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Cincinnati Bengals a sleeper for a deep AFC playoff run?


This year’s version of the NFL playoffs start with two teams on the downslide, but the winner has a legitimate shot to make a quick turnaround and at least reach the AFC Championship Game.

The Cincinnati Bengals, who have not won a playoff game in 21 years, travel to play the Houston Texans, who are in the playoffs for the first time in the franchise’s 10-year history, to open the NFL postseason on Saturday.

The pressure is on everyone in the playoffs, but in this particular game it has to be on Houston more. The Texans were supposed to be in the playoffs. They finally are and the game is at home. Plus, Houston has a victory over Cincinnati just one month ago.

Meanwhile, the Bengals, with their rookie quarterback, rookie receiver, new offensive coordinator, etc., were supposed to be terrible this season. Who would’ve thought they’d still be playing the second weekend in January?

Houston survived its injuries and was able to punch its playoff ticket with the win over the Bengals in Week 14 and secure a title in the miserable AFC South Division. It did not have to worry about a 1-3 record over the final month that sends the Texans limping into the playoffs.

Cincinnati has not been much better. It started the season 6-2 and collapsed with a 9-7 record, but a win over the Titans earlier in the season and the Jets falling in Week 17 allowed the Bengals to back step in as the No. 6 seed in the AFC and one of three teams from the AFC North in the playoffs.

It’s the first game in NFL postseason history where two rookies will start against one another. And the one that has been starting all season — Cincinnati’s A.J. Dalton — will be the one that helps the Bengals move on Saturday, and has a good chance of helping his team do so again the following week in New England and it’s terrible defense.

There are those initial feelings you get when you look at the playoff matchups as soon as they are lined up, and the Bengals knocking off the Texans is the first thought that jumped out to me when looking for an upset this week and perhaps even next against the top-seeded Patriots.

Which Cincinnati run defense will we get is about as big a question as which rookie QB will lead his team to victory. It was a tale of two halves for the Bengals this season. Only Denver (Week 2) ran for over 100 yards against the Bengals through the first eight games of the season, then came the back half of the schedule as six of the eight teams ran for over 100 yards — Pittsburgh (105), Baltimore (105), Cleveland (134), Pittsburgh (136), Houston (144), St. Louis (95), Arizona (59) and Baltimore (221).

Offensively, Cincinnati has Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott, who helped the Bengals rush for a decent-not-great 111.1 yards rushing per game (7th amongst the 12 playoff teams). The Bengals have a rookie receiver in A.J. Green who did not disappoint in his debut season (65-1,057-7). And Cincinnati has the No. 7 total defense — a defense that recorded a season-high five sacks the last time these two teams met.

With rookie QB T.J. Yates at the helm, Houston sends out running backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate, helping to lead the Texans to 153 yards per game on the ground this season. Houston sends out injured but still top-notch receiver, Andre Johnson. Finally, the Texans bring the No. 2 total defense to the table.

However, the Texans have not won a game since the late comeback against the Bengals — they trailed by six with 2:33 left before Yates led the 80-yard, game-winning drive with a TD pass to Kevin Walter. In that game, the Bengals held Foster to 41 yards and Tate to 67 — 44 coming on a run in the first three minutes of the game — and the tight ends combined for 122 yards and a score.

Yates helped the Texans to three straight wins over Jacksonville, Atlanta and Cincinnati after taking over for the injured Matt Leinart, who took over for the injured Matt Schaub. Yates was in for the two losses to Carolina and Indianapolis and played just one series before exiting with an injured shoulder in the loss to Tennessee last week.

The Texans certainly do not rely on Yates to try and win them games, that’s what their running game and defense are for. I doubt we will see him attempt 44 passes again like he did the first time he played Cincinnati. But if it does come down to quarterback play, in the postseason I want to take the one that, albeit by just 11 more games, is the more seasoned one in Dalton.

Dalton has thrown 20 touchdowns to 13 interceptions this season and has just one interception since Week 11. Yates has three TDs and three picks since taking over in Week 12.

According to Pro Football Focus, this season Dalton was blitzed on 200 dropbacks and completed 56.4 percent of those passes for eight of his 20 touchdowns against two interceptions. The Texans love to blitz and Dalton could find success with Green, fellow receiver Jerome Simpson and tight end Jermaine Gresham.

Green does draw former Bengals’ defensive back, Jonathan Joseph, this weekend, but he had five catches for 59 yards and a 36-yard score against him in the last meeting, And according to PFF’s Mike Clay, Simpson has lined up wide left 63 percent of the time and the Texans have allowed seven scores to that spot, including one in four of their last five games.

Again, I’m not so sure one of the rookie quarterbacks will have to win the game, but I think I’m pushing my chips toward the one from Houston — the Houston suburbs of Katy, Texas — Andy Dalton as the quarterback less likely to lose the game.

Give me the proven connection of Dalton to Green over the unproven connection of Yates to Johnson. Then follow the same formula against a bad New England defense the next week and it’s on to the AFC Championship Game for a team that had to beg its fans to come out to the Week 17 game to avoid a television blackout.

Both teams have the formula to succeed in the postseason — a decent run game, one stud receiver and a solid defense. In fact, the Texans are statistically better at a majority of categories on both sides of the ball. Numbers, however, have been a funny thing in the NFL this season — fantasy football forecasting down the stretch taught me that. And I don’t think numbers will tell the whole story when this one is all over in Houston.

It’s been that kind of year for the NFL, so why stop in the postseason.

Cincinnati: the new Seattle for 2012.

By CorbyA. Yarbrough @Corby_Yarbrough on Twitter