4:30 PM ET, January 5, 2013
NRG Stadium, Houston, TX
This time, Matt Schaub will be in the spotlight.
Schaub will make his first postseason start as the stumbling Texans try to eliminate Cincinnati in the wild-card round, a year after they did so with a third-string quarterback.
Houston's first playoff game in franchise history was a 31-10 victory over Cincinnati last year to open wild-card weekend. T.J. Yates was the Texans' quarterback since Schaub was lost for the season after 10 games due to a foot injury and former backup Matt Leinart also was sidelined.
"It is exciting," Schaub said. "It's an exciting time of year to be a part of this to get ready to play in a playoff game, especially here at home in front of our home fans."
How excited the third-seeded Texans (12-4) truly are for Saturday is debatable. Houston lost its final two regular-season games when a victory in either would have given it a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
"We didn't handle the end of the season the way we wanted to handle it, but that doesn't mean that we can't handle these playoffs the way we want to handle it," coach Gary Kubiak said. "We understand how we have to play."
Schaub had 21 touchdown passes to nine interceptions during the Texans' 11-1 start, but had one TD and three picks over their 1/3 finish.
"I've just got to play a little more consistent," said Schaub, who has not thrown a pass in a playoff game in nine NFL seasons. "I definitely know when things aren't going well to look at myself first because I'm the one that's putting everyone in position and trying to make the plays."
Andy Dalton, meanwhile, has guided Cincinnati (10-6) to its first consecutive playoff berths since 1981-82. He's looking to make amends after he threw three interceptions and was sacked four times while finishing with the second-worst passer rating of his career at 51.4 in last year's defeat.
"Personally, I'm a lot more confident," said Dalton, who threw for 27 touchdowns and 3,669 yards this season. "I've experienced it. I know the atmosphere I'm going in to. This team as a whole has gotten better from the experience we have now."
Dalton will have to again be wary of star defensive end J.J. Watt, whose 29-yard interception return for the go-ahead score before halftime was the most memorable moment of last season's playoff matchup.
"That was last year and this is this year," he said. "I have things to focus on this year. It was a great play, a huge moment in my life, but I'm looking forward to making bigger moments this year."
Watt turned in an amazing second season in 2012 with an NFL-high 20 1/2 sacks, two shy of the league record. The Defensive Player of the Year candidate also had 39 tackles for loss, 16 passes defended, 107 tackles and four forced fumbles.
If Watt can harass Dalton, it may be difficult for the Bengals signal-caller to get the ball to A.J. Green. Green was held below 60 yards in both meetings with Houston last season, including 47 in the playoff game. The second-year pro went over 1,000 yards again this season (1,350), and his 11 touchdown receptions tied for fourth in the league.
Schaub, meanwhile, will primarily want to target Andre Johnson, who led the AFC with a career-high 1,598 receiving yards although he had only four TD catches. Johnson caught five passes for 90 yards and a TD from Yates last season in the playoffs versus Cincinnati.
The Bengals sound more concerned about slowing down a running attack that features Arian Foster, second in the AFC with 1,424 rushing yards and a league-best 15 TDs on the ground. Houston was 7-0 this season when he ran for more than 100 yards. Foster carried 24 times for 153 yards and two scores in last year's playoff win.
"It really starts with the Texans run game," Cincinnati defensive back Leon Hall said. "That opens up their playbook. It sets up a lot of the play-action passes that they have."
Atkins and Johnson are major concerns for Houston since Schaub has been sacked 12 times over the last four games, compared to 15 through the first 12.
"They have a very talented front four, one of the best that we'll face all year," Texans left tackle Duane Brown said. "I'm very familiar with them. Most of them are the same guys they had last year. They're relentless guys, very strong."
Houston linebacker Brooks Reed could return after sitting out last Sunday's 28-16 loss at Indianapolis with a groin injury. Cornerback Alan Ball also may be back after missing five straight games with a foot injury.
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• Can the Bengals' D-line control the trenches? This is a deep unit with an outstanding set of pass-rushers and run-blockers. The Bengals are not going to blitz a lot if they can get pressure by the guys up front. Individually, all four starters are almost impossible to block one on one, so who do you double team? Houston has had a solid offensive line in pass protection for most of this season, but in the past couple of weeks, QB Matt Schaub has gotten hit more than usual, and the Bengals' D-line could really give him problems. This defensive front must also show gap discipline versus the zone-blocking Texans run game, which features a lot of cutback runs.
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|Avg Points Allowed||19.0||13.0|
Team Averages & NFL Ranks
|TEAM OFFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|TEAM DEFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|Pass Yds Allowed||CIN|
|Rush Yds Allowed||CIN|
Head to Head Matchups (Since 2001)
|Houston leads 5-3|
|Jan 7, 2012||CIN 10, @HOU 31|
|Dec 11, 2011||CIN 19, HOU 20|
|Oct 18, 2009||CIN 17, HOU 28|
|Oct 26, 2008||CIN 6, @HOU 35|
|Oct 2, 2005||CIN 16, HOU 10|
|Nov 9, 2003||CIN 34, HOU 27|
|Nov 3, 2002||CIN 38, @HOU 3|
Owen Daniels and Jermaine Gresham were used in similar ways during the regular season but had very different games Saturday. Daniels set game-high totals with nine catches, 91 yards and four first downs, while Saturday marked the second time in the past five years Matt Schaub targeted Daniels more than 10 times. Gresham caught 2-of-7 targets for 7 yards, no first downs and had a pair of dropped passes. Daniels (62 catches) and Gresham (64 catches) were the second-most targeted receivers on their teams, with Daniels trailing Andre Johnson and Gresham trailing A.J. Green.
ESPN Stats & Information