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Texans-Bengals: Five Matchups to Watch, and a Prediction

If he can dream...
If he can dream...

The last time the city of Houston hosted an NFL playoff game -- or even had a team playing in one -- it came under very different circumstances than what will transpire Saturday afternoon.

Unlike the 10-6 Texans, who slide into the playoffs on a 3-game losing streak, the 12-4 Oilers coasted into their January 1994 matchup with Kansas City coming off 11 straight victories to end the season.

It ended up not mattering at all. Those Oilers blew a 10-0 lead and surrendered 21 fourth-quarter points to Joe Montana's Chiefs, losing 28-20.

Similarly, the regular season "momentum" shouldn't mean a lot 18 years later. We've already discussed that the Texans should beat the Bengals. But how will it actually happen?

Here's a look at five key matchups to determine whether the Texans can bring Houston its first playoff victory since 1992.

Will Andre Johnson be close enough to 100 percent?
Will Andre Johnson be close enough to 100 percent?

5.) Andre Johnson against his legs Yes, Johnson will be playing in the first postseason game of his nine-year career in Houston. Yes, his presence alone should spark the Texan offense, as it did against the Titans. But will he be himself? In the three games Johnson has played (Jacksonville, Atlanta, Tennessee) since his initial hamstring pull in Week 4, he's had eight catches for 140 yards and no touchdowns.

Those numbers, of course, are a bit misleading. Against the Titans last week, Johnson had a play count. The Jacksonville game featured an ultra-conservative Matt Leinart, and Johnson left the field against Atlanta after three quarters with his most recent hamstring pull.

But whatever the reason, Andre hasn't had a dominant day to strike fear in the hearts of opposing defensive coordinators. It needs to happen Saturday. If Johnson's able to run at full speed (without re-injuring himself), get open deep and make the Bengals' safeties respect his ability, it should open up more lanes for Arian Foster. That would be big for the Texans' second-year runner, who didn't have his best day (15 carries for 41 yards, average of 2.7 per rush) on Dec. 11 in Cincinnati.

4.) Ben Tate vs. fumble-itis As bad as Foster looked against the Bengals the first time around, Tate appeared that good. He carried eight times for 67 yards (8.4 average), including a 44-yard breakaway to set up the Texans' early lead, and caught three passes for another 30 yards. The Cincinnati defense seemed stuck in a patient mind-set of defending cutback lanes (Foster's specialty), and couldn't adjust to the straight-line speed and burst of Tate. It worked almost perfectly for the Texans, who averaged more than five yards per carry despite Foster's struggles.

There was just one problem, though. Tate fumbled after minimal contact on a 1st-and-goal at the Cincinnati 1 early in the second quarter. Had the Texans scored, they'd have gone up 10-6 and been in control. After the fumble, the Bengals capitalized on the momentum and had a touchdown drive of their own, taking a 13-3 lead and putting the Texans squarely behind the 8-ball.

Despite his limited carries (175), Tate has fumbled four times and lost three. More concerning is that two of them came inside the 2-yard line. He hasn't fumbled since his gaffe in Cincinnati, so that could be a positive sign. Tate appears to be a rough matchup for the Bengals, but he must improve at ball security for the Texans to take advantage.

3.) Antonio Smith and J.J. Watt against the Bengals' offensive line The Texans' pass rush starts up front with penetration from defensive ends, mainly Smith and Watt. It didn't always work against the Bengals. The Texans had only one sack (though it was a big one, when Connor Barwin forced a fumble inside the Cincinnati 20), and Smith was virtually nonexistent. In fact, his only contribution to the stat sheet -- a tackle of running back Cedric Benson -- was a pretty clear facemask that went uncalled.

But Smith revved his motor up against the Titans last week, sacking Matt Hasselbeck two times despite limited playing time. Watt was even more dominant the prior week in Indianapolis. That type of pressure will be critical against Cincinnati, because the Bengals aren't going to beat the Texans via the run game. Benson has largely been a bust with the Bengals, rushing for under four yards per carry in three of his four seasons. He's also battling a foot injury this week, so he shouldn't be at 100 percent.

For the Bengals to have a chance, it starts with rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, who missed Wednesday's practice in Cincinnati due to flu symptoms. While Dalton's season as a whole has been strong, he may have hit something of a rookie wall. His last eight games included just 142 completions in 259 attempts (54.8 percent), eight touchdowns and six interceptions. Dalton was also held to less than 200 passing yards in four of his last five games.

If the Texans can disrupt Dalton's rhythm, the Bengals shouldn't be able to score enough points to win in Reliant Stadium. A big indicator will be Smith and Watt's performance and whether they can collapse the pocket on a regular basis.

 

2.) Neil Rackers vs. the goalposts The biggest difference for the T.J. Yates-era Texans has been their inability to score touchdowns in the red zone. It's understandable, given an inexperienced quarterback and the absence of Johnson as a receiving target. Against the Bengals, who shouldn't score a lot against the Houston defense, settling for field goals on two or three occasions should be fine -- as long as the Texans convert those opportunities.

That hasn't always happened this year, largely due to the struggles of Rackers. He missed six kicks between Weeks 5 and 15, including one against the Bengals. But Rackers recovered to go 6-of-6 in the season's final two games, and even added a 52-yarder against Tennessee.

The Texans have the perfect AFC draw for an inefficient offense. The Bengals shouldn't be able to score more than 17 points, max, against the Texans' No. 2-ranked defense. From there, the Ravens are always capable of an offensive clunker with Joe Flacco at quarterback. Should the Texans somehow escape Baltimore with a win, there's a decent chance that the defensively superb, offensively challenged Steelers could be waiting at Reliant for the AFC title game.

The good news is that Yates may not need to throw three or more touchdown passes to win those games. But against quality defenses, the Texans must score points when inside the opposing 30, and that's where Rackers comes in.

1.) Johnathan Joseph against A.J. Green in coverage Some have called the 6-foot-4 Green the NFL's most dynamic rookie receiver since Randy Moss. He looked the part early on against the Texans, catching five balls for 59 yards and punishing Joseph in one-on-one situations.

But the Texans adjusted and held him without a catch for the final quarter-and-a-half in Cincinnati. Moreover, Dalton has struggled getting Green the ball of late, with the rookie posting a combined four catches for 51 yards and no touchdowns in the season's final two games.

An underreported Texans story in recent weeks has been Joseph's bout with nagging injuries. Long known as an injury risk, Joseph was arguably the most dominant cornerback in the NFL through November. However, his performance slipped in December (including the Cincinnati game) amid minor hamstring and ankle issues.

The irrelevance of Week 17 for the Texans allowed head coach Gary Kubiak to give Joseph the week off. If Joseph is capable of playing 100 percent on Saturday and limits Green's impact, the Bengals shouldn't have enough firepower to come out with a win.

Prediction: Texans 23, Bengals 13


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