While the narrow 19-13 victory won't convince the Texans' legion of doubters, it did represent Matt Schaub's first career playoff victory.
Houston dominated play most of the day, but typically conservative coaching by Gary Kubiak nearly doomed the home team. The Texans settled for four field goals and gave the Bengals a chance to steal the game in the fourth quarter.
The first half featured three long Houston drives that ended in three points each. Nine points were barely enough to outpace an anemic Cincinnati offense that rarely strung together consecutive first downs.
The Bengals' only score of the half came on a Leon Hall interception return. It was the only turnover of the game for Schaub and the Texans, but nearly proved fatal as it kept the game closer than it had any right to be.
Schaub struggled despite completing 76 percent of his passes. He threw 38 times for 262 yards. The numbers looked solid, until the Texans entered the red zone. Inside the Bengals' 20, Schaub was 5-of-7 for just 20 yards (2.9 YPA).
Houston's struggles in the red zone abated temporarily in the second half as a Foster run put the Texans up 16-9.
Despite outgaining the Bengals more than two to one, Houston managed to turn a potential blowout into a down-to-the wire affair. The Bengals labored to move the ball at all against an active Texans line and fantastic play by Houston secondary, but hung around long enough to put a scare into the home crowd.
Even with J.J. Watt having a typically disruptive game, the defense couldn't hold Cincinnati down forever. Both teams traded frustrating field goal drives before the second Bengals' score of the final half cut the Houston lead to 19-13 with 9:08 remaining.
With a chance to run out the clock, the Texans picked up a first down before stalling near midfield. On 4th-and-1 from the Texans' 49, Kubiak elected to punt the ball back to Andy Dalton and company with 6:26 left.
The decision was nearly fatal for Houston.
Cincinnati drove inside the Houston 40, and on a 3rd-and-11, A.J. Green broke wide open in the end zone. Dalton's throw was long, however, and the Bengals' chance to take the lead went by the boards.
One down later, Dalton read man coverage and threw short of the sticks to Marvin Jones. Kareem Jackson was playing zone and left his man to easily tackle Jones shy of the first down giving the Texans the ball for what would be the final possession.
Foster ran for 20 of his game-high 140 yards helping to ice the game.
The Texans struggled down the stretch this season, and the victory was welcomed if not inspiring. Many of the same problems that have plagued them for the past month continued to cause problems in the playoffs.
Kubiak got the win but nearly coached his team into oblivion with a series of conservative decisions and foolish play selections, especially in the red zone. He repeatedly failed to take advantage of a soft Cincinnati run defense near the goal line and elected to put the ball in the hands of Schaub who was unable to execute in close.
The narrow victory sets up a rematch with New England in Foxboro next weekend. The Patriots eviscerated the Texans in their first matchup in early December and will be highly favored to advance to the AFC Championship game.
Doubters who remain unsatisfied by an uneven performance in the Wild Card Round will point to Kubiak and Schaub as the chief reasons to continue questioning the Texans.
Their late-season swoon gathered steam in New England, and now the Texans have a chance to atone for their ugliest loss of the year.
They wouldn't have it any other way.
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