Cincinnati Bengals' head coach Marvin Lewis pulled no punches earlier this week, calling this the "biggest game" of his NFL career. For all that the surprising young Bengals have accomplished this year, today's game at Paul Brown Stadium will define their season.
A victory over the 9-3 Texans puts Cincinnati back in the driver's seat for a playoff berth. A loss, and they're behind the 8-ball and the critics will once again have fodder for saying the Bengals can't beat a "good" team.
The game plan is simple: Cincinnati must stop the Texans' running attack and win the turnover battle. If they do that, they'll force rookie QB Tyler Yates, in only his second start, to make plays to win.
Much has been made, rightfully so, about Wade Phillips' turnaround of the Houston defense. Mike Zimmer and his troops should have a little chip on their shoulder because of that. Cincinnati's defense has been remade personnel wise and has been stellar all season long.
It's no secret the Texans are going to run the ball. Last week against Atlanta they ran by almost a 2:1 margin. Arian Foster and Ben Tate are a formidable tandem. With star WR Andre Johnson out, however, with a hamstring injury, that benefits Cincinnati. Zimmer would be wise to bring safeties Reggie Nelson and Chris Crocker into the box to stop the run.
That puts cornerbacks Kelly Jennings and Adam Jones on an Island, but Zimmer was adamant this week about getting more aggressive play from his defensive backs. Without Johnson, the Texans don't really have a legitimate deep threat. Jennings and Jones need to squat on every route and force Yates and his wideouts to beat them.
The Bengal linebackers also have to be both sure tacklers and good in coverage. Tight end Owen Daniels is a dangerous weapon and Foster also is lethal out of the backfield. It's crucial that Manny Lawson, Thomas Howard, and Rey Maualuga make the plays in space when called upon.
On the offensive end, Andy Dalton needs to be patient and take what the defense gives him. That probably won't be much. He won't be pressured to outscore Houston's offense. Two touchdowns this week might be enough, so Dalton can't get impatient and force balls into tight windows. If the Bengal defense can give the offense some short fields, the Bengals have plenty enough weapons to put points on the board.
This week is the playoffs for Cincinnati. After a tough 1-3 stretch against division foes, they need to get back on the winning track. I think they get there today, grinding out a tough victory. Bengals 17, Texans 13.
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