The Houston Texans are limping into their wild card weekend matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals on a three-game losing streak that cost them a first-round bye and any inkling of momentum. Meanwhile, the Bengals literally stumbled into the playoffs with serious help. Despite their loss to their AFC North division rival Baltimore Ravens in Week 17, season-ending losses by the New York Jets, Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders allowed them to get back to the playoffs since their last appearance in 2009.
No rookie ever has led his team to a Super Bowl, but the Bengals and Texans are hoping that theirs do. Third-string rookie T.J. Yates has gotten the Texans to their first ever playoff appearance by filling in for both Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart, who suffered season-ending injuries in consecutive games. Andy Dalton has responded for the Bengals with a historic rookie season as the full-time starter, being just the third rookie quarterback all-time to throw for at least 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns (he threw for exactly 3398 yards, 20 TDs and 13 interceptions).
Yates, Dalton and their respective teams met in Cincinnati during Week 14 in a game that resulted in a 20-19 win for the Texans, who went on to clinch the AFC South that day just minutes later after the New Orleans Saints took down the Texans' division rival Tennessee Titans. The Bengals allowed Yates to lead the Texans 80 yards in the closing minutes, the biggest drive in franchise history.
Yates was impressive against the Bengals, completing 26 of 44 passes for 300 yards and two touchdowns (all season highs). At the same time, he was also sacked five times by five different Bengals players thanks to constant pass rush pressure. The Bengals, who rank seventh overall on defense, will be sure to put the same pressure on an inexperienced QB. That means the Houston offensive line must do all it can to protect Yates so he can throw the ball to Andre Johnson, who surprisingly hasn't had a touchdown reception in the last five games.
Dalton, on the other hand, despite not having his best game during the season against Cincinnati, seems to have been reading defenses very well as of late, throwing just one interception in his last 184 attempts. The Texans, however, have the second-ranked overall defense, including a shutdown corner in Johnathan Joseph, a former Bengal, who can limit the catches of Pro Bowl rookie receiver A.J. Green, Dalton's favorite target.
Both defenses will also have to stop potent and efficient running attacks. The Texans pretty much ran their way into the playoffs with Arian Foster and Ben Tate, who combined for almost 2,200 rushing yards, making the Texans second-best in rushing yards per game this season. The Bengals did hold Foster, the Texans number one back, to just 41 yards on 15 carries in Week 14, though. You can bet that with Yates' inexperience, the Texans will channel the majority of their offense through Foster.
The Bengals don't have a top-notch running attack like Houston's, only averaging 3.9 yards per run per game all season. Against the Texans in Week 14, they only ran for 95 yards on 27 carries. However, the combination of Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott can be dangerous if the Texans slip on run defense.
This game might be the tightest among the wild card weekend slate. The Texans are on a losing streak, but it's worth noting that among the Bengals' nine wins this season, none of them have come against playoff teams. They went 0-7 against winning teams, including their loss against the Texans and two losses each against the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Because of that, a strong Houston defense, Yates' familiarity with the Bengals defense and the Texans playing at home, the Texans will win, but with struggles, 20-17.