Bengals seeking revenge: The Texans beat the Bengals twice last season. They clinched the first playoff berth in team history after winning 20-19 in Cincinnati on Dec. 11, 2011. Then they won the first playoff game in franchise history on Jan. 7, 2012, 31-10. Rookie quarterback T.J. Yates was at the helm for Houston in both games since Matt Schaub was done from the year as a result of a serious foot injury he suffered in the middle of the season. Cincinnati will be seeking revenge for that game, and will surely tire this week of seeing replays of J.J. Watt’s point-blank interception and 29-yard touchdown return from the postseason matchup.
Late-season struggles: The Texans lost their final three regular-season games last season after that playoff-berth-clinching win at Cincinnati, then won their playoff opener. The Texans lost three of their last four regular-season games this season. When coach Gary Kubiak talks of flipping things back around and getting the Texans playing like they were when they raced out to an 11-1 record that had them looking like the best team in the NFL, he speaks from experience. Last season they were able to regain the form that got them into the playoffs after an end-of-season lull. Of course being without their starting quarterback was a big story a year ago. Schaub is healthy and playing now, but he’s been struggling.
Tough defense: The Bengals went into Week 17 as one of just five teams in the top 10 in the NFL in overall defense, rush defense and pass defense. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins (13 sacks) is a highly underrated player who can give major problems to the Texans' interior line, where rookie right guard Ben Jones has been a part of recent problems. Michael Johnson is also a pass-rushing force, with 11.5 sacks. Cincinnati was first in sacks per pass play and 12th in third-down defense. Schaub is not playing his most confident football right now, and if the Bengals are able to knock him around early and set a tone, it could have a strong bearing on the result.
Linebacker depth issues: The Texans suffered a tough blow when inside linebacker Brian Cushing suffered a torn ACL against the Jets on Oct. 8. Now two guys who’ve been part of replacing him may be in doubt for this game. Darryl Sharpton, who was on PUP for the first nine games of the season with a hip issue, came out of the season finale with a hip issue. And Tim Dobbins, who’s been slowed some with a shoulder injury and missed a game, has another injury that Kubiak identified as a big concern after the loss in Indianapolis but was somehow unable to identify.
Pressure on Schaub: The Texans' offense all spins off their ability to run. If they can get Arian Foster going, then play-action and their rollout/bootleg game tends to really work. But in their three recent losses, they’ve gotten to 100 yards twice and run OK at least in stretches. What’s been a problem is Schaub’s decision-making. He’s clicking with Andre Johnson, but that doesn’t always mean good things. The quarterback has a tendency to be over-reliant on his top target when things aren’t going so smoothly with the Texans passing attack. He’s got to do better spreading it around. This is his first playoff game, and he’s long faced questions about big-game performance. He can do a lot for his reputation if he can lead his team to a win over the Bengals.