A year ago this weekend, in the same line on the AFC bracket and in the same made-for-television time slot, the Cincinnati Bengals went to Houston and were promptly eliminated from the playoffs.
Take Two can be different.
That’s not to say it will be, or that the still young and still unproven Bengals are ready to win a road playoff game against a talented Texans team. But there are reasons to believe the Bengals can win this time around, and three primary reasons are listed below.
The Bengals are playing a serious brand of defense, and that defense isn’t just the biggest reason they closed the season on a 7-1 run. It’s the biggest reason that the Bengals can make some sort of postseason run, too.
They’ll have to stop the run first at Houston, as Arian Foster scored twice in last year’s 31-10 Texans playoff win and remains one of the NFL’s best backs. The Bengals finished the season ranked sixth in total defense and 12th in run defense, succeeding with an athletic front that forces opponents out of their strength and an experienced secondary that helps limit big plays on the ground and through the air. Geno Atkins might be the NFL’s best defensive tackle, and he’s not the only young Bengals player who’s producing his best football right now.
Last season was a wild one, one that ended with the Bengals just making the playoff cut. This season wasn’t without bumps, but the Bengals are a totally different team than they were at 3-5. Over the past eight games, the defense has allowed opponents to reach the red zone just 17 times and has allowed only five touchdowns in those 17 trips.
The Bengals have forced 19 turnovers in those eight games, too. Their only loss since the first week of November came when the Cowboys rallied for a late win on Dec. 9.
Last year, quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green were rookies — and they weren’t the only Bengals players on the NFL’s big stage for the first time. The Texans scored the final 24 points in last year’s playoff game, including a 29-yard J.J. Watt return of one of Dalton’s three interceptions. Green saw double and even triple coverage throughout the game, and the Bengals never established a running game or another receiving threat.
The offense hasn’t been perfect, but it’s grown up nicely. The defense is also older and peaking; and, with the exception of veteran safety Chris Crocker, it’s a healthy group headed into Saturday’s game.
The four-game losing streak that sunk the Bengals to 3-5 was a total team effort; bad throws, bad tackling and bad mistakes all played a part. This current hot streak has been carried by the defense. In addition, however, Dalton has played smarter, the offensive line has found a new confidence level and new receivers have emerged, even as rookie Mohamed Sanu was lost for the season.
The Bengals went 2-3 in December 2011, with wins over the struggling Rams and Cardinals and the losses at home to Houston on the game’s final play and deflating divisional defeats to Pittsburgh and Baltimore. This season was about getting over the Pittsburgh/Baltimore hump, and the Bengals lost to both in the first half of the season. Last week’s win over Baltimore was largely meaningless, but winning two weeks ago in Pittsburgh punched the Bengals’ ticket for this game — and left reason for those inside and outside of the Bengals locker room to believe they can win it.
3. The Texans appear vulnerable
Last year, the Texans were a first-time playoff team and were playing backup quarterback T.J. Yates after Matt Schaub suffered a season-ending injury. But the Texans showed they belonged, even in a tough loss in Baltimore in the divisional round, and they carried that momentum to an 11-1 start this year.
The Texans are still a dangerous, talented team, but they gave up a first-round bye by losing last week, part of a 1-3 finish. In the past four games, Schaub has thrown one touchdown and three interceptions, and the Texans enter the postseason with no real momentum. Houston will look to establish Foster and hope the combination of a dominating defensive line and a loud home crowd can rattle Dalton.
The Bengals have a plus-four turnover differential for the season, including a plus-eight over the past seven games. If they can win the turnover battle Saturday, they can win the game.