On Dec. 11, 2011, the Houston Texans drove 80 yards in the games final two minutes to steal a 20-19 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. The victory clinched the AFC South title for the Texans, the first in the history of the franchise. At the time, the Texans held the edge for home field advantage during the playoffs in the AFC. They haven't won since.
While the Texans are enjoying the fruits of a magical season, basking in the glow of playing the franchise's first playoff game in front of their home fans, the numbers from their final three games show that there's reason for serious concern about a decline in Gary Kubiak's team.
After leaving Cincinnati 10-3, Houston had only one more game left on their schedule against a winning team, Tennessee, and that would be at home. The Texans then fell to Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers in a game that wasn't really as close as the 28-13 score indicated. They then went on the road to become the Indianapolis Colts' second victim of the season, allowing Dan Orlovsky to drive for game winning score. They finished the season with a one point home loss to the Tennessee Titans, a team they had beaten 41-7 in Nashville in week seven.
So while the Texans numbers, especially on defense, have been impressive and a tremendous improvement over their 2010 numbers, the recent three game trend suggests that Houston is extremely vulnerable this week as the Bengals come in.
Over the last three games, Houston is surrendering almost a full touchdown per game than their season average (23.3 to 17.4). While Carolina's offense is certainly explosive, both Indianapolis and Tennessee rank in the bottom third of the league in total offense.
The biggest part of this decline has been with the passing defense. Houston is surrendering nearly 30 yards per game more over the past three contests than they did for the season. The rushing defense has suffered as well, just not as dramatically, giving up nearly 20 yards more per contest. As a result, Houston's time of possession differential has shifted to a negative by more than three minutes per game.
Houston's offense hasn't done anything to offset the decline by the defense. With teams now having some film of rookie quarterback TJ Yates, the offense has sputtered, scoring only 17 points per game. The passing numbers are down 25 yards per game overall. Yates was sacked five times by Cincinnati in their last meeting. He's gone down seven more times in the last three games, including a hit last Sunday that knocked him out of the game with a shoulder injury. Only the rushing game, behind Arian Foster and Ben Tate has shown improvement. Andre Johnson is back, but he was a non-factor in his return last week, catching two balls for 21 yards.
By comparison, the Bengals, playing against doormat St. Louis, Arizona (whose only loss in their final six games came in Cincinnati), and AFC second seed Baltimore, have shown an improvement in passing defense by nearly 15 yards per game and scoring defense by three points per game. On offense, the passing game has struggled but the running game has improved. Overall, the Bengals have remained fairly consistent over the last three games of the season.
Houston certainly has the statistical edge if one looks at the entire season, but if the trends that have emerged since the last time these two teams met hold true, Cincinnati will emerge with their first ever road playoff win.
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