Despite contrasting recent form lines, Romilly Evans expects the Texans to rediscover their game in Wildcard Weekend
The Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Texans meet again in a rematch of last year's AFC wildcard play-off game. Back then, the Texans recovered from a slow start to run out comfortable 31-10 winners, but the Vegas line anticipates a far tighter affair this time round.
That's mostly because this young Bengals team is now a year older and wiser, finishing the regular season with an imposing 7-1 record over their last eight games in which their only loss came when they let a 19-10 lead slip late in the fourth quarter to Dallas.
Houston, on the other hand, closed off their campaign with a whimper. The Texans dropped three of their final four games this term, losing the keys to the AFC No.1 ranking and homefield advantage along the way. It was a demoralising experience, as both the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots surpassed them in the seedings, leaving the No.3 berth to a team which only a few weeks previously were being touted as genuine Super Bowl contenders.
The Texans must now re-establish those credentials and assert them against opponents which appear to be peaking at the right time. The weight of such expectation will be placed squarely on the shoulders of quarterback Matt Schaub, who will be glad to just be on the field this Saturday, having missed out on his postseason debut through injury last term.
The Pro Bowl QB has misfired in recent weeks but all those defeats came at the hands of rival play-off teams who arguably had more to play for. Beforehand Schaub was running a purring offense in the manner of an elite leader. He has prevailed in both career meetings with the Bengals, connecting with 52 of 68 passes (76.5%) for 672 yards, seven touchdowns and just one interception. On those cold stats, this should be an execution, not a fight.
However, the ace up Cincinnati's sleeve is their miserly defense which sports a fine line in pressurising the quarterback. The Bengals D ranks seventh (212.5 yards per game) in the NFL against the pass, and 12th (107.2 yards per game) against the run, allowing an average of 20 points per game. They could certainly bring the heat to Shaub if he begins to dally in the pocket.
But the Bengals have really only subdued one-dimensional offenses so far. Throw in Houston's star running back, Arian Foster, and the Texans have a balanced, twin-motor vehicle which can continue to move the chains in the face of one engine shutting down. Foster has amassed over 100 yards on the ground in each of his play-off performances to date and Houston's overall versatility on offense could be the game-changer.
As for the Bengals' playmakers, neither QB Andy Dalton nor wide man AG Green were setting the world alight towards the end of 2012 - despite an easy schedule. Dalton has looked a little ragged under the gun and the spotlight of Wildcard Weekend is hardly likely to ease such concerns. Whereas Green, one of the best receivers in the league and only the second player in Cincy history to reach 1,300 receiving yards in single season, dropped some key catches in their aforementioned collapse to the Cowboys.
So while the Bengals definitely arrive as the "momentum" team this weekend, I'm not about to jump on a bandwagon which could be about to hit the buffers. Cincinnati are still without Mohamed Sanu, another key member of their receiver corps missing with a foot injury, and will have to click collectively on offense if they are to contend.
Schaub, however, need only keep it simple and mix up his pass-calls with some trademark meandering moves from Foster. The AFC No.3 seed, which the Texans are, is also deemed statistically as 78% likely to win their Wildcard game. So even that Money Line price of 1.511/2 will seem very fair for such number crunchers. But play the conventional handicap, too, alongside the Unders on Total Points. The Bengals D should at least keep Schaub honest, while coach Gary Kubiak enjoys eating the clock with Foster when the Texans are leading.
Back Houston Texans (-3.5 points) on the Match Point Spread @ 1.9310/11 or better
Back Houston Texans (-3 points) on the First-Half Point Spread @ 1.855/6 or better
Back Under 43.5 Total Points @ 1.9110/11 or better
Back A Foster to be First/Anytime Touchdown Scorer @ 5.04/1 or better