NFL Preview - Cincinnati (6-3-1) at Houston (5-5)
By Chris Ruddick, NFL Contributing Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Houston Texans helped their postseason chances with a win over an AFC North team last week. They'll try do the same on Sunday when they welcome the equally-playoff hopeful Cincinnati Bengals to NRG Stadium.
Houston won for only the second time in six games in Week 10, as it came out of its bye with an impressive 23-7 road win over the Cleveland Browns. Ryan Mallett completed 20-of-30 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns in his first start to help the Texans (5-5) pull within a game of the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South.
"I think anytime it's around Thanksgiving and you're still in the hunt, that's a good thing," Houston head coach Bill O'Brien said. "You're in the 11th game of the season and you're still there. There is a lot to play for."
Randy Bullock also converted three second-half field goals for the Texans, who have won two of their last three. Alfred Blue contributed a career-best 156 yards on 36 carries, while J.J. Watt and Garrett Graham posted a touchdown reception apiece.
It was the second touchdown reception this year for Watt, the defensive player of the year frontrunner. He also has a fumble and an interception return for a score, making him the first defensive lineman to have four touchdowns in a single season since 1948.
"Hopefully it's not the end of it," Watt said. "There's nothing better than to score a touchdown and the whole offense runs over to congratulate you."
Cincinnati, meanwhile, bounced back from an awful home loss and won for the third time in four games last Sunday in a 27-10 victory over the New Orleans Saints.
Andy Dalton completed 16-of-22 passes for 220 yards and three touchdowns. It was a stark contrast to his previous game against Cleveland that saw him compile a passer rating of 2.0 while throwing for only 86 yards and three interceptions in a 24-3 setback to the Browns on Nov. 6.
"There's no doubt I am proud of our effort today," said Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis. "I'm proud of our execution and our preparation leading up to the game this week. We came out here ready to play and it showed up out there on the field today."
In fact, Dalton threw six interceptions and had completed just 52.3 percent of his passes over his previous four games, leading to some in Cincinnati calling for his head.
"You lose and everyone wants to run you out," Dalton said. "You win, everyone is going to like you. I'm not too worried about it. It was a big win for us. So it's good to bounce back and get a big one on the road."
Helping Dalton could be the fact that wideout A.J. Green appears to be healthy. He caught six passes for 127 yards and a touchdown after totaling just six catches over his previous two games. He had also missed the previous three games before that with a toe injury.
"These couple of weeks I wasn't feeling like myself," Green said. "Not because I was injured. It was trying to just get back in the flow of things I missed those couple of weeks."
Rookie Jeremy Hill totaled 152 yards on 27 carries for Cincinnati (6-3-1), which is a half-game in front of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North.
Houston has won five straight meetings with the Bengals, the last two being wild-card victories after the 2011 and '12 seasons.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Houston did its damage last weekend without running back Arian Foster, who missed the game after injuring his groin in a Week 9 loss to Philadelphia. Foster returned to practice this week as a limited participant and will likely be a game-time decision on Sunday.
In three games against the Bengals Foster has compiled 430 scrimmage yards (334 rush, 96 rec.) and three rushing TDs.
Foster has gone over 100 years in six of his last eight games and needs one more 100-yard rushing game to surpass Priest Holmes (31) for most ever by undrafted player.
Although, Foster leads AFC in rush yards (5,628) and rush TDs (49) since the start of 2010, the Texans running game did not skip a beat without him in the win over Cleveland, as Blue's 36 carries were a franchise-record.
"Arian Foster is a proven player in this league," O'Brien said. "But at the end of the day, injuries occur, so the next guy has to be ready to step up no matter who you are. I think we all had confidence that Alfred would step in there and do the job."
Cincinnati has also had to rely on its backup running back the past few weeks, as Giovani Bernard has missed three straight games with hip and clavicle injuries.
Hill, though, has done a fine job filling in, and has gone over 150 yards in two of the three starts.
Like Foster, Bernard's status for this week's contest is up in the air.
"We have still quite a bit to improve upon," Lewis said. "We had a lot of areas, particularly in the running game, where we could get better, make sure we're clicking on the same page throughout. And in the pass game, too."
It may not matter who is running the ball, though, as Houston has surrendered just 3.28 yards per carry since Week 5, the third lowest mark in the NFL in that span.
Blue and Hill were teammates at LSU.
The Cincinnati Bengals looked as good as anyone the first few weeks of the season, then they looked just as bad for a good stretch of time. So what gives?
Could it have been as simple as that they just missed Green? It would be nice if it was that simple, but there are some warts on this team, namely Dalton, who may have his hands full against a very opportunistic Texans defense that is plus-8 and can get to the quarterback. Still, barring another complete meltdown from Dalton, the Bengals should be able to do enough on offense to get by in this one.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Cincinnati 17, Houston 13
11/20 12:06:24 ET