HOUSTON -- Don’t fast-forward too quickly. Wade Phillips won’t. The Houston Texans' defensive coordinator asked for a day before he starts to figure out how to improve on the Texans’ terrible showing in New England five weeks ago.
That’s not unreasonable.
After all, a team with a somewhat-faint pulse sprang back to life at Reliant Stadium on Saturday, smothering the Cincinnati Bengals in a 19-13 victory in the wild-card round of the playoffs that earned the return trip to New England next Sunday afternoon.
“We played dominant defense, we played great, we played inspired,” outside linebacker Brooks Reed said. “It’s good to be firing on all cylinders. We’ve got to get ready to play even a tougher game.”
“We kind of wanted to reset our batteries this week,” center Chris Myers said. “We know what we do best as an offense: Run the ball, pound it and control the line of scrimmage. That’s what we focused in on all week.”
The key numbers that plugged into what Reed and Myers spoke of: The Bengals didn’t convert one of their nine third-down chances and allowed Andy Dalton to hit on less than half his passes for just 127 yards; the Texans gave the ball to Arian Foster 32 times and he gained 140 yards and scored a touchdown while helping his team hold the ball for 38 minutes, 49 seconds.
Houston’s worst-case scenario got better, and at the very least the Texans will have a 2012 season as good as their 2011, which ended with a divisional-round loss in Baltimore.
“It’s been a gut check for this organization through this past month, and the players led the way today and I’m very proud of them,” coach Gary Kubiak said.
A closer look at some key ingredients that got the Bulls on Parade into the divisional round of the playoffs for the second year in a row:
The quarterback’s first playoff game: Matt Schaub threw a really bad pick-six, and there were stretches where the Texans appeared very reluctant to have him try anything that carried even a mild degree of risk.
But he made enough plays to get a "W" in the first playoff game of his career, connecting on 29 of 38 attempts for 262 yards. He looked to Andre Johnson on 21 percent of his throws, a number far better than the 37 percent he forced during the Texans' three recent losses.
It was tight end Owen Daniels who gave the Bengals matchup fits and hurt them the most with nine catches for 91 yards.
The offensive line didn’t only block well for Foster and the run game, but also created time and comfort for Schaub, who wasn’t sacked and was hit only twice, according to the stat crew.
It crushed Schaub to miss last season's playoff run after he suffered a serious foot injury in the middle of the season.
He’s a 1-0 playoff quarterback now.
Foster’s record: No back in NFL history had topped 100 yards in his first three playoff games until Foster pushed into triple digits Saturday. His line did great work, often getting a 1- or 2-yard push before he caught up to his blockers.
“He’s become a fine, fine player -- and it just seems like the bigger it gets, the better Arian gets,” Kubiak said.
Foster rarely went right, where a rotation at guard (rookies Ben Jones and Brandon Brooks) and tackle (Derek Newton and Ryan Harris) has been an issue, but wasn’t anything the Bengals were able to exploit in this game.
When Foster ran for one final first down that iced the game, Texans owner Bob McNair said he wanted to run out on the field and kiss him.
“A nice little hug would do,” Foster cracked.
Red zone: I waited for the good vibe of the day to get sufficient consideration before I asked Foster about the team’s red zone struggles going unsolved. In reply, he took the nickname he has used for me in our periodic conversations the past few years -- Mr. Positivity -- public.
But it doesn’t take a Negative Nellie to know that one touchdown in four chances like the Texans had against the Bengals won’t suffice at Gillette Stadium. The Texans were actually 2-for-2 scoring touchdowns once they got inside the 20 on Dec. 10 at New England. The thing was, they were already down 28-0 when they finally got there.
Schaub emphasized how the Texans didn’t want to force things when they were assured of makeable field goals from Shayne Graham. But the Patriots' offense burns at a higher temperature than the Bengals', and Houston won’t likely be able to choose to be conservative if it wants a chance to advance to the AFC title game.
“It was our Achilles' heel today,” Foster said. “When you get in the red zone, especially against a team like New England, you have to score touchdowns, you can’t kick field goals, because they like to put up points and they like to put up points in a hurry.
“I’ve got a lot of faith in our defense, but that man behind center over there is a great player. You have to keep him off the field and you have to capitalize any time you get the opportunity.”
A healthy Johnathan Joseph: The team’s top cornerback has been inconsistent this season, at least in part because of groin and hamstring injuries. Phillips said once Joseph was back to practicing full-time, he’d return to form.
That sure seemed like the case against Cincinnati.
Dalton didn’t even throw a ball the direction of A.J. Green, his top receiver, in the first half. He looked for him 11 times in the second half and had one big 45-yard completion. But Green stopped on one route in the middle of the field and Joseph, who was sticky most of the game, grabbed an interception and took it 14 yards to set up Graham’s fourth field goal that boosted the Texans’ point total to 19.
“Physically, I’m probably better than I’ve been all year,” Joseph said.
Joseph and the Bulls on Parade were the first playoff defense to hold an opponent without a third-down conversion since the Bengals did it to the Bills in the 1988 AFC Championship Game.
Success will be defined a lot differently at Gillette Stadium against Tom Brady and the Patriots.
Phillips will soon start pondering just what his guys might try differently given this second chance.