Too chicken to make predictions, I analyse five areas that will prove key to Saturday's showdown...
SNEAKY GOOD DEFENSE V SNEAKY GOOD DEFENSE
Most people forgot that Texans’ defensive co-ordinator Wade Phillips is basically a defensive genius, partly because he was so spectacularly inept as a head coach in Dallas, but mainly because he’s so easy to confuse with Newt Gingrich (only physically. Wade Phillips never blamed cheating on his cancer-stricken wife on “feeling too passionate and working too hard for the country.” Though to be fair, Newt Gingrich never traded away first, third and sixth round picks for Roy Williams. We all make mistakes.)
Anyway, under Phillips the Texans have become one of the best defenses in the league, despite the loss of Mario Williams. The Bengals have likewise had one of the top defenses – indeed, the very best for a while back in October – despite roundly being thought to be made up of nobodies. This is a little puzzling, as most of the defense were number one draft picks, yet the fact remains your average NFL fan couldn’t pick Nate Clemens, Manny Lawson, Reggie Nelson or Kelly Jennings out of a line-up. Adam Jones, on the other hand, has spent rather too much time being picked out of line-ups.
MISERABLE PLAY-OFF HISTORY V MISERABLE PLAY-OFF HISTORY
The Texans have never made the play offs in franchise history. That might be something to feel smug about were it not for the fact that in that time the Bengals haven’t won a play off game either, thanks predominantly to Kimo van Oelhoffen and Shayne Graham. Neither team seemed particularly to want to change that state of affairs, the Texans losing their last three games, the Bengals losing three of the last five. That said, the Bengals play in the toughest division in football and have a cool nickname, whereas the Texans play in a division so dull that I spent the past five minutes trying to figure out the fourth team before realizing that by the time I got to the Indianapolis I’d already forgotten either Tennessee or Jacksonville. Furthermore, “The Texans” is the worst nickname in sports – if ever a name was arrived at by committee, that was it. I’m open to suggestions.
IN THE WARS ROOKIE QB V IN THE WARS ROOKIE QB
Andy Dalton was hospitalized this week “flu-like symptoms” and thanks to Marvin Lewis’ graphic description we all now know exactly what he means. In an entirely unrelated issue, the Bengals spent this week practicing outdoors (have you been outdoors in Cincy this week? It’s fricking freezing. I took a forty minute walk along the river the day before yesterday, which I imagine was similar in intensity to the sort of thing Dalton does in practise, so I know where he’s coming from.)
I accused TJ Yates of sounding like a chain of bad Irish wine bars last time we played the Texans. That back-fired spectacularly when he beat the Bengals with a last second touchdown. He has bruised his throwing shoulder, however, so this match up between the first ever play off rookie QB duelers has them both a shade off-colour.
TERRIFYING ELITE WR INITIALED “AJ” V TERRIFYING ELITE WR INITIALED “AJ”
Andre Johnson is widely considered to be the best wideout in football, unless Larry Fitzgerald or Calvin Johnson are on the table in which case they are also said to be widely considered to be the best. But basically, he’s pretty damn good. AJ Green hasn’t been as effective in recent weeks (could be the rookie wall, could be that shoulder niggle, could be that teams, like the Ravens last week, are putting eight man coverage on him) but will surely one day soon join the discussion. Johnson is expected to play around three quarters of his team's offensive snaps, as he’s still suffering with a hamstring niggle. Bengals fans should be grateful that somebody else is calling their plays – if the crowd had been in charge of the offense last week we’d have thrown deep to Green every time. Wait – what’s wrong with that plan!?
BENGALS FIRST ROUND PICK CORNERBACK V BENGALS FIRST ROUND PICK CORNERBACK
One of the reasons the Bengals prioritized re-signing Leon Hall over Jonathon Joseph was Hall’s physical consistency against J-Joe’s injury issues (ok, there were other considerations, including but not limited to – unhelpful rumours about Joseph’s, erm, hobbies, and the fact that he didn’t want to play for the Bengals any more). Hall, of course, suffered the first real injury of his career against – who else? – Pittsburgh and has missed the entire year, while Joseph is now Pro Bowl and All-Pro (because you get those things once you leave the Bengals) and has as many picks as all Bengal CBs put together. That, Alanis Morissettes, unlike getting a fly in your wine, is irony.
What does this all tell us? No wonder that every expert from Vegas to ESPN has this being a close one. Luckily, it isn’t my job to make predictions, further than advising a liberally stocked fridge and easy access to your heart medication…so instead, I'll leave it to Bill, I'm generous like that...here we go....
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