The Cincinnati Bengals will try to bring things full circle on Saturday
Its been 22 years since the Bengals last won a playoff game -- and that win came over Houston, in Houston, 41-14 in a wild card playoff game on Jan. 6, 1991. A win Saturday in the same city in the same round ends a 20-year playoff drought -- and gives the Bengals their first road playoff win in team history.
The Texans are a three-point favorite, which means they are favored because they are at home. Given that the home field is worth three points, this game is pretty much a tossup.
Can the Bengals win? Of course. Houston is starting a less experienced rookie than Andy Dalton at quarterback (T.J. Yates), and the Texans lost three in a row heading into the playoffs.
Cincinnati has to hope Dalton is healthy. He missed part of the weeks practice due to the flu, but is expected to play. Then the Bengals fine offensive line has to keep him upright. Houstons pass rush (44 sacks, sixth in the league) swarms from every angle.
Those are practical elements to the game, but there are three other more philosophical, Kierkegaardian elements to this game that are also important to Cincinnatis hopes:
--Limit the run.
Houston can win with a third-string rookie at quarterback because of its running game. The Texans ranked second in the league, averaging 153 yards per game. The Texans came within 58 yards of putting two 1,000-yard rushers in the backfield. Backup Ben Tate ran for 942 yards, and starter Arian Foster had 1,224. Running effectively sets up everything the Texans like to do, which is run, then use play-action to throw. Stopping the run limits the offenses effectiveness, and makes the Texans more one-dimensional. At that point, Houston would have to depend on Yates, and the Bengals could turn the pass rush loose.
Stopping the run sounds all well and good, but doing so will be extremely difficult. The last time Houston was held under 100 yards rushing as a team was Nov. 27 against Jacksonville. In nine of the last 10 games, the Texans have rushed for at least 144 yards -- and twice went over 200. The silver lining: Cincinnati was the team that held the Texans to 144, and Houston won 20-19 on a last-minute drive.
That 144 number is a little deceiving, though, because Yates had 36 while Tate and Foster combined for 23 carries for 108 yards. The Bengals need to be better, but they would accept that yardage total from the two backs -- especially if they can limit the Texans points.
--Help A.J. Green.
Wade Phillips turned Houston from the 30th ranked defense to the second. He is a wise man, and an excellent coordinator. So his plan today will focus on stopping sensational Bengals rookie A.J. Green.
Somebody has to help, be it Jerome Simpson, Jermaine Gresham or another player. If Green is doubled, somebody else has to be open. That someone has to take advantage, and give Dalton the support hell need.
Greens health also is key. Since he sprained his shoulder on Dec. 18, hes only caught six of the 20 passes thrown his way -- for a long of 18 yards (though he was ridiculously mugged in the end zone on the second-last play of the loss to Baltimore, with no flag thrown).
It would be great if Green could get himself untracked in his first playoff game, but Phillips will do all he can to ensure that does not happen. Thats why someone else has to come up with the big catches.
--Win the the big plays.
Ray Rice runs of 70 and 46 yards did the Bengals in in the season finale. Those runs are the reason Baltimore earned a bye and the Bengals lost. Limit those big plays, and who knows what happens in the season finale.
The same is true in Houston. If Cincinnati plays patient, solid defense it will be fine. The Texans will get yards -- they are built to do so. But Cincinnati cant worry about Houston chipping away. The major focus has to be on stopping the big play and preventing points. Stopping the big play will keep them in the game, and if the Bengals get a big play or two of their own and get a lead, all the better.
The Bengals were not expected to be playing at this point of the season, but a lot of things happened this season with the Bengals that were not supposed to happen. Cincinnati will not go into this game feeling lucky; it will go in believing it can win, and expecting to win.
Can they pull it off? It could just be that kind of year.