Things were looking so good for the Houston Texans this season. They got a huge break before any football had been played when Peyton Manning’s injury ended up costing him the entire season (and who knows what else beyond), and that seemed to give them the impetus to finally shake off the title of also-rans and push into the playoffs. Houston had things wrapped up and was chasing the No. 1 seed when Matt Schaub went down, a blow that was rapidly followed by backup Matt Leinart‘s fall. This left the ship under the control of late-round rookie quarterback T.J Yates, or the potential backup of Jake Delhomme should the wheels really fall off. Luckily for Houston, they’ve been able to play well enough to date that there has been no need to panic … but now it’s the playoffs.
Cincinnati made the playoffs after saying goodbye to Chad Ochocinco and Carson Palmer, probably the team’s two most iconic figures of the past decade. They have played some great football at times despite being led by a rookie quarterback in the shape of Andy Dalton and their defense has been much improved. Despite failing to knock off rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the AFC North, they’ve found their way in as the third qualifying team from the division.
Cincinnati Pass Rush vs. Houston Pass Protection
One of the reasons the Texans have been able to have faith in Yates steering the ship without running it aground was because the offense is set up so well for a game manager. They run the ball well, they can dominate in the trenches, and they have arguably the best offensive line in football who have been able to keep him pretty clean in the pocket. The Texans’ O-line was good enough that we named two of them (Chris Myers at center and Duane Brown at left tackle) first or second team All-Pro, and a third (right tackle Eric Winston) narrowly missed the cut after some debate amongst the PFF staff. That unit has held up well since the loss of Schaub and that makes the rookie’s job much easier. The Bengals, however, can bring the heat. Geno Atkins (+21.3 pass rushing) finished the season as our top-ranked pass-rushing defensive tackle, and the 49 total sacks, knockdowns, and pressures are more than any other interior D-lineman put up this year. Carlos Dunlap (+23.2 pass rushing) was having the kind of sensational impact that fellow situational rusher Aldon Smith had until injury derailed his season. He finished with just five sacks, but he also recorded 13 knockdowns and 29 further pressures on his limited rushing opportunities. Having both players at something approaching full strength gives the Texans a serious challenge up front, and the winner of this exchange could determine the outcome of the game.
A.J. Green vs. Jonathan Joseph
A.J. Green, the Bengals’ rookie receiver, is fast becoming one of the best in the game. Were it not for a league-leading number of penalties (eight of which are silly procedural ones like false starts, illegal formations, or offensive offsides) there would be pretty much nothing to dislike about him, but he will find he has a shadow this week in the shape of a former Bengal, Jonathan Joseph (+9.5 coverage). There are corners this season with better numbers than Joseph, but few who have done as impressive a job, because Joseph does something not many corners do: track receivers. The Texans will use Joseph to lock on to an opponent’s top receiver wherever he lines up to try and take him out of the game. He did exactly that when these two sides met in Week 14. Green (+8.7 receiving) was thrown at six times with Joseph in coverage and caught four passes for 57 yards, 36 of which came on one catch. Joseph has allowed just 57.9% of passes thrown at him this season to be complete–despite covering the better receivers on the field most of the time–and opposing quarterbacks have a rating of just 71.3 when throwing into his coverage. Green was able to get receptions against him in the first encounter, and the Bengals won’t shy away from throwing at him in the second. Which one of the two gets the upper hand will be a key factor in the game.
Andre Smith vs. Connor Barwin
Houston plays strong side and weak side on defense, so Connor Barwin will see as much time against Andrew Whitworth as he will against Andre Smith in pass-rushing situations. While I think Whitworth will do a decent job of handling the pressure, Smith is a more interesting prospect against a player like Barwin. Smith’s season has been maddeningly inconsistent with grades as high as +5.6 for a game (perfect in pass protection), and as low as -6.0 (surrendering three pressures, three penalties, and run blocking poorly). When they met the first time, Barwin didn’t get anything out of either Smith or Whitworth, but beat tight end Colin Cochart for his sack and notched a hit on the quarterback on a play where he was unblocked. History could very well repeat itself in this game, or we could see the bad Andre Smith turn up and Barwin–who has tended to do most of his damage against poor offensive tackles–could be a destructive whirlwind coming off that edge, making Andy Dalton’s life a nightmare. Time will tell.