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Make no mistake about it. For the first time in weeks, the Texans showed flashes of their former Super Bowl-contending selves.
But without a steadier performance from quarterback Matt Schaub, it won't matter.
The once-famed "Bulls on Parade" defense overwhelmed Cincinnati (10-7) and second-year quarterback Andy Dalton, limiting the Bengals to under 200 yards of offense and only six points in their best performance since the Sunday night game in Chicago almost two months ago.
"It felt like the Bulls on Parade again today," said J.J. Watt, who led the way with five tackles, one sack and two passes defensed.
But the Texans (13-4) still had to hold on for dear life, thanks to a pair of first-half mistakes from Schaub that cost the team 11 points.
"The reason we won today is nobody on this football team ever panics," said head coach Gary Kubiak. "It's got a lot of class."
The playoff mantra is survive and advance, and the Texans certainly did that in recording the second postseason win in team history. But to compete in New England next Sunday, they desperately need the steady second-half version of their quarterback -- not the jittery one seen in the first 30 minutes.
Tale of two halves
The scoreboard will tell you the Texans had virtually identical offensive production from half to half, with nine points in the first and 10 in the second. In fact, the Texans actually had more total yards (250-170) in the opening two quarters.
In this case, the scoreboard is misleading.
The first-half Texans had six possessions and held the ball for 21 of 30 minutes, but only scored three field goals.
Among the lowlights was Schaub's inexplicable interception to Leon Hall, which the Cincinnati cornerback returned for a touchdown. On the ensuing possession, the Texans drove the length of the field before stalling out inside the 10-yard line when Schaub overthrew a wide open Andre Johnson in the end zone on 3rd-and-goal.
The Bengals were completely dominated (250-53 edge in yardage), yet the 11 points lost due to Schaub mistakes allowed them to hang perilously close at 9-7.
The second-half Texans, though? They were efficient, particularly in the passing game, and finally gave balance to a standout performance from Arian Foster (32 carries, 140 yards).
Those Texans scored on two of four meaningful possessions, including an actual touchdown on a run from Foster. Those Texans were able to run out the clock when the game was on the line.
Of the two stops, one was undeserved -- when a third-down conversion to DeVier Posey was called back on an incredibly ticky-tack offensive pass interference penalty.
The difference, quite simply, was in the quarterback play. When throws had to be made, Schaub made them. On a 3rd-and-2 with 2:33 left, Schaub rifled a pass over the middle to Garrett Graham, who secured the catch to essentially end the game. It was a gusty call from Kubiak, who easily could have stuck to the ground game but uncharacteristically went aggressive.
It paid off.
The decision seemed to reflect increased confidence in Schaub, who had fired an even better third-down pass on the prior possession to Posey (before the penalty took it away). Earlier in the quarter, a 22-yard pass to Johnson set up the Texans at the goal line for the Foster touchdown.
"Offensively speaking, right after the pick six, there was no worry," said center Chris Myers.
"Obviously it was a disappointment, but we were all talking to each other like 'It's alright, we'll get it back, let's go. Let's turn it back around.' That's one of the things I think you have to have as a team, when you have those setbacks, to be able to move on. That's what we did."
First-half Schaub finished with a turnover and a quarterback rating of 70. Second-half Schaub went without a mistake, converted several key third downs and had a rating of nearly 100. All against one of the best pass defenses in the NFL.
Which is the real Schaub? The answer to that will likely tell Houston's fate in New England.
Though Schaub is a 9-year veteran, Saturday afternoon marked his first playoff start. As such, some jitters are justifiable. But they better be out of his system, because leaving 11 points on the board in New England would spell certain disaster.
More successful playoff adjustments
If Schaub has regained his confidence, though, the Texans could have a legitimate shot next weekend. That's because for a second consecutive year, Kubiak and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips seem to have the magic touch for turning the page at the end of the regular season.
A year ago, the Texans dusted off three consecutive losses -- including a woeful defensive outing against Carolina and final series in Indianapolis -- to recapture their "Bulls on Parade" form in January.
The same held true Saturday. Though Dalton isn't a great quarterback, holding a playoff team to 198 yards and 6 points is a remarkable achievement. Veteran linebacker Connor Barwin and cornerback Johnathan Joseph each looked to play their best games of the entire 2012 campaign. Second-year linebacker Brooks Reed returned from injury to grab a crucial fourth-quarter sack.
"We got back to playing our type of football," said Joseph, whose third-quarter interception set up a field goal. "Rushing the quarterback, making plays on the ball."
Perhaps even more impressive was the return to form of Houston's offensive line, with Foster's 140 yards marking his third-highest total of the season. The same unit that looked helpless two weeks ago against Minnesota consistently opened huge holes for Foster and kept Schaub without a sack - even against one of the league's best pass-rushing defenses.
"I think we controlled the line of scrimmage, and any time we do that, it's going to be tough to beat us," said Foster.
All week long, the biggest question was whether the Texans could again "flip the switch". They did. The Houston defense was suffocating, allowing the Texans to more-than-double a playoff team in total yards. The running game was in vintage form. Even inconsistent kicker Shayne Graham went 4-of-4, including a 48-yarder.
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Those components were completely different from the 42-14 loss to New England in early December.
But none of that will matter against the Patriots without a consistent performance from Schaub. No matter the defense, Tom Brady's team will put up points. It's up to the Texans to answer. To do that, they need the Schaub that converted on clutch third-down throws down the stretch -- not the version that gave up a pick-six and missed an easy touchdown throw earlier in the game.
Basically, they need second-half Schaub for 60 minutes. Thirty isn't enough.
After nine years in the business, we're one week from Schaub's defining moment.