After a season of lofty hopes and expectations of a home AFC Championship game, the Texans find themselves in the exact same spot they were one year ago. They're the number three seed in the AFC playoffs, opening at Reliant Stadium against number six Cincinnati.
The Texans thrashed the Bengals, 31-10, in the Wild Card round last season, less than a month after clinching their first AFC South title in a stirring come-from-behind effort in Cincinnati. Both games were quarterbacked by then-rookie T.J. Yates, who clearly is not as good as Matt Schaub, recent flaws and all.
From a superficial standpoint, with Schaub playing, it's easy to pick Gary Kubiak and his host Texans (12-4) to again cruise past Cincinnati (10-6) and into a road rematch with New England in the divisional round next Sunday.
Look closer, though, and much has changed for the Texans and Bengals since the January 2012 and December 2011 matchups -- particularly when the Texans have the ball.
Texans on offense
When we last left off, the Texans were the bullies in this matchup, with Arian Foster and Ben Tate rushing 33 times for a combined 190 yards and two touchdowns.
It's hard to imagine that happening again.
The Texans never fully recovered from losing the right side of their offensive line this past offseason, and the problem has only gotten worse of late. Foster has broken 100 yards just once in the team's last five games, and in three of them rushed for yards-per-carry averages of 3.1, 2.7 and 1.5.
That's a far cry from 2011, when Foster entered the postseason with 39 carries for 267 yards (6.9 YPC) in his final two regular season games. In that scenario, the Houston quarterback (Yates) needed only to be a game manager, with the rushing attack serving as the team's identity.
This year, the quarterback must consistently make plays while avoiding mistakes.
For Schaub, it won't be easy. Cincinnati boasts fearsome pass rushers up front in the form of Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap and a very deep secondary corps including star corner Leon Hall and serviceable veterans such as Terence Newman, Nate Clements, Adam Jones and ex-Texan Jason Allen.
The good news for Houston is that the passing game began to show signs of life in the second half in Indianapolis. Even against a fearsome Colts pass rush, the Texans went 3-of-5 on 3rd downs of five yards or longer, showing signs of fixing a long-established bugaboo. Kevin Walter finally re-established himself as a competent receiver opposite Andre Johnson, catching three passes for 51 yards.
It only resulted in 10 points, though, due to a pair of unforced errors from Schaub. On one drive, Schaub inexplicably took a sack that moved the team out of realistic field goal range, and on another threw off his back foot and was intercepted in the end zone.
Limit the turnovers, and the Texans still have enough viable weapons on offense to score points in this matchup. Even if they have to be a pass-first team.
Texans on defense
With the Texans offense in flux, the result will likely depend on the ability of Wade Phillips and his defense to make the same adjustments they did a year ago.
The 2011 defense wasn't as leaky as it's been in late 2012, but last year's version also stumbled down the stretch. In its last two meaningful games, they were sliced for 28 points by Carolina and Cam Newton before giving up a game-winning touchdown drive in the final minute to Dan Orlovsky's Colts.
Come playoff time, though, J.J. Watt and the Texans dominated the lines of scrimmage against both Cincinnati and Baltimore.
If they do that again, it's going to be very difficult for the Bengals to score the points necessary to win this game. Andy Dalton suffered through a rocky December to close his second regular season, tossing more interceptions than touchdowns. In a do-or-die Week 16 contest in Pittsburgh, the Bengals mustered 6 offensive points and rushed for a whopping 0.9 yards per carry.
Moreover, the Bengals don't possess the depth at wide receiver that has recently created problems for the Texans. With Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson each playing well, the Texans have the ability to limit star receivers like Cincinnati's A.J. Green. Just ask the Colts' Reggie Wayne, who had seven catches for 54 yards in two games against Houston.
Instead, where the Texans have had problems is with speedy slot receivers like T.Y. Hilton of the Colts and Jerome Simpson of the Vikings, who have largely feasted on second-year cornerback Brandon Harris and the subpar deep coverage ability of safeties Quintin Demps and Shiloh Keo.
The Bengals, however, lack that type of quick-strike ability. Their second-best receiver is actually tight end Jermaine Gresham (64 catches, 737 yards, 5 touchdowns). On paper, this is a favorable matchup for Houston.
Special teams critical
That makes it all the more important that the Texans don't surrender any back-breaking plays on special teams. Brandon Tate ranks tenth in the NFL in kickoff return yardage, and the Texans are just six days removed from an untouched 101-yard touchdown return by Deji Karim of the Colts.
If it appears in warm-ups that Shayne Graham won't have the depth to kick deep into the end zone, the Texans and special teams coach Joe Marciano need a contingency plan. Squib it. Kick it toward the sideline. Even if it costs 10 yards or so of field position, the Texans have enough advantages on defense that the Bengals should still have trouble scoring -- just as long as there are no major special teams gaffes to swing momentum.
Personnel aside, it stands to reason that at least some of Houston's woes are psychological. They've never won at Indianapolis, haven't fared well in primetime against elite quarterbacks (Green Bay, New England) and struggled down the stretch with the weight of top-seed expectations.
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None of those apply here. Expectations are low, and the Texans are home against a team led by a mediocre quarterback and coach that they've beaten multiple times before. Phillips plugged many of the defensive holes this time a year ago, and the guess here is the offense will do just enough to push the Texans to the second round.
Plus, should the Texans lose to Cincinnati, the 2012 season really isn't that devastating. If the Texans finish losing four of five, including three in a row to non-contenders, there's no "what if" line of thinking. For whatever reason, they just weren't Super Bowl caliber.
On the other hand, what would be devastating is if the Texans get back on track with a convincing win over Cincinnati before losing a tantalizingly-close rematch at New England. Much like the narrow loss at Baltimore last January without Schaub, it's easy to envision a tight game that could haunt Texans fans for months, with the latest "what if" being if the game were one week later and at Reliant. After all, that's what should have happened if not for the inexplicable collapse against the Vikings and Colts. Given Houston's history of psychologically tormenting its football fans, it could happen again.
Houston 20, Cincinnati 10