NRG Stadium will provide the backdrop for a primetime Christmas Eve matchup between the Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Texans. The Texans (8-6) enter Week 16 tied with the Titans atop the AFC South standings (but in first place courtesy of two head-to-head wins) following last week’s 21-20 comeback victory over the Jaguars. But perhaps the bigger story was Bill O’Brien’s benching of $72 million quarterback Brock Osweiler. Backup Tom Savage, who has never started an NFL game, will now be tasked with trying to lead Houston to the division crown. The Texans can clinch the AFC South with a win against the Bengals combined with a Titans loss to the Jaguars.
The Bengals (5-8-1) sealed their postseason fate by blowing a late lead against division rival Pittsburgh last week. The 24-20 debacle marked Cincinnati’s fourth straight loss to the Steelers, and a franchise record of five straight playoff appearances has come to an end. In turn, Marvin Lewis’ seat suddenly got a whole lot warmer, so a strong finish would go a long ways towards silencing some of the talk regarding his job security.
A positive first step would be solving a Houston team that has had Cincinnati’s number recently. The Texans have won six of the past seven meeting between the teams, dating back to 2008, including wins in the wild card round in the 2012 and ’13 seasons.
Cincinnati at Houston
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 24 at 8:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NFL Network
Spread: Houston -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Tom Savage Era Begins
Bill O’Brien’s benching of Brock Osweiler may have been a desperate act by a desperate coach. But it was a move that quite possibly salvaged the Texans’ postseason outlook. While Tom Savage’s performance against the Jaguars last week was not perfect, it was good enough to help lead Houston to a come-from-behind victory. Savage also injected a spark into a passing attack that ranks 30th in the NFL and has just 14 touchdown passes in 14 games. Star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (8 rec., 87 yds.) certainly seemed to benefit from the change under center.
It’s impossible to know for sure if Savage will be the long-term answer for the Texans based on one game. However, he did pass his first test with flying colors and his performance against a solid Jacksonville pass defense showed enough promise to provide optimism for the rest of this season. We will learn a lot more on Saturday night when Savage makes his first career NFL start. Cincinnati has twice as many interceptions (six) as touchdown passes allowed (three) over its last three games, so this as good a test as any for Houston’s new starting quarterback.
2. Houston Running Game vs. Cincinnati Rushing Defense
One way the Texans can take some of the pressure off of Savage in his first NFL start will be with plenty of ground support. Lamar Miller is sixth in the league with 1,073 rushing yards as Houston ranks fifth in rushing offense (122.7 ypg). Cincinnati has had its issues stopping the run, currently checking in at No. 26 (117.5 ypg) in that department.
This is an obvious matchup that the Texans will look to exploit. That being said, there is a good chance that the Bengals will load the box in an attempt to slow down Miller and his backfield mates to force Savage to try and beat them with his arm. This could complicate matters if Savage is not up for that challenge. Miller is dealing with a slight ankle injury as well, but early indications are that he will be good to go for Saturday night’s matchup against Cincinnati’s suspect run defense.
3. The Return of A.J. Green
Barring any setbacks, Green is set to play for the first time since a hamstring injury forced him out the Week 11 loss to Buffalo. Green’s presence on the field alone should provide a big boost to Andy Dalton and the Bengals’ aerial attack against the NFL’s No. 2-ranked pass defense. The elite wide receiver’s return also provides an opportunity for him to make history on Saturday night. Green needs just 36 yards to join Randy Moss as the only players in NFL history with 1,000 receiving yards in each of their first six seasons in the league.
While Green should be able to reach that milestone, he could have a tough time trying to shake off the rust against a top-flight Houston secondary. Veteran cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson will be charged with trying to keep tabs on Green, who has been held in check by the Texans in his career. In five games, two of those coming in the playoffs, Green has yet to catch a touchdown against Houston and he’s averaging 74.8 receiving yards per contest with only one 100-yard effort.
Despite their poor record, the Bengals may just have the better team in this matchup. If the effort is there, they definitely have the talent to win the game, especially with A.J. Green returning after missing the past four games. Unfortunately, last week’s loss to the Steelers, and subsequent elimination from playoff contention, may have sucked the last bit of wind right out of their sails. It’s far from certain if Cincinnati’s players are even capable of giving 100 percent at this point in the season.
The Texans should have no problem putting their best foot forward. Quarterback Tom Savage could struggle at times in his first NFL start. But a solid Houston running game should complement Savage’s efforts and provide just enough firepower. A stellar Texans defense should be able to take care of the rest against a potentially demoralized bunch of Bengals at home. Houston may need a Christmas miracle (i.e, Jacksonville beating Tennessee) earlier on Saturday to have the opportunity to sew up the AFC South, but Savage’s first career win as a starter would be a nice gift too. A victory also would keep the Texans in the driver’s seat for a potential winner-take-all showdown with the Titans on New Year’s Day.
Prediction: Texans 20, Bengals 17
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)