When your team is on a three game losing streak and starting a rookie quarterback in the playoffs, you're not allowed to outright predict victory, much less blowouts. The code is to use phrases like "find a way" or imply some sort of desperate mettle to scrape out a much needed win. In truth, I expect the Texans to cover the three point spread, and then some, perhaps even win by more than ten. So I believe that the way will be found by halftime.
I think the keys to victory will entail balance on offense, which is code for Andre Johnson spreading the field and keeping the Bengals' run defense more honest, and avoiding turnovers. The Texans must avoid taxing their defense early and, thereby, making them vulnerable to fatigue when Andy Dalton inevitably begins airing it out to A.J. Green in the 4th quarter if the game is close or the Bengals are within striking distance. It would be wonderful for the Texans to repeat last Sunday's first drive this Saturday and get seven points on the board early. As I said, its very important that the Texans get up on the Bengals early to ward off the their late rally and to rely on big plays late, where inexperience and nerves might play a role.
The good news is that last Sunday was almost a bye week for the Texans since they rested T.J. Yates, Arian Foster, Johnathan Joseph, Daniel Manning for the entire game, and most of their starters for at least one to two quarters. The team will be fresh and healthy, although, of course, without the services of Matt Schaub, Mario Williams and a couple of other players. Indeed, the Texans will have a roaring home crowd behind them and plenty of professional pride to drive them to victory. But until victory is seized, its all in theory.
Although the playoffs are in a way a new season, it would be foolish to overlook regular season trends and statistics. For the Bengals, there are a few which raise the eyebrows. Firstly, the Bengals are 1-6 against winning teams, and their lone victory came against slightly above average Tennessee, a game in which Cincinnati had to rally furiously to take. Also, the Bengals' offense ranks 20th and they average 208.8 yards passing. Of course Texans fans are always concerned about the opponent's passing game! Therefore, while Dalton is capable of a big play or two, he is still a rookie and is no Tom Brady.
While Cincinnati employs a below average offense led by a rookie quarterback with a rookie deep threat receiver on the verge of greatness, the Texans host the league's second best defense, yielding 285.7 yards per contest and will be performing in front of their amped up home crowd. Statistically, even with Yates at quarterback and in consideration that Andre Johnson will be on the field, the Texans have enough offense to score enough points against Cincinnati's 7th ranked defense, which gives up nearly 21 points per game, which is just about what the Texans have been averaging since Schaub went down. On the flip side, Cincinnati's offense is averaging 21.5 while the Texans' defense holds foes to 17.5. Clearly in this contest home field advantage will factor into the outcome.
Still, games are played on the playing field and not in the stat room. To be sure, the Texans do not overwhelm Cincinnati, statistically, but they have perhaps three major factors working in their favor heading into Saturday's showdown, which should be enough to push the Texans into the "one and alive" column and off to Baltimore, where, for the third time in two years, the Ravens will be tasked with defeating a hungry and largely disregarded young Texans team who will have absolutely nothing to lose:
1. The Reliant Stadium crowd
Houston fans and the Texans, themselves, are well aware of the value of a raucous home crowd. After the Atlanta game, players were often quoted saying what a difference the home crowd made in that win. The high noise level messed up Matt Ryan's signals and led to multiple false starts. No doubt the Houston home crowd will be amped up and more than willing to get in Dalton's head. Let's hope that either the stadium roof is closed or the PA system pipes through some artificial crowd noise…er, um, I mean let's hope that the fans make lots of noise!
The effect of the raucous home crowd serves not only to disrupt the opponent's offensive execution, but it also serves to raise the hairs on the home team players. No doubt the Texans will be full of adrenaline simply because its the playoffs, but when the glycogen stores start to fade fast as the 4th quarter approaches, the deafening screams of the home crowd can certainly give any athlete a second wind. Expect the Reliant Stadium crowd to give this hungry football just enough extra lift to ensure victory.
2. Andre Johnson is truly back
One simply cannot blame Johnson's return for being overlooked by many. For one, the last time he returned from an injured hamstring, he hurt the other one. But it bodes well that Johnson got in his targeted fifteen reps against Tennessee with no ill effects. All signs indicate that Johnson will be ready to play the full game. And let's face it, if Johnson's hamstring acts up again, then it just wasn't meant to be this season! But I doubt that'll happen. I see Johnson, and Yates, taking full advantage of the superstar's first ever playoff appearance. To understand Johnson's impact, know that the Bengals will dare Yates to throw downfield. If Johnson is doubled, that means that Kevin Walter, another receiver or a tight end will be in single coverage, and the check down can be avoided. Eventually, Johnson will catch a long ball, and even more space for Foster and Ben Tate will magically appear.
Besides, does anyone expect anything other than a supreme effort by Johnson in this moment for which he's waited around nine years? Without Johnson, Yates takes huge risks throwing downfield, but with AJ The Great, even if he's tightly covered or the throw is a little off, there's still a decent chance Johnson adjusts and makes the grab or at least ensures that the defender doesn't make the pick. Since Johnson has been conditioning like crazy while he's missed games, I don't expect his wind to slow him down much, if at all. Plus, see above and the effect of the geeked up home crown on an athlete's emotions. Johnson will be primed and he will perform.
3. The Texans are starving for victory
If one takes a deep breath and rids the concept of the losing streak from their short term memory, each loss can be easily explained without having to emotionally yank out the "Third-String-Fifth-Round" card. The Carolina game was a loss in the making before it happened, perhaps even if Schaub were the heaver. For one, the Texans had won seven straight and partied with fans the week prior in celebration of their first ever division crown as if they'd won a conference title. It would've been smart money to pick Carolina for the upset, no matter who was calling the signals or rushing the passer. But as poorly as Houston played, it looked like they were going to rally and win that game, that is, until Yates threw an incomprehensible end zone interception to kill the rally.
The Colts game is the ugly one, and when one considers how Cushing crushed Colts quarterback Dan Orlovsky on the game's first or second play, leading to a fumble, and a play or two later Houston is up 7-0, its downright dumbfounding how they lost that game. But Gary Kubiak played a close hand and it looked like Houston tried to do enough to avoid losing, many assuming that the Colts would lay down for Andrew Luck. That was not the case and the Texans got embarrassed. But this is the NFL, not LSU at Prairie Valley, and it was against a division rival on the road, and stuff like that happens.
Totally forget the Tennessee game and just pretend the Texans finished 10-5. That game against Tennessee was little more than an expensive scrimmage. It was expensive for fans who paid regular season big bucks to see Kubiak, probably rightfully, treat that game as all but a practice.
Therefore, since that seven game winning streak, the Texans have lost a trap game, which happens to all good teams. They also lost an inexplicable road game against an awful team, mainly because they, themselves, almost seemed to mail it in. And the Tennessee contest was not a game, but a practice. It is safe money to expect the Houston Texans to let it fly this Saturday, a time for the blood of Cushing and the silent grit of Johnson to shine. This Saturday is when each and every starter not on the IR will be pumped and primed, ready to hit guys hard in front of their own fans. They know that its one-and-done time, and they are fully aware how disappointing the past few weeks have been.