There's much to be said for this thing called momentum, something fans of the Houston Texans became briefly acquainted with at the end of the 2009 campaign, but certainly can see avalanching toward the mysterious Cincinnati Bengals now in 2011. The Texans are indeed in rare form, riding a franchise record six game win streak into this non-divisional and pivotal matchup against an almost equally dinged up Bengals squad. True, the Bengals haven't lost their starting and backup quarterbacks for the season, but they have lost lockdown cornerback Leon Hall for the year, not to mention run stuffer Pat Sims. Both teams have a number of players listed as questionable and probable.
This is a game which looked like the easiest no-brainer road win of the season for the Texans back in early September, but suddenly, due to the Texans' injury situation coupled with the Bengals' overachieving play and desperation to hang onto a Wild Card playoff spot, has now become by far the toughest of the four remaining games on the schedule.
This game concerns me from the Texans' perspective on a number of fronts. Obviously the injuries to Schaub, Johnson and, perhaps, even Brian Cushing could place added pressure on the shoulders of rookie T.J. Yates. While Cushing is all but certain to play, if he is lacking in explosiveness even to the slightest, that might prove difficult to overcome against a Bengals team at home and in a must win situation.
From the Bengals' perspective, they've struggled lately against the run, going from the top run defense to the sixth best over the past four weeks. Injury and having to face the Steelers twice and Ravens once have certainly played a role in that drop. Now they will have to face the Texans' punishing pass rush as well as Cushing's ferocious licks. Also, the Bengals do not own momentum now. But desperation they should have aplenty if they are prideful about making the playoffs.
Johnson is doubtful and if he cannot go, Yates will depend upon the streaky Jacoby Jones to step up big over the middle and down deep on occasion. Either way, expect the Bengals to load the box to stop the run and expect Bengals ace defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to have his secondary primed to jump into Yates' passing lanes. But expect the Texans to get the ball to their tight ends and Foster in the short passing game and play it safe.
Yates answered the bell last Sunday at home against Atlanta, and Texans fans can hope that he continues to show poise and even more wise decision making as he takes the tough and determined Texans into sunny and near freezing Cincinnati. The key to this ballgame will be field position, which will come down to both sides of the line of scrimmage. While Dalton is capable of churning out big plays to standout rookie receiver A.J. Green, I expect the Texans' defense to rattle him in the pocket as Pittsburgh did last week.
The key for the Texans in pulling off what would be considered an upset will start with the offensive line. If Eric Winston, Chris Meyers & Company can dominate in the trenches, Arian Foster and Ben Tate will wear this Bengals defense down. On the other side of the ball, if Conor Barwin and Brooks Reed can at least make Dalton take haste in throwing the football, the Texans will be able to turn this game into a grinder.
Make no mistake, in order for the Texans to win a cold, road football game, without the services of Schaub and Johnson, against a playoff caliber team like Cincinnati, down-n-dirty, physical, field position football must be the order of business. That and, say, no more than one turnover and the Texans are capable of winning this ballgame.
While admittedly this is the toughest outcome I've attempted to predict this season, I have a sneaky feeling that the Texans just might seize this one due to their physicality and momentum.