First things first, and that's today's 4:30 pm (eastern time) matchup between the No. 6 seeded Bengals (10-6) and the No. 3 seeded Texans (12-4). Facing each other in the first round of the playoffs for the second consecutive season, will the Bengals get revenge? Or will the Texans win the rematch as well?
Cincinnati Bengals @ Houston Texans
4:30 PM, Reliant Stadium
Favorite: Houston by 5
Cincinnati is riding a three-game win streak against Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, while going 7-1 in the second half of the season to make the playoffs following a 3-5 start to the season. Houston has struggled recently, dropping three of its final four games, but all three losses came to playoff teams (Patriots, Vikings, Colts).
Despite being just a win away from the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs and blowing its chance at clinching home-field advantage, Houston has a great shot at winning this if they can produce on offense. Getting the ball to running back Arian Foster early and often, while keeping the ball out of Matt Schaub's hands, can do wonders for this Houston offense today.
Offensive 2012 Stats
Cincinnati: 12th-ranked scoring, 17th-ranked passing, 18th-ranked rushing
Houston: 8th-ranked scoring, 11th-ranked passing, 8th-ranked rushing
Defensive 2012 Stats
Cincinnati: 8th-ranked scoring, 7th-ranked passing, 12th-ranked rushing
Houston: 10th-ranked scoring, 16th-ranked passing, 7th-ranked rushing
The numbers on both offense and defense are very close between these two, but I think the difference will be the running game. Cincy has run for just 61 yards on the ground in the past two weeks and they will be up against a top 10 rushing defense. There have just been four games this season in which Houston was held to under 100 yards on the ground and just two games in which Houston's defense didn't force a turnover.
With second-year quarterback Andy Dalton (16 interceptions, 46 sacks in 2012) under center against this Houston defense, I believe J.J. Watt & Co. will attack the Cincinnati offense enough to limit Dalton's effectiveness. Defense and a solid running game win championships, and that's how Houston will knock off the Bengals in the Wild Card round for the second consecutive season.
Things to Remember While Watching
*Houston beat Cincinnati 31-10 in the first round of the AFC playoffs last year at Reliant Stadium.
*This is Matt Schaub's first postseason start of his 9-year career (didn't play in last January's game due to injury, then-rookie T.J. Yates made the start for Houston).
*This is just the third postseason game in franchise history for the Houston Texans. Being in the league since 2002, last season was Houston's first appearance and they went 1-1.
*Cincinnati has not won a playoff game since the 1990-91 season. Postseason appearances came in 2011, 2009 and 2005, but were all one-and-done seasons when it came time for the playoffs. Cincy's last playoff victory? A 41-14 victory over the Houston Oilers on January 6, 1991. Exactly 21 years from tomorrow.
*The overall regular season series is currently tied 3-3.
Key Players for Each Team
*BenJarvus Green-Ellis: Sure, the Bengals have won consecutive games to end the season despite the nonexistent running game. Green-Ellis is listed as probably for the game after missing last week, and he will need to be 100% healthy, and effective, in order to take the pressure off the young Dalton. You know the Texans will be bringing the heat on Dalton, and finishing with anything less than 80 yards on the ground could prove catastrophic for Cincy's offense.
*Geno Atkins: The monstrous defensive tackle has made his second consecutive Pro Bowl team in his three-year career. And it was well-deserved. But he will need another great game against Houston's O-line to give the Bengals a shot. The pass-rushing d-tackle will be making Schaub's game hell, but a role in stopping the run is just as important today against Houston.
*Vontaze Burfict: As you can tell, defense is more important for the Bengals in this game. If the offense underachieves again this week, as they have been, the defense will need to bring its A-game to limit Houston's smash-mouth offensive attack. Undrafted rookie Burfict has led the team in tackles this season and has a shot at making headlines by keeping Foster and the rest of Houston's backs to under 100 yards. Doing so may be the only way Cincinnati has a chance at winning.
*Matt Schaub: I'm certain that Schaub will be throwing less than 30 passes in this game, but he's listed as a key player because of what he can't do in this game in order to win. Turnovers. Schaub simply needs to protect the ball and limit mistakes. Conservative passing attack is what I'd expect from Rick Dennison's offense.
*Arian Foster: It's all about the running game vs. front seven in today's match-up. Last season Foster came up big in his two postseason games, rushing for a combined 285 yards and 3 TDs against Cincinnati and Baltimore. Coming just two TDs shy of breaking his career-high this season, Foster has been running as strong as ever this season and I would expect 120 yards and a TD from him in today's game.
*J.J. Watt: What Watt does early in this game could set the tone for the Texans defensively, and play a huge role on how Dalton fares in the rest of the game. If he can get to Dalton early and rattle him, it's game over for the Cincinnati offense.
As you can probably tell, I've been favoring the Texans in this match-up. Though Houston has backed into the postseason and fallen to the No. 3 seed, these Texans are an overall superior team to the Bengals. A lack of a rushing attack recently will come back to bite the Bengals in this game.
Final Prediction: Texans 31, Bengals 17
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