J.J. Watt and the Houston Texans face the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday… (Tony Gutierrez / Associated…)
Less than a month ago, the Houston Texans looked like a shoo-in for the No. 1 seeding in the AFC. Now, they’re hanging on for dear life.
The Texans have lost three of four and play host to the Cincinnati Bengals, who have won three in a row.
Cincinnati’s pass rush is particularly potent. The Bengals set a club record this season with 51 sacks, 40 by the defensive line. That stifling defense has held opponents to 13 points or fewer in six of the last eight games.
Saturday’s postseason opener is a rematch of a wild-card game a year ago, when Houston posted a 31-10 victory over the Bengals at home before losing to Baltimore in the second round.
From the perspective of Texans Coach Gary Kubiak, who watched his team struggle in December, what his players really need to do is unclench.
“I don’t want them to worry about making mistakes,” Kubiak told reporters this week. “I want them to play with reckless abandon. I want them to cut it loose.”
A lot to tackle
In their last two playoff appearances, the Bengals struggled to stop the run. The New York Jets’ Shonn Greene ran for 135 yards and a touchdown in a win over them in 2009, and last season Houston’s Arian Foster trampled them for 153 yards and two touchdowns.
Defense is a strong suit for these Bengals, who finished this season 12th against the run and sixth overall. The Texans had the league’s eighth-ranked running game this season, led by Foster, whose numbers have been down in recent games. He has failed to run for 100 yards in four of five games.
First time for everything
Houston quarterback Matt Schaub is in his ninth NFL season, but second-year Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has more postseason experience. Dalton has started one playoff game; Schaub is making his playoff debut. (He was injured for last year’s playoff games, and rookie T.J. Yates played in his place.)
Quarterbacks who threw for the most yards in their first postseason start:
PLAYER TEAM YEAR ROUND YARDS Kelly Holcomb Browns 2003 Wild card 429 Aaron Rodgers Packers 2010 Wild card 423 Randall Cunningham Eagles 1988 Divisional 407 Kurt Warner Rams 2000 Divisional 391 Neil Lomax Cardinals 1983 Wild card 385
Former NFL most valuable player Rich Gannon of CBS: “I don’t think the Texans come in feeling really good about themselves. They’ve lost a little bit of their momentum. They’ve got a quarterback who over the past four games has thrown one touchdown and three interceptions. So I think it’s absolutely critical that they get off to a good start, even at home.”
By the numbers
How teams compare statistically. All stats are per-game averages, except for sacks and turnover differential, which are for the season (league rank in parentheses):
Cin Hou POINTS SCORED 24.4 (12) 26.0 (8) POINTS ALLOWED 20.0 (8) 20.7 (9) PASS OFFENSE 223.6 (17) 239.4 (11) RUSH OFFENSE 109.1 (18) 132.7 (8) PASS DEFENSE 212.5 (7) 225.8 (16) RUSH DEFENSE 107.2 (12) 97.5 (7) SACKS 51 (3) 44 (T5) PENALTIES 6.2 (12) 6.8 (T24) TURNOVERS +4 (11) +12 (7)
Schaub hasn’t been himself lately, and he’s missed a lot of open receivers. The Bengals are on such a roll on defense, and they have such a playmaker in receiver A.J. Green, they’re primed to pull off the upset and pick up their first playoff victory since 1990.