If the Cincinnati Bengals are to continue their improbable playoff run this season they will have to do something never before done in the history of the franchise: win a playoff game on the road.
Dating back to 1970 when the Bengals dropped a 17-0 decision in Baltimore to the Colts, the team has yet to come away victorious on visiting soil during the playoffs. That's four games total, the last being a loss at the Los Angeles Coliseum against the Raiders in the game where Bengals linebacker Kevin Walker effectively ended Bo Jackson's playing career with a tackle that resulted in a hip injury from which he never recovered.
That string very well could be broken today, however, as the Bengals enter the game just three point underdogs to the home-standing Texans. Having come within three seconds of defeating Houston a month ago, Cincinnati is no doubt confident about their chances. After letting a 16-3 lead devolve into a 20-19 loss, the Bengals must do four things today to return the favor and walk out of Reliant Stadium a winner.
1. Get the Texans off the field on third down. The Texans were a phenomenal 9 for 16 on third down the first time these teams met. Most of those conversions occurred on two long drives the Texans used at the end of the game to gain the win. TJ Yates 17 yard scramble on a third and 13 kept alive the game winning drive. Having Carlos Dunlap back to rush Yates will certainly help. The Bengals got to Yates five times in the first game. Though hardly a Cam Newton clone, Yates has the ability to escape the pocket and make plays. Cincinnati would be wise to assign a spy for Yates on third and long situations.
2. Stop the tight ends. A big part of Houston's success on third down was Yates' ability to find his tight ends down the middle. Owen Daniels and Joel Dreesen caught a combined 13 balls for 132 yards and a touchdown in the first game. With Daniels hobbled with a knee injury and Yates playing with a dinged shoulder, the Bengals should try to lock down on Daniels and Dreesen, as well as possession receiver and former Bengal Kevin Walter and dare Yates to beat them deep. Which leads us to…
3. Win the battle of the big plays and turnovers. These are the big, field-position changing moments. Although the Bengals won the turnover battle the first time out, the Texans cashed in on key moments and hit big plays out of the running game to get the victory. Andre Johnson will be back for the Texans, but is still nursing a sore hamstring. As mentioned before, Yates' shoulder is questionable as well. The Bengals' secondary, which has been prone to miscommunications at times, will have to play perfectly in coverage and give the front seven enough time to get to Yates.
They'll also have to stop Ben Tate or Arian Foster from breaking any big runs. Foster was pretty much neutralized in the first game, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry. Ben Tate, however, broke a 44 yarder and averaged 8.7 yards per carry.
On the offensive side, former Bengal Johnathan Joseph is also playing with an injured ankle. The Bengals need some big plays out of their passing game to move the ball down the field. Those plays will be open and Andy Dalton will have to hit them when they're available.
Cincinnati must also not turn the ball over in their own territory and give Houston any short field. Points will be at a premium in this game, so if either team makes mistakes in their own territory, it could be very costly.
4. Cash in in the red zone. This has been the Bengals' Achilles' Heel all season. In the first Houston game, it cost them dearly. Mike Nugent booted four field goals, but the Bengals found the end zone only once. If Cincinnati has to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns, they could be headed home for good at the end of the day. Both teams rank in the bottom third of the league in red zone touchdowns, but for the Bengals there's one trend that is positive: their scoring percentage on the road has been markedly higher than at home. Cincinnati is converting in the red zone 56 per cent of the time away from PBS compared to only 34.6 per cent of the time at home.
The Bengals narrowly missed defeating the Houston Texans in their first game. If they can correct the afore-mentioned issues, they will come away with the franchise's first road playoff win and continue their dream season in New England next weekend.
Bengals 20, Texans 16
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