The Houston Texans play the Cincinnati Bengals Thursday night and, truth be told, the Bengals are about the closest thing the Texans will find to a divisional opponent outside of the AFC South. Since 2011, the Texans have played the Bengals in either the regular season or the postseason (or, in 2011, both) every year except 2013.
In those six games, the Texans have a 5-1 record, and the last two wins have been exceptionally hideous. In 2015, the Texans went to Cincy and spoiled the Bengals' 8-0 start with a butt-ugly 10-6 victory, and last season, the Texans clinched the division on Christmas Eve with an equally homely 12-10 win at NRG Stadium in which Randy Bullock missed a last-second field goal that would've won the game for the Bengals.
Frankly, if the Texans are going to escape with a win tonight and bounce back from Sunday's debacle against the Jaguars, the recipe will probably be similar to that of the past two seasons — low scoring, ugly, defensive struggle, decided in the waning moments. The Bengals seem perfectly equipped to accommodate the Texans in Deshaun Watson's debut as an NFL starter, as they turned the ball over five times and allowed constant pressure on QB Andy Dalton in their regular season opener against the Ravens.
So with the Texans desperate for a win — if they lose this game, an 0-5 start is suddenly very plausible, if not likely — let's look at some of the story lines for tonight...
4. Replacing the walking wounded
I'm not sure I've ever seen a football game where one team suffered five DOCUMENTED concussions, but that's what we got on Sunday with the Texans. (To be clear, I'm guessing I've seen numerous games where way more than five players have suffered undocumented concussions.) Making this plethora of head trauma even more problematic is the fact that all three tight ends are in the concussion protocol, including C.J. Fiedorowicz's going on injured reserve on Tuesday. That's Fiedorowicz's third concussion in less than a year, and second in less than two months. I have no idea what the team's solution will be to compensate for having ZERO tight ends on the active roster. Probably lots of "fat tackle eligible" tight ends on running plays, and perhaps a lot of four and five wide receiver sets (even though, with Bruce Ellington out, they don't have five unconcussed wide receivers right now). And since inside linebacker Brian Cushing has been suspended, rookie Zach Cunningham will see plenty of time. Given Cunningham's abilities in coverage (and Cushing's lack thereof) and the Bengals' dynamic playmakers in the backfield and at tight end (Giovanni Bernard, Joe Mixon, Tyler Eifert), Cunningham's presence might be a silver lining, although the rookie did struggle in coverage in the preseason. We will see, but the football gods whacked the Texans pretty good in the Week 1 injury department.
3. Tormenting Dalton
Undoubtedly, the Texans offensive line was the worst one that I watched all weekend last week. However, the Bengals offensive front wasn't far behind. This shouldn't be a huge surprise as they lost significant horsepower in their O-line in the offseason, with tackle Andrew Whitworth (Rams) and guard Kevin Zeitler (Browns) defecting to other teams. Against the Baltimore Ravens, the Bengals were pushed around all afternoon long, and quarterback Andy Dalton was not able to step into many throws (and when he was able to, they were generally picked off). The Bengals made Terrell Suggs look like he was 22 years old again. My point here is that this could be (and needs to be) a get-well game for J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus. Watt and Mercilus looked just very average in Week 1, and Clowney was running around clueless as Mike Vrabel had him standing up and playing outside linebacker for most of the afternoon. If those three aren't hitting on all cylinders, there's very little reason for the Texans to show up.
2. More D'Onta
It's hard to believe that in a game where he started Kendall Lamm and Breno Giacomini as his tackles, and he pulled his starting quarterback 30 minutes into the season, Bill O'Brien actually committed a sin more egregious than those on the offensive side of the ball on Sunday, but he did. Somehow, O'Brien managed to give his most explosive playmaker on offense just one carry for four yards. Yes, rookie running back D'Onta Foreman, who had multiple big plays in the preseason, barely saw the field on Sunday. O'Brien was asked about that decision on Monday, and you could tell he knew he screwed up. We will see much more of Foreman Thursday, I suspect. I've said since draft weekend that Watson and Foreman would be the starting backfield for this team in 2018, but it appears as though they may be asked to bail out the offense in 2017, which brings us to...
1. Deshaun's debut
There will be plenty of times and places in the future to discuss and debate (although there is very little to debate) the ridiculousness of O'Brien's grooming a starting quarterback for an entire offseason and preseason only to yank him after 30 minutes of regular season football, but on game days, we must compartmentalize. Deshaun Watson is now the starting quarterback for the Houston Texans, and as someone who wanted him under center to start the season to begin with, when game day arrives, I don't really care how we got here. (The other six days of the week, I will remain highly concerned that we have a head coach who treated his quarterback decision like he was changing his mind on a Happy Meal at McDonald's, but I digress.)
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If nothing else, Watson under center assures Texans fans of an interesting season, even if the won-loss record begins veering downwards. At least losing, if the Texans wind up being a losing team, will be done in the name of career growth for their future quarterback. It won't be the end of the world. Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Jared Goff...those are all guys drafted since 2014 who endured rough-and-tumble rookie seasons, not to mention head coaching changes, and all came out the other side as franchise quarterbacks (although Goff's sample size of positivity is admittedly just one game, but still...it was a good game!). My point is, if it is far from perfect with Watson, be patient. It usually is for guys in his spot. One thing I do know — the stage will not be too big for Watson, and failure won't ruin him.
As I said the other day in this space, get busy livin', or get busy dyin'. Let's see what the kid can do.
SPREAD: Bengals -6.5
PREDICTION: Bengals 17, Texans 13
RECORD: 0-1 SU, 0-1 ATS
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