Saturday's Houston Texans vs. Cincinnati Bengals wild-card NFL playoff game features teams that are entering the postseason with completely different kinds of momentum.
The Texans (12-4) have lost three of their last four. During that span, Matt Schaub has thrown only one touchdown and three interceptions. Arian Foster, during that same time frame, has only eclipsed the 100-yard mark once. The defense has held up its end of the bargain, but it hasn't been enough.
The Bengals (10-6) have won seven of their last eight, and their defense has been phenomenal as well. The last time the Bengals gave up as many as 20 points was in Week 9.
The offense hasn't been a liability like it has for the Texans, but there are times when Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham feel out of sync. BenJarvus Green-Ellis has picked things up, however, rushing for more than 100 yards four times in the second half of the season after not doing so once in the first half.
So which of these teams makes it out of this showdown in Houston and into the second round?
Key Storyline No. 1: How Will Andy Dalton Respond to the Texans Pass Rush?
Dalton, a native of Katy, Texas, a town 30 minutes from Houston, can be a little Jekyll and Hyde when it comes to handling the pass rush.
Because Green so often runs slow-developing deep routes, Dalton gets trigger-happy. He settles for the quicker developing routes, so much so that he will look back at the end of a game and realize he's only thrown to his best receiver a couple of times.
With J.J. Watt coming after him, Dalton needs to trust his line, which has been very good, and find receivers down the field rather than checking down every single play.
Key Storyline No. 2: Have the Texans Lost Their Edge?
Who is this team, and what have you done with my Houston Texans?
If Texans lose to Bengals, dropping 3 of 4 and being eliminated in first round, it'll go down as 2nd biggest collapse in Houston history.— John McClain (@McClain_on_NFL) January 3, 2013
On paper, the Texans are one of the best teams in football. But I always go back to their game against the Jets, which they won, but they let the Jets hang around way longer than they should've. Then they were forced to overtime by the Jaguars and the Lions. Really?
If the Texans don't find a way to right the ship, they're watching the second round from their homes.
Keys for the Cincinnati Bengals
We've already discussed the need to handle the Texans pass rush, but a big part of that needs to be running the ball and stopping the run.
If the Bengals keep this game close with an efficient ground game, Watt will need to play the run and won't be able to pin his ears back. It will also keep the Bengals from needing a bunch of seven-step drops.
Getting wide receiver Andrew Hawkins going early will also help keep the Texans off-balance.
On defense, the Bengals needs to win the battle at the line of scrimmage as they've done all season. If they let the Texans take control with their zone-blocking scheme, it's over.
Keys for the Houston Texans
To some extent, it's almost superfluous talking X's and O's about a team that can beat anyone (absolutely anybody) when it executes correctly. It just hasn't done so in recent weeks and has gotten embarrassed.
The Texans need to be effective running the ball to the left side, because there's nothing for them on the right. That probably means putting extra blockers over there to make sure they can chip on Geno Atkins and get a clean body on Vontaze Burfict.
Frankly, the defense can play as well as it usually does, but if play-calling and execution aren't at their best, this one could quickly turn into a Bengals' rout.
Bold Prediction: Arian Foster Held Under 100 Yards
This prediction isn't that bold, but it's going to anger some Texans fans, especially when it actually happens.
Foster has only gone over the century mark four times in the last 10 games, and the Bengals run defense is ranked 12th in the league.
Secret Weapon: Kevin Zeitler (OG Bengals)
The Bengals run it over rookie RG Kevin Zeitler 18.5% of the time with a success rate of just under 60%. The Bengals have had a great deal of success running behind Zeitler, but the Bengals will have to shift their TE over to the weakside (left side) in order to move J.J. Watt away from Zeitler. If not, Zeitler’s success rate and the success rate of the Bengals run game over the right side is going to take a hit.
Player of the Game: Geno Atkins
When I ranked the top 50 NFL players from 2012, Atkins fell at No. 7 and was my top-ranked defensive tackle. What made him great all year is going to give Matt Schaub fits in the wild-card game.
Pressure up the middle (whether it's hurries, hits or sacks) is going to remind all of us why Matt Schaub shouldn't have made the Pro Bowl.
Final Score: Bengals 26, Texans 24
The Bengals will steal one on the road, and Gary Kubiak will be forced to answer a lot of questions about what happened the past month.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.
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