While this won't be Cincinnati's first dance in the postseason, the Bengals were able to press fast forward on their development curve to grab a surprise spot in the NFL's second season.
That should make for some anxious and butterfly-filled stomachs this Saturday at Houston's Reliant Stadium, where the Texans and Bengals will both look to keep their surprise seasons going for another week.
Thanks to a solid core of quarterback Matt Schaub, wide receiver Andre Johnson and linebackers Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans, the Texans have been viewed as a team on the rise for the past few seasons, but they finally broke out this year by capturing an inaugural AFC South title and first trip to the postseason. Houston's 10-6 mark included a seven-game win streak that was capped with a 20-19 come-from-behind win at Cincinnati on Dec. 11 that locked up the division title.
That win was Houston's third without Schaub, who was lost for the season with a foot injury. Backup Matt Leinart appeared in just one game before his season was also cut short due to a shoulder injury, forcing rookie T.J. Yates into the starting role.
The Texans' defense has also been without Williams since early October because of a pectoral ailment, while Johnson was forced to sit out nine games this season thanks to injuries to both his hamstrings.
Still, Houston survived under Yates, but did get a scare when he was forced out of the club's 23-22 loss to Tennessee in the regular-season finale due to an injury to his non-throwing shoulder. Head coach Gary Kubiak said on Monday that he thinks Yates could have came back into the game and should be ready to go for this playoff opener.
The Texans haven't won since Yates rallied his team from a 16-3 halftime deficit to beat the Bengals on a six-yard pass to Kevin Walter with only two seconds left on the clock. Houston has lost three straight since, but tight end Joel Dreessen isn't worried about the winless finish.
"We're ripping off the rear-view mirror. The regular season is over with and the Texans are officially invited to the postseason," said Dreessen. "We open up at home [Saturday] and that's our focus right now. It's a whole new season and we have to play at our best."
The city of Houston will host a playoff game for the first time since the Oilers tangled with the Kansas City Chiefs at the Astrodome on Jan. 16, 1994, and linebacker Brian Cushing knows the pressure is on the Texans to produce.
"It's huge. but now it's loser-go-home from here on out," said Cushing. "We understand that. We have to come in and play the best kind of football possible and just continue to go."
Cincinnati wasn't at its best when it had a two-game win streak snapped with a 24-16 loss to Baltimore last Sunday. Still, the Bengals backed into the AFC's sixth seed thanks to some help to return to the postseason for the second time in three years. They were one-and-done in 2009 despite an AFC North title and are in as a Wild Card team this year for the first time since 1975.
After nabbing Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green with the fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft and handing starting quarterback duties over to fellow rookie Andy Dalton, a second-round pick, the Bengals improved by five wins from last year.
"No one gave us much credit going into the season, but we didn't worry about that. We came out and worked hard," said Dalton, who was given that starting job after Carson Palmer refused to return to the team during training camp and requested a trade that wasn't granted until Oct. 18. "We've been successful up until this point, and we've got a shot in the playoffs. We're in it. Now it's what we do with it. I think everybody's got the right attitude. We're going to have a great week and we'll be ready to go."
One thing working against the Bengals, at least statistically, is the fact that all seven of their losses this year came against playoff teams, while none of their nine victories were against a club still playing.
Nose tackle Domata Peko doesn't think that will influence Cincinnati's confidence at all, especially considering that five of those seven setbacks were by seven points or less.
"We know that, but every team is great in the NFL," Peko said. "We all get paid the same, we all try to win every game, and it's just unfortunate that we're losing to some of the better teams. We've been in each of those games [and] a play or two away from winning those games, but we're just happy around here that we're in the dance and have to now prove to the world that we belong here."
Both Dalton and Bengals running back Cedric Benson have excelled in the state of Texas before. Cincinnati's rookie signal-caller is from the Houston area and played collegiately at TCU, while Benson attended the University of Texas.
Also of note is that should Dalton and Yates both start, it will be the first postseason game since the 1970 merger to have rookie quarterbacks for both teams, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Last month's matchup was the sixth all-time meeting between Cincinnati and Houston, with the Texans now having taken the last three bouts after the Bengals prevailed in the first three games of the series. Cincinnati is 1-1 against the Texans at Reliant Stadium, registering a 38-3 rout there in a 2003 encounter and suffering a 35-6 road loss to Houston in 2008, and hasn't bested the Texans since a 16-10 home triumph on Oct. 2, 2005.
Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis has gone 2-3 against Houston during his nine-year tenure as the Bengals' head coach, while Kubiak sports a 3-0 record against both Cincinnati and Lewis as a head man.
The Bengals are 0-2 in playoff games under Lewis, having dropped a 31-17 decision to Pittsburgh in a 2005 AFC First-Round clash and a 24-14 result to the New York Jets in the 2009 opening round. Both those contests were held in Cincinnati.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Though Dalton and Green both played well given their rookie status, the Bengals' offense was still in the bottom tier as far as performance. Cincinnati ranked 18th in the regular season with an average of 21.5 points per game and finished 20th in total offense with 319.9 yards per game. Dalton (3398 passing yards, 20 TD, 13 INT) became just the fifth rookie to pass for 3,000 yards, though, and part of the reason for his success is that the Bengals' offensive line ranked tied for fourth in the league with just 25 sacks allowed. With Dalton slinging it his way, Green (65 receptions, 7 TD) fell two catches short of Cris Collinsworth's club rookie record for receptions, but set a new team freshman mark with 1,057 receiving yards. Second-year tight end Jermaine Gresham (56 receptions, 6 TD) was also solid while ranking second on the club in catches. Cincinnati did recently lose wideout Andre Caldwell (37 receptions, 3 TD) for the season with an abdominal/groin injury, leading to bigger roles for Jerome Simpson (50 receptions, 4 TD) and rookies Andrew Hawkins (23 receptions) and Ryan Whalen. The running game is paced by the durable Benson (1067 rushing yards, 6 TD).
