NFL Playoff Preview - Cincinnati (10-6) at Houston (12-4)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Momentum gets a lot of play in the world of sports. Certain teams peak too early, while others find their stride at just the right time.
The Cincinnati Bengals aim to prove that the power of a late push is more than a myth this Saturday when for a second straight postseason they'll visit a Houston Texans club that hopes its best football is yet to come.
The Bengals and Texans couldn't be headed in more opposite directions prior to this wild card round showdown. Cincinnati erased a 3-5 start by winning seven of its final eight games to clinch the AFC's sixth seed.
The Bengals won their final three games of the regular season, though they did not beat a playoff team until besting the Baltimore Ravens 23-17 last weekend.
Cincinnati's 7-1 finish tied the 1981 club, which lost the Super Bowl to the San Francisco 49ers, for the best second-half record in a 16-game season and helped vault the squad into the playoffs for the fourth time under head coach Marvin Lewis.
Lewis, though, isn't buying into his club having any extra advantage due to its hot finish.
"Momentum finished (Sunday). It's what you do now that counts," said the Bengals coach. "We get no points for what we did at the end of the season. We earned a spot to go into this and we're one of 12 teams now. We have to go back and get ready to go."
The Bengals are making an appearance in the playoffs for a second consecutive season for the first time since 1981-82, but haven't won a postseason game since Jan. 6, 1991.
They had a chance to do so last season, but were routed in Houston 31-10 by the Texans in the wild card round. Cincinnati held leads of 7-0 and 10-7 before Houston ripped off 24 unanswered points to win in their playoff debut.
Running back Arian Foster ran for 153 yards and two touchdowns in the Texans' fourth straight victory over the Bengals, including playoffs. Defensive lineman J.J. Watt also had a big 29-yard interception return for a score with 52 seconds left in the first half to reverse the momentum.
"He made a really good play. He got his hands up. He got his hands on the ball," said Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, who threw that ill-fated interception as a rookie last season. "When you see him making plays like that, your offensive linemen try to get his hands down as much as they can. I have to find ways to get the ball over him and different things like that."
Watt was a dominating force for the Texans this season and has barreled his way into not only Defensive Player of the Year talks, but also the discussion for MVP thanks to a 20.5-sack performance this season.
Behind the likes of Foster and Watts, the Texans finished in the top 10 in both total offense and defense, setting a club record for single-season wins with 12 while winning the AFC South for a second straight season.
However, following an 11-1 start, the Texans lost three of their final four games, all against current playoff teams, and averaged just 12.0 points per contest in the three losses.
Houston's 28-16 setback to the visiting Indianapolis Colts to close the regular season dropped them out of the top spot in the conference and into the third seed, forcing them into action this weekend.
"Would we like to be in a different situation? Yeah, but at the same time, it's the playoffs. It's the start of the playoffs. Everything you've done up to this point, it doesn't really matter, to be honest. It only matters what you do now," said Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson.
"Could we have taken advantage of being in the top of the AFC and stuff like that? Yeah, but it didn't happen. It didn't work out that way so we just have to take advantage of the opportunity we have now."
Though it didn't play into last season's wild card meeting, the Texans will have the advantage of starting quarterback Matt Schaub being under center. He missed the final six regular season games of the 2011 season and both playoff contests, including a 20-13 defeat at the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round, due to a foot injury.
Current backup T.J. Yates guided the Texans down the stretch and was solid versus the Bengals, but got intercepted three times against the Ravens.
"It's an exciting time of year to be a part of this to get ready to play in a playoff game, especially here at home in front of our home fans," said Schaub of his first postseason start. "I'm definitely looking forward to it."
With Schaub under center for all 16 games this season, the Texans went 6-0 at home against the AFC. with the two losses in Houston coming against the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings.
However, the Bengals were a solid 6-2 on the road this season as well compared to 4-4 at home.
Houston and Cincinnati have split six all-time regular-season games, with the Texans taking two of three at home.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Two of the NFL's top defenses are featured in this meeting, with the Bengals finishing sixth at 319.7 yards allowed per game, just ahead of the seventh- ranked Texans (323.3 YPG).
Cincinnati's strong finish was mirrored by the defense, which was the 20th- ranked unit in the league at the end of the first half. The Bengals thrived at getting to the quarterback, recording a franchise-record 51 sacks to finish third in that category.
"We are probably playing better this year than we have been in the past heading into the playoffs," noted Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. "This defense is salty right now. We can play the run well, choke up on some receivers, and rush the passer. We have been doing well on third downs lately as well too. When you can do those four things successfully, you have a good chance to win."
