Originally posted on Fox Sports Southwest  |  Last updated 1/4/13
HOUSTON -- Maybe if you could paint a picture of the Texans, you could capture it. Maybe music would be better. Or careful photography. There is a feeling as Houston (12-4) prepares to host the Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) in the Wild Card round of the NFL playoffs at 3:30 Saturday in Reliant Stadium that there is something wrong, something missing, something sort of gray and foggy about the Texans, but nobody can say exactly what. These are the same players doing the same things they've always done, but there's just a flatness in the colors now, a lack of verve in the guitar licks. "I want them to cut it loose," coach Gary Kubiak said. That's the message this week. Forget the last month, when you lost three times. Forget what you were or were not supposed to be and how you did or did not end up. Just shine. "It's back to having fun, back to being confident, back to having the swagger back," defensive end Antonio Smith said. "Everybody did their soul-searching and checking themselves, and after you did that, you've got to move on, because it's the playoffs." The Texans were that way once upon a time. They had vigor. They seemed young and reckless. But winning sometimes creates an odd sort of patina. The more beautiful that patina gets, the more it becomes something that needs to be protected. The Texans were 11-1 at one point, and really had something to put over the fireplace and admire. Now that their season got knocked off the mantle, the Texans are now back where they started, which is to say that they aren't considered the best team in the NFL or even the AFC and that they'll have to prove all over again they've shed that organizational softness they were tagged as having for so many years. If they are speaking honestly, the players do feel freed from the regular season. "Throughout the season and training camp, it's a lot of teaching," Arian Foster said. "It's a lot of disciplinary action if you mess up on a play or whatever. But there is nothing after this if you don't play well. It's more or less telling us, Don't worry about if you mess up, whatever, let's go on.' You have to move on because if we don't rebound off of our mistakes, then it will be our last mistakes." The Bengals have a way of coaxing mistakes out of their opponents, however, especially opposing offenses. They haven't allowed more than 20 points in a game in almost two months, and they enter the playoffs on a three-game winning streak. So Cincinnati is coming into this whole affair from an entirely different perspective. The Bengals are the underdog on a mission. So much so that beating the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 15 didn't even qualify as worth celebrating. "There's more," coach Marvin Lewis said. "This group understands there's more to it." That, perhaps, is evidence of growth from a year ago at this time, when the Bengals played the Texans under the exact same circumstances and got blown out. The game was something of a baptism for both teams Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was a rookie and the Texans were making their playoff debut so presumably both have grown in stature and expectation. For both franchises, making the playoffs is no longer a sign of progress. "We've been on a pretty good roll recently," Dalton said. "Personally, I'm a lot more confident. I've experienced it. I know the atmosphere I'm going in to. This team as a whole has gotten better from the experience we have now." The Texans are trying to get on one of those rolls again. They know what to do, and they know what it feels like, they're just trying to express it. "It's playoff time, baby," J.J. Watt said. "It's time to roll."
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