Texans-Bengals, Act III: Same Names, But New Identities
After a season of lofty hopes and expectations of a home AFC Championship game, the Texans find themselves in the exact same spot they were one year ago. They're the number three seed in the AFC playoffs, opening at Reliant Stadium against number six Cincinnati.
The Texans thrashed the Bengals, 31-10, in the Wild Card round last season, less than a month after clinching their first AFC South title in a stirring come-from-behind effort in Cincinnati. Both games were quarterbacked by then-rookie T.J. Yates, who clearly is not as good as Matt Schaub, recent flaws and all.
From a superficial standpoint, with Schaub playing, it's easy to pick Gary Kubiak and his host Texans (12-4) to again cruise past Cincinnati (10-6) and into a road rematch with New England in the divisional round next Sunday.
Look closer, though, and much has changed for the Texans and Bengals since the January 2012 and December 2011 matchups -- particularly when the Texans have the ball.
Texans on offense
When we last left off, the Texans were the bullies in this matchup, with Arian Foster and Ben Tate rushing 33 times for a combined 190 yards and two touchdowns.
It's hard to imagine that happening again.
The Texans never fully recovered from losing the right side of their offensive line this past offseason, and the problem has only gotten worse of late. Foster has broken 100 yards just once in the team's last five games, and in three of them rushed for yards-per-carry averages of 3.1, 2.7 and 1.5.
That's a far cry from 2011, when Foster entered the postseason with 39 carries for 267 yards (6.9 YPC) in his final two regular season games. In that scenario, the Houston quarterback (Yates) needed only to be a game manager, with the rushing attack serving as the team's identity.
This year, the quarterback must consistently make plays while avoiding mistakes.
For Schaub, it won't be easy. Cincinnati boasts fearsome pass rushers up front in the form of Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap and a very deep secondary corps including star corner Leon Hall and serviceable veterans such as Terence Newman, Nate Clements, Adam Jones and ex-Texan Jason Allen.
The good news for Houston is that the passing game began to show signs of life in the second half in Indianapolis. Even against a fearsome Colts pass rush, the Texans went 3-of-5 on 3rd downs of five yards or longer, showing signs of fixing a long-established bugaboo. Kevin Walter finally re-established himself as a competent receiver opposite Andre Johnson, catching three passes for 51 yards.
It only resulted in 10 points, though, due to a pair of unforced errors from Schaub. On one drive, Schaub inexplicably took a sack that moved the team out of realistic field goal range, and on another threw off his back foot and was intercepted in the end zone.
Limit the turnovers, and the Texans still have enough viable weapons on offense to score points in this matchup. Even if they have to be a pass-first team.