NFL Wild Card Playoffs - Jan. 5-6

Bengals vs Texans | Colts vs Ravens | Vikings vs Packers | Seahawks vs Redskins

No. 6 Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) at No. 3 Houston Texans (12-4)

Saturday, January 5 - 4pm et/1pm pt on CTV

Game Preview: We meet again

HOUSTON (Associated Press)- The Houston Texans were looking forward to enjoying a bye this week before beginning their work in the playoffs as the AFC's top seed.

Instead, a terrible month in which they lost three of four games dropped the Texans to the third seed. It has them in the exact same spot as year ago, hosting the Cincinnati Bengals in a wild-card playoff game Saturday.

They'll face a Cincinnati team that enters Saturday having won three in a row and seven of its last eight games. The Bengals are in the playoffs for consecutive seasons for the first time since 1981-82. Their last playoff win came Jan. 6, 1991 against the Oilers, the team the Texans replaced in Houston.

Cincinnati offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said he isn't worried about the more than 20-year streak of playoff futility. He wants to focus on the improvement this young team has made.

"Last year, we did what it took to get into the playoffs when a lot of people predicted us to be 0-16," Whitworth said. "This year, we got back in to the playoffs when a lot of people didn't think we could. We're here. The next step is winning a playoff game. Hopefully, we can let that be a chip on our shoulder."

Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was sacked four times and threw three interceptions in last year's 31-10 post-season loss to the Texans. Houston defensive end J.J. Watt returned one of those interceptions 29 yards for a touchdown that gave the Texans a lead they wouldn't relinquish.

Dalton, who grew up in suburban Houston, believes he's grown since that game and learned from the mistakes he made.

"I definitely feel like I'm a better quarterback this year," he said. "I've got more control of the offence. There's a lot more stuff that I'm doing at the line of scrimmage, and making checks and doing different things this year than I was doing last year. But that's helped me become a better player."

Another player who has certainly improved in Year 2 is Watt. The defensive end led the NFL with 20 1/2 sacks this season, has 107 tackles, including 39 for losses, 16 passes defended and has forced four fumbles.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis got creative this week when asked how he planned to stop Watt.

"I wrote a letter to the commissioner to petition for 13," Lewis joked. "I figure if we put a guy on each side of him and a guy in front of him, we've got a good opportunity."

Previous Matchups
Jan. 7, 2012 CIN 10 @ HOU 31
Dec. 11, 2011 HOU 20 @ CIN 19
Oct. 2, 2009 HOU 28 @ CIN 17

Then Lewis got serious.

"He's been an incredible player and he's fun to watch if you're not preparing to play the Texans," Lewis said. "He's a great model for young players to look at and be like. He really is something."

Houston defensive co-ordinator Wade Phillips, who has been coaching in the NFL since 1976, couldn't say enough about Watt's performance this season.

"This is the best defensive line play of anybody since I've been in football," Phillips said. "He is by far the best defensive player. He should obviously be the defensive player of the year in the league."

The AFC South champion Texans are also in the playoffs for the second straight year, the only two times in franchise history. Houston lost to the Ravens in the second round after beating the Bengals last January.

The Texans believe that experience will help them this time.

"I feel like we've come a long ways," Watt said. "Obviously, this isn't new to us. This is something we've been through before. We're excited. We can't wait. We had a taste of the playoffs last year and we're really excited to get back in it this year and to go to work."

Third-string quarterback T.J. Yates was behind centre last year after injuries knocked out Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart. Now, Schaub, a nine-year veteran, will get his first post-season start.

He's looking to bounce back from a tough month in which he threw three interceptions with just one touchdown pass. He'll try to do it with two big weapons in Johnson and Arian Foster. Johnson led the AFC with a career-high 1,598 yards receiving, and Foster finished second in the AFC in rushing with 1,424 yards.

Players To Watch
Geno Atkins - Defensive Tackle

Arguably the best defensive tackle in the NFL in 2012, Atkins has been a force in the middle of the Bengals' defensive line. Atkins ability to generate an interior pass rush will be vital for Cincinnati on Saturday.

