That's exactly what happened to Dalton in his first playoff game. He and the Cincinnati Bengals had gotten off to a good start against Houston. Late in the half, the Bengals were on a two-minute drill and Dalton had completed 11 of his previous 13 passes. The score was tied at 10, but it felt like advantage Cincinnati when he dropped back to pass from his 34 with 59 seconds left in the first half.
"I saw quarters," Dalton said of the coverage Houston was playing.
So he went to his assigned pass.
"I threw it outside," Dalton said. "He jumped up and made a play."
"He" was J.J. Watt, a rookie defensive end, who reached up with both hands, batted the ball flat, grabbed it and raced 29 yards for a touchdown.
"That's not something you see very often," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said.
The Texans said they do, that Watt does that often in practice. Dalton would not know that, but he knows now that one play, however innocuous, can change the momentum of a game. And if it's a playoff game, it means that much more.
"That's what the playoffs are all about," offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "We said it all week. The great plays are what separate teams in the playoffs. He made a great play that stalled the momentum. We really had them playing catch-up there. That stalled the momentum and gave it to them, and they rode it home."
Watt's play allowed the Texans to do what they most want to do run the ball and swarm the passer. And in the second half, buoyed by a boisterous home crowd "We could hardly think out there," said Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko the Texans forced Dalton into mistakes he did not often make. Houston sacked him a season-high four times. They also forced him to throw three interceptions after he had thrown just one the final six games.
For the first time in a long time he looked like a rookie. By late in the game, he even seemed to be pressing.
"We didn't play good enough to win," Dalton said.
His second interception came on fourth-and-3 from the Houston 47 with 13:30 left. Pressured, Dalton just threw the ball up as he backpedaled.
"You're not going to take a sack back there," he said.
The third came on Cincinnati's next possession. Down 14 with 7:09 to go, Dalton was instructed to throw down the field to his fellow rookie, A.J. Green, and Danieal Manning intercepted.
"I was told to throw the ball to A.J.," Dalton said.
He followed orders.
To hear Dalton, he was never confused by the Texans defense. He said he knew what to expect and what was going on.
"I felt like they weren't confusing, they weren't anything," Dalton said, adding the Bengals simply did not take advantage of the "one-on-ones."
But to hear Green, the Texans made a major adjustment after he opened the game well. Quickly, Green said, the Texans "switched off man and went to zone."
It made sense. The Bengals moved the ball well in the first half, as Dalton went 13-of-18. A missed Mike Nugent 50-yard field goal was the only thing that kept the Bengals from a 13-10 lead. Green had four catches for 42 yards as the Bengals used clearouts and picks to set him up.
But in the second half, the zone took those plays away. Green didn't have another reception until just more than three minutes were left. That five-yard reception was his only catch the final two quarters and probably the reason Dalton was told to throw the ball to Green on the pass that was intercepted.
In the end, Dalton completed 27-of-42 for 257 yards, with no touchdowns, three interceptions and a lot of respect from folks around the league.
"He's a hell of a player," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "I'm very impressed with him. I think he's going to be a tremendous player in this league for a long time."
"People can say being young is not an excuse, but what he and A.J. did this year is extremely special," Whitworth said.
With the final score what it was and the way the game went in the second half, the Bengals will hear a lot of sniping about how they backed into the playoffs and how they went 1-8 against teams with a winning record.
They will take the criticism, and point to the fact that they were in the postseason with a rookie quarterback who started 16 games and a rookie receiver who promised after the game to be back to work in two weeks.
"I'm just getting started," Green said.
So is Dalton. And the rest of the league will have to deal with them for quite a while.