Forty of those sacks came from the defensive line, including a club-high 12.5 by defensive tackle Geno Atkins. That was also a club record for sacks by an interior lineman, which Atkins actually broke back on Nov. 25, and Atkins' sack total was the second-highest by a Bengals player since 1982. Defensive end Michael Johnson came in third on that list with 11.5 sacks this season.
Houston's unit was also impressive this season despite losing linebacker Brain Cushing to a season-ending knee injury in Week 5. Nickel corner Brice McCain has also been out since early December because of a foot injury and linebacker Darryl Sharpton landed on injured reserve this week because of a hip ailment suffered in the finale.
"I mean, we've played some top-notch guys, but it's still not an excuse," said Texans head coach Gary Kubiak. "We've had some changes back there. Obviously losing Brice made us change some things up with a young nickel coming in with Brandon (Harris). So that's been a big challenge for us. We've given up some plays in situations that we shouldn't."
Still, a season to remember from Watt has sparked the Houston defense. The second-year end challenged the single-season sacks record, but was also disruptive when not getting to the quarterback. He had 39 tackles for a loss, 16 passes defensed -- the most among any NFL defensive lineman -- and four forced fumbles.
"We have to know where he is," Dalton said of Watt. "We have to find ways to keep his hands down. Same for me, I have to get some high releases, so I don't have balls batted down."
Houston's defense, which also includes former Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph, could also have linebacker Brooks Reed and corner Alan Ball available for this game. Reed missed the finale with a groin injury, while Ball missed most of last month with a foot ailment.
Joseph and safety Danieal Manning both had interceptions in last season's wild card meeting.
Watt has an interesting matchup for this game due to the presence of Bengals rookie right guard Kevin Zeitler, a fellow Wisconsin product.
"Obviously, I know Kevin Zeitler very well, playing against him every day at Wisconsin in practice," said Watt. "He's a very good football player. ... He's a very tough, physical player and he's going to be a good challenge."
Houston's edge this weekend could be on offense, where it ranked seventh in total offense (372.1 YPG) and eight in scoring at 26.0 points per game despite the late struggles.
Foster, who also ran for 132 yards in last season's playoff loss versus the Ravens, led all running backs with 15 rushing touchdowns and also caught two scoring passes. He is a guy to get going as Houston went 7-0 this season when he rushed for more than 100 yards in a game.
Schaub, meanwhile, reached 4,000 yards passing for the third time in his career and had 13 touchdown passes to four interceptions with a 101.7 passer rating at home this season.
The 31-year-old hasn't topped 300 yards passing in his last five games, however, getting picked off three times to three touchdown passes while getting sacked 12 times in that span.
"I've just got to play a little more consistent," Schaub said. "I definitely know when things aren't going well to look at myself first because I'm the one that's putting everyone in position and trying to make the plays. I've got to play better. Our whole team, everyone across the board has got to pick their game up especially this time of year, but I definitely do."
Cincinnati didn't move the ball well at times this season, ranking 22nd in total offense at 332.7 YPG, but made the most of its opportunities by averaging 24.4 points per game.
The connection between second-year cornerstones Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green was a big part of that. Dalton's 47 touchdown passes -- 27 this season -- over his first two seasons are second behind only Dan Marino (68) and Peyton Manning (62), while Green's 162 career receptions are the second-most by any player over his first two seasons.
Running back Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis ran for a career-high 1,094 yards this season and was able to return to practice on Wednesday after sitting out the season finale because of a hamstring ailment.
The late-season struggle may have been a good thing for the Texans as it likely installed some of the urgency they will need for a deep playoff run. Houston's first ever playoff appearance a season ago may have been viewed as the club playing with house money, but an early exit this time around would be an epic disappointment for a team that looked like the best in the NFL during the early going.
"It's no secret. It's either you win or go home, period," said Houston's Johnson. "That's the way I feel about it. That's pretty much it. That's the time of year it is. You have to go out and win every game that you play. No time to make no excuses, no time for 'my bads.' You've got to go out and win the game. That's it."
Houston's offense will obviously need to get on track, while the defense tries to slow down a Cincinnati offense that has to feel pretty confident itself right now.
"No doubt. I think our guys realize that just being in the playoffs is not what we're here for," said Lewis. "We want to go win the championship. We realize the sense of urgency we've got to have."
Cincinnati also isn't looking too much into its struggles last season versus Houston.
"It's a little bit of a different situation, because last year, we had to have a lot of other things happen for us to get to the playoffs. This year, we controlled our own destiny and were able to get in on our own. I think that's a big difference in this team, and I think the experience of last year is going to help us this time around," noted Dalton.
Momentum is a powerful force in theory, but talent can often overcome such an obstacle. The Texans' talent on offense, especially that of Foster, should prevail once again.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texans 27, Bengals 20
01/03 12:19:29 ET