After a thrilling 2012 NFL regular season, the playoffs get underway Saturday afternoon with a rematch from last year’s wild-card round. Sophomore quarterback Andy Dalton will again lead his Cincinnati Bengals into Houston, to take on the struggling Texans. This match-up features two squads going in opposite directions, as the Bengals are rolling, and Houston remains puzzled as to how they’ve choked away one of the top two seeds in the AFC.
The Bengals enter this contest a group brimming with confidence. After a mediocre start to their campaign, Cincinnati pulled it together and won seven of their final eight games to secure a playoff berth. Their team-play has been cohesive and the amount of big wins this group pulled off down the stretch has been eye-opening. While their offense has been efficient, much of the Bengals’ success can be attributed to the excellent play of their defense. Six of their last eight opponents have scored 13 or fewer points, an incredible statistic. The Bengals will also be looking to exact some revenge on Houston, the team that ended their Super Bowl dreams last season in this game in 2011. Cincinnati is well-aware that the next step their young team needs to take is winning a playoff game, and their match-up Saturday gives them a great shot at attaining this feat. On the injury front, Cincinnati’s only real concern is safety Chris Crocker who is battling a thigh injury. He remains a game-time decision, and if he can’t suit up look for Nate Clements to step in as a replacement. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis has been limited as well, but by all accounts should be fine for kick-off.
Meanwhile, the Texans are polar opposites it would seem. Unlike the Bengals, Houston enters this contest in a puzzling slump. Though it seemed like the Texans were a lock for the #1 overall seed in the AFC, they choked that distinction away, and will now have to endure a pesky Bengals group in the opening week. Last year in this game, Houston dominated the Bengals in a 31-10 blowout. However starting quarterback Matt Schaub was out injured for that contest, and it was backup T.J. Yates who filled in admirably. This time, the pressure is placed squarely on the unproven Schaub. He has thrown only one touchdown pass in his past four games, and huge questions remain as to his legitimacy as a front-line NFL starter. The Texans are in quite the free-fall at the moment, losing key games down the stretch in must-win scenarios. The Bengals have been playing hungry, playoff-style football for months now, and it remains to be seen how such contrasts in recent form will impact Saturday afternoon. The Texans have had to endure a wealth of injuries at key positions this season, somewhat derailing their team down the stretch. They’ve already lost Brian Cushing and Daryl Sharpton for the season, and for this contest look for linebacker Tim Dobbins, offensive guard Antoine Caldwell, and tight-end Owen Daniels to all be question marks. They’ve been held out of practice this week, and though they should still play, for now their statuses are in doubt.
Bengals vs. Texans Betting Odds:
Cincinnati Bengals +5 (-110)
@ Houston Texnas -5 (-110)
Over 43.5 (-110)
Under 43.5 (-110)
Betting odds taken from Bovada.lv
Bengals vs. Texans Pick:
What an intriguing battle NFL fans are given to kick-off the 2013 playoff season. A rematch of last season’s tilt between these two teams, and even though only a year has passed, a lot has changed in that time. Houston enters this game on a horrific slide, leaving everyone associated with football confused as to what to make of them. Cincinnati remains an emerging, upbeat group, ready for a bigger stage. Come Saturday, the Bengals will be given a huge opportunity to prove to the world they’re no fluke, and expect them to seize it.
Matt Schaub has faded badly down the stretch for Houston, leading to a ton of chatter about how this could be a watershed game for the quarterback. Though he’d like to thrive in this spot, it certainly won’t be easy against a red-hot and ferocious Bengals defense. Cincinnati is led by their top tier pass-rush, and should pressure Schaub for all four quarters. The Bengals accumulated 51 sacks on the season, good for third in the NFL, and expect Schaub to be hurried and forced into making quick decisions on Saturday.
The Bengals main strength on defense is certainly their defensive line. They’ve absolutely halted any running attacks against them over the past few weeks, and look for that to continue against Arian Foster and the Texans. Cincinnati has only conceded 2.3 yards per rush over their last four contests, a staggering figure. The lack of a run game, combined with Arian Foster’s recent struggles will put more of the onus on Schaub to throw the football. Look for him to struggle as he’ll constantly be forced into third-and-long scenarios. The Bengals will pursue relentlessly, making it wildly difficult for Houston to move the chains. The hometown fans will get restless, and that Bengals defense will give Andy Dalton every chance to win this game.
Though Cincinnati didn’t have a dominant year by any means moving the football, Andy Dalton and A.J. Green remain a premier connection that can cause difficulty for any defense in the NFL. Like the Bengals, the Texans too are adept when it comes to stuffing the run. BenJarvus Green-Ellis has had an admirable season, but his injury issues should prevent him from being a major factor in this contest. Look for Dalton to have to take to the air on Saturday if Cincinnati is going to have success in moving the football. A.J. Green has the talent to beat any secondary, and most double-teams in the league. If Dalton has time and space to put the ball up there for him, chances are Green won’t disappoint. Houston’s secondary has been injury depleted all season long, and faded down the stretch. The issue for the Bengals will be stopping J.J. Watt and keeping Dalton off his back. The Bengals are adept in pass-protection, ranking top-5 in the NFL. They should have the horses to limit the damage Watt can create, allowing the Dalton-to-Green connection to take place.
This won’t be a very high-scoring affair, and look for both offenses to struggle, but ultimately the Bengals will prevail. They are riding a huge wave of momentum entering this contest, and their defense is healthier and more in-form than the Texans. Their win in Pittsburgh in Week 16 was a character victory, proving that this is a team ready to take the next step. Houston has faded badly down the stretch, losing three of its last four, with near losses to the woeful Lions and Jaguars. Their pass defense, once a strength, has become a weakness, as they haven’t intercepted a pass in more than a month. They’ll get exposed by a hungry Cincinnati squad searching to finally get some respect. Look for Dalton to step up in this contest, put the Bengals on his back, and vault his emerging squad into the second round of the post-season in impressive fashion.
PICK = Bengals +5 (-110)