Cincinnati at Houston
Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET, at Reliant Stadium, Houston. - TV: NBC
*TV announcers: Dan Hicks, Mike Mayock
*Keys to the game: Two teams seemingly going in opposite directions meet in the first round of the playoffs for the second consecutive season. The Texans pulled away for a 31-10 victory in the wild-card round in Houston last year, but have a much bigger dogfight on their hands this time around. The Bengals allowed an average of 12.8 points while winning seven of their final eight games. After an excellent first three quarters to the regular season, Houston's 1-3 closing stretch can be largely attributed to a defense stung by injuries and erratic play from QB Matt Schaub. The Bengals allow 4.1 yards per carry and 107.2 rushing yards per game. The Texans will bank on RB Arian Foster steadily gaining three to four yards per pop to set up play-action, and he'll be heavily involved in the passing game as well because Schaub lacks reliable outside targets other than Andre Johnson. Field position will be critical in what should shape up as a defensive battle. The Bengals employ a similar diet of physical RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who sat out last week's game to rest an injured hamstring and isn't going to win many foot races even when health. But he does keep QB Andy Dalton out of many dangerous passing downs. Dalton likewise will face a strong pass rush and has one main big-play target in A.J. Green. The question then becomes which offense makes the most of its few red-zone opportunities.
*Matchup to watch - Texans RCB Johnathan Joseph vs. Green: A first-round pick of the Bengals in 2006, Joseph signed a five-year deal with Houston in 2011 and immediately elevated his game to perennial Pro Bowl status. However, the Texans' secondary has been more vulnerable the past month and Dalton isn't afraid to test Green in coverage against anyone. Green will also move around the formation and see snaps against Kareem Jackson as well.
*Player spotlight - Texans OLB Brooks Reed: The second-year player has missed four of the past five games while dealing with a groin injury. If he's close to full strength, Reed is a potential game-changer on passing downs with Cincinnati forced to account for DE J.J. Watt on the other side.
*Fast facts: LB Vontaze Burfict (127) was the first Bengals rookie to lead the team in tackles since Odell Thurman in 2005. ... Of Watt's 20.5 sacks during the regular season, 11 came when opponents were between midfield and the red zone.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
Texans QB Matt Schaub has thrown only one touchdown over the past four weeks while struggling with his accuracy on deep passes. He still threw 13 touchdowns against only four interceptions at home, and Houston's ability to control the ball on the ground and through the underneath passing game will prove the difference in a game hinging on field position.
*Our pick: Texans 20-16
WHO HAS THE EDGE?
When the Bengals run the ball: BenJarvus Green-Ellis was held out of last week's game after tweaking his hamstring during pregame warm-ups. Providing that was a precautionary move, Cincinnati has a steady - if not sexy - ground game that sets the table for the rest of the offense at an average of 4.1 yards per carry. The Texans finished the regular season seventh in run defense and must be particularly strong between the tackles. Edge: Even
When the Bengals pass the ball: QB Andy Dalton managed his way through a somewhat uneven sophomore season. He tends to get rid of the ball before his receivers create separation, and could become antsy in the face of Houston's strong pass rush unless Green-Ellis is producing on first and second down. At the same time, the Texans' defense has taken a step back down the stretch and WR A.J. Green is the biggest threat on the field. Edge: Texans
When the Texans run the ball: The Texans are dogged in their use of the zone-blocking scheme, and won't shy away from it even if RB Arian Foster is plugging along at a few yards per carry. Houston must continue to run the ball to protect QB Matt Schaub, and Foster is particularly dangerous in the red zone with an excellent nose for the goal line. The Bengals won't give up many big plays, but their run defense is the far weaker element. Edge: Texans
When the Texans pass the ball: This is where Houston really stumbled down the stretch with Schaub misfiring on the vertical passes that mark the Texans' attack when the offense is rolling. Foster and TE Owen Daniels are important factors, with Foster's ability to rip off big gains on screen passes critical to taking some of the aggression out of a Bengals front four that can get into the backfield in a flash. Edge: Bengals
Special teams: The Bengals have all the confidence in recent signee Josh Brown, a veteran kicker will plenty of playoff experience. Adam Jones and Brandon Tate are both big-play threats in the return game. Houston has been pleased with what Keshawn Martin has brought to the return game after Trindon Holliday was let go early in the season. Veteran PK Shayne Graham was also an injury replacement and while solid, he lacks a booming leg. Edge: Bengals
Coaching: Both staffs are well respected, and Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis could potentially lose both of his coordinators, Jay Gruden (offense) and Mike Zimmer (defense) to head coaching gigs once the Bengals' playoff run is over. Houston's Gary Kubiak rarely makes poor decisions on game day, and has one of the league's truly elite assistants in defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, whose scheme is capable of flipping any matchup. Edge: Even