Johnathan Joseph - Cornerback

The Texans' top cover corner had an off-year as he dealt with injuries and ineffectiveness at times. This week, Joseph will be asked to stop star wideout A.J. Green in one of the most intriguing matchups in the game.

The Bengals win if...

Andy Dalton is not a prolific passer, but he has been able to manage the Bengals' offence intelligently in his two seasons with the team. The Texans' defence that can get pressure on the quarterback, however, their secondary struggled down the stretch.

2012 Team Stats
Points CIN 24.4
HOU 26.0
Pass Yards CIN 223.6
HOU 239.4
Rush Yards CIN 109.1
HOU 132.7
Points Allowed CIN 20.0
HOU 20.7
Pass Yds Allowed CIN 212.5
HOU 225.8
Rush Yds Allowed CIN 107.2
HOU 97.5

If Dalton can avoid turnovers, the Bengals will be in an excellent position to pull off an upset. The Texans will surely be focusing on Green, so Dalton will also need to get his other receivers (Jermaine Gresham, Andrew Hawkins, Marvin Jones) involved.

The Bengals' defence allowed the 12th fewest rushing yards per game during the regular season, but they will need to be even better than that come wildcard weekend. Arian Foster has been a force the last two seasons running in the Texans' scheme and he will be poised to help his team make a deep playoff run this year. The Bengals' front seven has come together to form a solid unit and they will need to be at their best to lock down Foster.

Much like Joseph will be tasked with shadowing Green, the Bengals will look to Leon Hall to matchup with Pro Bowler Andre Johnson. Hall has played well this season and often been put against team's top targets. In last year's playoffs, Johnson was unstoppable, but teams have shown this season that if you can limit Johnson, you severely hamper the Texans' offence. It will take a combination of pass rush and strong coverage to throw the Texans' offence off course, but the Bengals have the talent to make it happen.

The Texans win if...

On paper this should be a victory for the Texans, who won their division and for most of the year looked like one of the best teams in the league. However, as the season came to a close Houston was dealing with their fair share of problems, culminating in losing to the Colts in Week 17 and missing out on a first round bye.

The Texans won't have much time to right the ship as they welcome Cincinnati to town this weekend. That being said, if the Texans can recapture their identity from early in the season, running the ball and playing tough defence, they will survive to play another week.

Scoring will be key for the Texans, as the Bengals have only scored more than 23 points once in five games during the month of December. Houston was no stranger to the end zone, averaging 26.0 points per game in the regular season. With weapons like Foster, Johnson, tight end Owen Daniels and a serviceable quarterback like Matt Schaub, the Texans have the firepower to simply outscore Cincinnati if they gameplan well.

Whether he was dragging quarterbacks to the ground or knocking down passes at the line of scrimmage, J.J. Watt became a household name in 2012. Watt led the NFL with 20.5 sacks and had to be accounted for by every offensive coordinator who faced the Texans. The Bengals have an above average offensive line, but alone won't save them from Watt's destructive path. Much like Atkins for the Bengals, Watt can control the battle in the trenches and swing the game by himself.

Team Leaders

Passing Andy Dalton 62.3% 3,669 Yds 27 TD 16 INT
Receiving A.J. Green 97 Rec 1,350 Yds 13.9 11 TD
Rushing BenJarvus Green-Ellis 278 Att 1,094 Yds 3.9 6 TD
Tackles Vontaze Burfict 73 Solo 54 Ast 127 Tot 1 Sack
Sacks Geno Atkins 12.5 Sacks 54 Tkl 4 FF 0 FR
Interceptions Reggie Nelson 3 INT 10 Yds 3.3 Avg 0 TD

Passing Matt Schaub 64.3% 4,008 Yds 22 TD 12 Int
Receiving Andre Johnson 112 Rec 1,598 Yds 14.3 Avg 4 TD
Rushing Arian Foster 351 Att 1,424 Yds 4.1 Avg 15 TD
Tackles Glover Quin 64 Solo 20 Ast 84 Tot 1 Sack
Sacks J.J. Watt 20.5 sacks 81 Tkl 4 FF 2 FR
Interceptions Kareem Jackson 4 INT 71 Yds 17.8 Avg 1 TD


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