Dalton and Green figure to be key for the Bengals given that the Texans ranked in the NFL's top five in total defense, against the run and the pass and scoring defense. Houston was second overall in total defense with an average of 285.7 yards allowed per game and fourth with 17.4 points allowed per outing. After struggling against the pass a season ago, the Texans upgraded with former Bengals corner Johnathan Joseph (44 tackles, 4 INT), and he responded with his first election to the Pro Bowl. Danieal Manning (59 tackles, 2 INT) was also brought in to help solidify the safety position and youngster Kareem Jackson (42 tackles, 1 INT) was solid next to Joseph. Houston has three outstanding linebackers with insiders Ryans (64 tackles) and leading-tackler Cushing (114 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 INT), while outside starter Connor Barwin (47 tackles, 11.5 sacks) led the team in sacks. Rookie linebacker Brooks Reed (45 tackles, 6 sacks) and defensive end Antonio Smith (25 tackles, 6.5 sacks) also made plays in getting to the quarterback, while rookie end J.J. Watt (56 tackles, 5.5 sacks) played well all season. Glover Quin (77 tackles) shifted from corner to safety and was second on the team in tackles.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
Without Schaub (2479 passing yards, 15 TD, 6 INT) and having Johnson limited for most of the season, running back Arian Foster (1224 rushing yards, 53 receptions, 12 total TD) became the main focus of Houston's offense, and the reigning league rushing champion helped his club rank second in the NFL with a franchise-record 153 yards per game on the ground. In addition to being on the top rushers in the league, Foster was second on the team with 617 receiving yards and led the NFL with an average of 141.6 scrimmage yards per game. A successful Foster should take the pressure off of Yates (949 passing yards, 3 TD, 3 INT) in this big game, and a healthy Johnson (33 receptions, 2 TD) should also help. The playmaker was on a play count in his return last weekend, but should be full go for this game. Walter (39 receptions, 3 TD) and Jacoby Jones (31 receptions, 2 TD) are also options for Yates at wide receiver, while Houston boosts two solid choices at tight end in Owen Daniels (54 receptions, 3 TD) and Dreessen (28 receptions, 6 TD). Daniels was Houston's leading receiver, while Dreessen topped the teams in touchdown grabs. The Texans' offensive line allowed 33 sacks this season.
The Bengals' seventh-ranked defense (316.3 ypg) should turn a ton of focus towards Foster after the unit was tagged last week by Baltimore's Ray Rice, who ripped off touchdown runs of 70 and 51 yards. Cincinnati, which ranks 10th against the run (104.7 ypg), will need its solid linebacking group to spy Foster. Weakside linebacker Thomas Howard (99 tackles, 1 sack) led the club in tackles in his first season in Cincinnati, while middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (88 tackles) was second. The Bengals' secondary took a hit when it lost cornerback Leon Hall (32 tackles) to injury at midseason, but Nate Clements (55 tackles, 1 sack) put together a solid campaign to reach the postseason for the first time in his career and safety Reggie Nelson (85 tackles, 2 sacks) was steady. Adam Jones (28 tackles) has been moved into a starting role with Hall hurt and took a pass interference call that set up Houston's game-winning score in the first meeting. Cincinnati's strength is up front, as it posted 14 sacks in its final four games and finished fifth in the league with 45 sacks. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins (48 tackles, 8 sacks) led all NFL interior lineman in sacks, while end Michael Johnson (41 tackles, 5.5 sacks) had an impact coming off the edge. Peko (66 tackles, 2.5 sacks) helps clog the middle and Robert Geathers (30 tackles, 3 sacks) is a good run-stopping end for a defensive unit that recovered 12 fumbles this year.
Bengals kicker Mike Nugent set a club record with 132 points one year after missing seven games of the 2010 campaign due to a knee injury. He hit on 33- of-38 field goals, while punter Kevin Huber averaged 44.2 yards on 91 punts while pinning 24 inside the 20-yard line. Brandon Tate is a dual threat for the Bengals, as he returns kickoffs and punts. His 543 punt return yards in 2011 were a new club record.
Jacoby Jones is Houston's punt returner and took one back to the end zone for a score over the course of the regular season, while Manning averaged 27.4 yards on 13 kickoff returns. Sherrick McManis fielded 10 kickoffs for an average of 20.5 yards to help. Kicker Neil Rackers made 32 field goals, including four from beyond 50 yards, With rookie punter Brett Hartmann on injured reserve, veteran Matt Turk has averaged 42.7 yards on 16 punts in relief since being re- signed last month.
This AFC Wild Card meeting will pit the defensively-sound Bengals against a Texans club that can rack up points and yards at a rapid pace. Houston's offense could be limited a bit under Yates, so Foster will be the key. Cincinnati, meanwhile, plays disciplined offense and waits for its defense to create chances, meaning the Bengals will need to keep the scoring down to have a chance at victory. However, shutting down both Foster and Andre Johnson could prove to be too much, and former friend Joseph could bottle up Dalton's best weapon in Green. In the end, expect the Texans to earn their first-ever playoff victory as well.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texans 20, Bengals 13