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2012 Wild Card Preview: Cincinnati vs. Houston

This is the first of four posts this week examining the Wild Card matchups in the NFL Playoffs. Check back during the next few days for more previews:

The first matchup of the 2012 NFL Playoffs will see the Cincinnati Bengals travel to Houston to take on the Texans at 4:30 et. Saturday on NBC. The Bengals lost a tough game to the Baltimore Ravens yesterday in yet another loss to a team with a winning record. In fact, Cincinnati defeated just one team with a winning record the entire year. Houston, on the other hand, won four games against teams with winning records, including a 20-19 victory over the Bengals in Week 14. Since then though, the Texans have gone winless with losses to the Carolina Panthers, Indianapolis Colts and Titans. After the Texans starting quarterback Matt Schaub went down with a season-ending injury in week ten, rookie TJ Yates took over and has performed okay during the final six games. However, left the Texans’ final game against the Titans with an injury to his non-throwing shoulder, but is expected to play on Saturday. Here’s a brief look at how the teams matchup:

Offense: Yates hasn’t had to carry a huge load for the Texans but he may need to do more against the Bengals. Luckily for Houston, the injury is to his non-throwing shoulder so he should be in good shape come Saturday. Nevertheless, running back Arian Foster will have to carry the brunt of the load in the game as he has done, along with running back Ben Tate, for most of the year. Look for Houston to continue using its second-ranked rushing offensive to plow through the Bengals’ defensive line. If Yates isn’t 100 percent, the Texans will have to rely even more on their running backs, which could limit their effectiveness over the course of the game.

For the Bengals, rookie Andy Dalton threw for more than 3000 yards this year and 20 touchdowns to lead his team to the playoffs. At running back, Cedric Benson surpassed the 1000-yard mark for the third consecutive year. Cincinnati sits in the middle of the league in both categories, but the two-thronged attack gives head coach Marvin Lewis plenty of options on the offensive end. I expect an even mix of Dalton and Benson, but look for Dalton to go deep to wide receiver AJ Green as the combination has proven lethal throughout the year.

Defense:  In a year when defense hasn’t seemed to matter (see, Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots), Houston has given up the second fewest yards in the league and has been equally good with its pass defense and its run defense. In their first matchup, the Texans held Dalton to just 189 yards in the air and Benson to 90 yards on the ground. Houston has forced 26 turnovers this year, good for fourth in the AFC.

Cincinnati’s defense has been good as well, though not quite as strong as Houston’s. They gave up approximately 30 more yards per game than the Texans and forced four fewer turnovers as well. However, in the one matchup between the teams, the Bengals forced three fumbles and one interception.

Special Teams: Houston was better at kickoff returns this year while Cincinnati ranked as one of the top teams in its punt return game. Houston made 32 of 38 field goals on the year while Cincinnati made 33 of 38, nearly identical records.

Prediction: The Bengals have a healthy quarterback and a balanced offensive approach with a defense that troubled the Texans in their one meeting. Foster had the week off this week, but I expect Cincinnati to stand strong on the defensive front and limit the Texan’s running backs. It’ll be a close game and Houston has the home-field advantage, but I see the away side pulling the upset:

Cincinnati 20 Houston 17

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