Heading into Week 12, the AFC playoff picture is extremely muddled, with five teams being no more than one game out of a postseason spot. The Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Texans find themselves involved in one of Sunday’s most important games, as they battle to win their respective divisions.
The Bengals have sole possession atop the AFC North, but they might be in the most precarious position of any first-place team, considering every other team in the division is either a half-game or one game back. The Texans might not be able to snag a wild-card spot, but they’ve hung tough in the AFC South, trailing the Colts by a single game.
Both teams started 2014 off strong, with Cincinnati winning three straight games and Houston losing just one of its first four contests. They each suffered three-game losing streaks, and have now won two of their last three games.
The biggest difference in the Bengals’ wins and losses has been the team’s inconsistent offense. Cincinnati can be explosive at times, and boasts some of the best weapons in the NFL. A.J. Green has battled injuries this year, but he was a top five receiver last season, and Giovani Bernard is one of the best young running backs in the league.
However, quarterback Andy Dalton’s inconsistent play has made Cincinnati one of the most difficult NFL teams to predict. Last week, he posted a 143.9 passer rating in a win at New Orleans, giving the Saints just their second home loss under Sean Payton since 2010. In the previous week, he had one of the worst passing performances of the year, completing 10-of-33 attempts for 86 yards and three interceptions.
The Dalton that Cincinnati doesn’t want to see might be poised to show up on Sunday. Houston has a .500 record, and most of Dalton's success has come against losing teams. The quarterback hasn’t lost in five tries against teams with a losing record in 2014. He’s led the Bengals to two victories over the 6-4 Ravens, but Cincinnati has been outscored 94-20 against the three other winning teams on their schedule.
If Houston can keep Dalton and the Cincinnati offense at bay, they’ll likely walk away with a victory. The Texans have been terrific in low-scoring games, going 5-0 when holding their opponent to 17 points or fewer. They are 0-4 when allowing 30 points or more.
Houston quarterback Ryan Mallet was more than serviceable in his first start of the season last week, and he should help the Texans score enough points to win, if he has a repeat performance. He threw one interception, but didn’t make many mistakes, completing 66.7 percent of his passes.
Mallet might not be asked to do too much, especially if Houston’s No.3 rushing attack can play as well as it has all season. Texans head coach Bill O’Brien says Arian Foster will be a game-time decision, but backup Alfred Blue has been more than adequate in his role, totaling 156 yards in Week 11.
Cincinnati has trouble winning when they allow their opponent to have a big day on the ground. The Bengals have allowed an average of 177 rushing yards per game in their three losses and one tie. Opponents average just 109 yards on the ground in each Cincinnati victory.
With two more losses than the Bengals, the Texans are 1.5-point home favorites, according to Las Vegas betting odds. The over/under is 43.5 total points.
PREDICTION: Houston over Cincinnati, 20-17