The Cincinnati Bengals had been playing an entire season with "house money." Picked by most to be the AFC North doormats and by some to be the worst team in the NFL, they played a season of inspired football led by a promising young nucleus of players on both sides of the ball. Somehow, they had overcome a major roster overhaul and parleyed their success into a playoff berth.
On Saturday in Houston, the "house" called in their markers. As it has been all season, the Bengals didn't take full advantage of their first half opportunities, and after Houston did, jumping out to halftime advantage, the Bengals were forced to play catch up. They couldn't do it and dropped the third playoff game in as many tries under Marvin Lewis, 31-10.
As has been their wont when winning the coin toss, the Bengals deferred and allowed the Texans to take the ball first on offense. Houston appeared a bit jittery in their first playoff possession. Arian Foster nearly fumbled his first carry, then committed a false start. TJ Yates then overthrew a wide open Owen Daniels on third down, forcing the Texans to punt.
After backing the Texans up to their own 12, TJ Yates completed his first pass of the game for 21 yards to Andre Johnson. That was it for the Texans' offense though as the Bengals defense shut them down from there.
The Bengals then connected on the game's first big play. Off of play action, AJ Green had Glover Quin beaten deep. Quin had no choice but to interfere and save a touchdown, but it gave the Bengals a first down at the Texans' 21 yard line. Then on third down, Dalton hit Brian Leonard on a well-designed screen pass for 16 yards down to the one yard line. Cedric Benson slammed in over the left side on first down and the Bengals had the early 7-0 lead.
The Texans responded with Arian Foster taking advantage of the Bengals lack of backside pursuit, busting off a big run across midfield. Then Yates found Owen Daniels over the middle for 21 yards. Reggie Nelson was flagged for a questionable personal foul which added 15 yards onto the play and put the Texans in the red zone. Arian Foster capped off the drive with an eight yard scamper around the left end and the game was tied at seven.
The Bengals offense kept its composure, driving the ball into Houston territory as the first quarter expired. Andy Dalton hardly looked the part of the inexperienced rookie making a road playoff start, completing seven of nine for 59 yards in the first frame.
Dalton continued his surgical precision on the first play of the second quarter, finding AJ Green on a square in for 21 yards down to the Houston 25. Dalton took a costly sack on third down however, losing nine yards and forcing Mike Nugent to attempt a field goal from 50 yards that narrowly missed wide right.
After holding Houston to a three and out, the Bengals' offense went back to work. Andy Dalton was patient in the pocket and found TE Donald Lee who broke a tackle and rumbled for a 36 yard gain. A Houston personal foul tacked on 15 more and the Bengals were in the red zone again. The drive bogged down though at the Texans 19 and Mike Nugent was on again. This time he split the uprights from 37 yards away and the Bengals led 10-7.
Houston put together a much-needed drive of their own next behind the patient running of Arian Foster. TJ Yates converted a key third and long, hitting Andre Johnson on a deep out moving the ball to the Bengals 26. Kelly Jennings broke up a pass in the end zone intended for Andre Johnson and Houston settled for a 39 yard field goal from Neil Rackers which tied the game at 10. During the drive, however, head coach Marvin Lewis burned his second replay challenge, leaving the Bengals without any for the rest of the game.
It also meant that the Bengals only had one timeout left when they took over with under two minutes left in the first half. Andy Dalton made a nice scramble to pick up a first down, but on the next play, fellow rookie JJ Watt went to bat down a Dalton pass and ended up intercepting it in the process. Watt broke free from Mike McGlynn and rumbled 29 yards for a Houston touchdown, putting them up 17-10. This would be the turning point in the game.
While being dominant for the first 23 minutes of the first half, the Bengals had only 10 points in three red zone possessions, a season-long problem for the team. Despite controlling the clock, the turnover for the touchdown combined with the missed opportunities yielded a seven point half-time deficit.
Andy Dalton was sharp in the first half. Even the interception couldn't really be pinned on him. The Bengals moved the football. The defense, for the most part, was able to get the Houston offense off the field. If there was to be a comeback, the Bengals would have to convert their opportunities in the second half while keeping Arian Foster in check.
They weren't given many second half opportunities and Arian Foster continued rolling up the yards in the second half.
The Bengals opened the second half with the football, but were unable to get anywhere. The Houston crowd, buoyed by the first half finish, made it difficult for the Dalton to hear the play calls, even in his helmet headset.
Houston, meanwhile, was in Bengals territory in short order with a pair of nice Arian Foster runs. Once again, the backside containment from the Bengals broke down allowing Foster to get free. The Bengals held though when Reggie Nelson came free on a safety blitz and sacked Yates, forcing a Texans' punt.
After the Bengals were forced to turn it back, Houston put together a back-breaking drive. Arian Foster picked up chunks of yardage both on the ground and as a receiver. Chris Crocker had a terrible drive, misdiagnosing a screen pass, dropping a possible pick-six, whiffing on a sack on a safety blitz and then not getting over in time after Adam Jones had been beaten by Andre Johnson. The last mistake resulted in a 40 yard touchdown pass from Yates to Johnson, putting the Texans up 24-10.
The Bengals got to midfield on the next drive, but Dalton was sacked for the fifth time, putting them in a long down and distance. Dalton was again pressured on fourth down and was intercepted on a prayer by Johnathan Joseph. Dalton would be picked a third time by Danieal Manning trying to force one in to AJ Green.
Arian Foster would add insult to injury by rumbling 42 yards for another Houston touchdown on the ensuing Texans possession. Chris Crocker tried to shoulder him out of bounds, but Foster just tossed him aside and finished the touchdown run.
Despite the attention paid to the two rookie quarterbacks, it came down to the running game. Cedric Benson was a non-factor, gaining only 14 yards on seven carries. Arian Foster, meanwhile, was a monster, picking up 153 yards on 24 carries and two touchdowns.
So ends an improbable season for the Cincinnati Bengals. They began the season as the prohibitive favorites to get the first pick in the NFL draft. They finished as one of 12 teams to qualify for the NFL Playoffs.
The Bengals may have enjoyed playing with the "house money" this season, with low or no expectations. That won't be the case next season.
Stay with Bengals 101 all during the off season for all the news and analysis as they prepare to get back to the playoffs and beyond.
Tags: AJ Green, Andy Dalton, Arian Foster, Cedric Benson, Cincinnati, Cincinnati Bengals, Football, JJ Watt, Marvin Lewis, Mike Nugent, NFL