Bengals vs. Texans preview

When: 1 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: NRG Stadium, Houston TV: CBS

The Cincinnati Bengals hold a special place in Houston Texans' lore. The Texans, who have been around since only 2002, have had some of their most memorable moments against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Actually, the most memorable moment in franchise history was a pick-six by J.J. Watt in the 2011 playoffs that turned the game in Houston's favor. That was the Texans' first ever playoff win. In fact, the Bengals are the only team the Texans have beat in the playoffs, having done it in consecutive years (2011-12).

Less is on the line this time, but the Texans (5-5) still hang onto hope they can weasel their way into the playoffs with a second-half push. They're currently second in the AFC South and only one game behind the Indianapolis Colts.

With some help from the Texans, who beat the Cleveland Browns last week, the Bengals sit atop the AFC North. Theirs is a division so tight the Browns tumbled from first to last with just one loss.

NFL Nation Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and Texans reporter Tania Ganguil discuss this week's matchup.

Ganguil: So Coley, Andy Dalton had a bit of a bounce-back game after an atrocious showing against the Browns two weeks ago. Why was he better? And which Dalton do you think we'll see on Sunday in Houston?

Harvey: There are so many reasons why Dalton was dramatically better this past week, Tania. For starters, he got better protection from his offensive line, specifically from his former TCU teammate Marshall Newhouse, who filled in the past two games for starting right tackle Andre Smith. Newhouse still wasn't great by any stretch, but he was better. Along with that, Dalton did a great job of anticipating pressure, even spinning out of danger on his very first play to scramble and pick up 11 yards for a first down. You saw a calmer, more poised quarterback in the pocket Sunday at New Orleans. He just looked rattled out of his mind against Cleveland during that Thursday night game. Dalton's accuracy also was better. He completed 72.7 percent of his passes, boosting his career record to 10-1-1 in games he has had a 70 percent or higher completion percentage. It's tough to say which Dalton we'll see this week. He's notoriously inconsistent and has had a history of playing poorly at NRG Stadium. It all comes down to whether the Bengals can be balanced offensively, and if he can stay upright in the pocket.

I'm sure every week you do these previews our NFL Nation colleagues ask you about Watt. My question about him is this: What can't he do?

Ganguli: We asked that question of Watt's teammates back in Week 2 when he caught his first touchdown pass. They came up with punting. And, uh, Watt's said he's not great at golf. On the football field, it seems there's little he can't do and the Texans are taking advantage of that. He's a guy who would be on the Jugs machine after training camp practices, waiting his turn with receivers. He works on every skill that could possibly be useful as a football player -- not just as a defensive end -- and that shows during games. Watt doesn't get the ball thrown to him every time he's in on an offensive snap, but he has caught touchdown passes on both of his targets this season. That stuff gets the most attention, but defensively Watt is a problem for every offense he faces. Between batted passes, sacks and quarterback hits, Watt has been the most disruptive player in the league since he entered it. The Browns regularly sent two toward him, sometimes more tried to help.

Since you brought him up: How will the Bengals handle Watt?


Glad you asked. This is where having Smith, the aforementioned tackle who has been out with an ankle injury, will be beneficial. Whether Smith plays or not, I'd imagine the Texans will want Watt to get pressure from that side of the line simply because it's the weakest edge. That's not an indictment on Smith. It's just that left tackle Andrew Whitworth is a Pro Bowler who may be having the best season of his career on the other side. Let’s assume Smith returns and plays right tackle. After practicing Wednesday, it appears that will happen. If I’m Watt, I’d expect double- and maybe even an occasional triple-team. Right guard Kevin Zeitler could provide some help, as could a tight end or H-back lined up on the other side of the right tackle. Per my unofficial film study, the Bengals used an extra blocker next to Newhouse 42.1 percent of the time. They'll also regularly have a running back or H-back Ryan Hewitt lined up in the backfield to give a little extra protection to Dalton. Another tactic? To get the ball out. Dalton has done that well this season, ranking second to Peyton Manning in shortest average time in the pocket. While Watt will be tough to slow, the Bengals also know they will have their hands full with a very talented defensive line.

Ryan Mallett looked really good in last Sunday's game, and clearly his teammates followed his lead in the win against the Browns. Is it too soon to anoint him the Texans' future at quarterback? And what more does he need to do to prove the reins are better in his hands instead of Ryan Fitzpatrick's?

Ganguli: Those are very different questions. Mallett showed on Sunday that the reins are better in his hands than Fitzpatrick's. I think we can already say that. Mallett's total QBR ranked fourth in the league on Sunday. The ball came out quicker with him throwing it than it did with Fitzpatrick, and his arm strength and trust in his arm was on display, even though his numbers were better on more intermediate throws. As for the future, Mallett said it himself: Sunday's game was just one. It was his first ever NFL start and his first win. He played well. The Texans planned well. But what we need to see next is what Mallett can do now that teams have film on him and can adjust better to what he does. Throughout their history, the Texans have struggled to find a franchise quarterback. Mallett showed against the Browns he can be that guy. Now it's up to him to show he will be.

Sticking with offense for you: What impact has the loss of Giovani Bernard had on the Bengals' offense? Will we see him this weekend?

Harvey: We'll take the second question first. It's still a little early in the week to say definitively if he'll play, but I have a feeling he'll be back in uniform for the first time in four weeks. With the Bengals taking his rehab slowly, I can't imagine he'll play his regular load, and I can't imagine he'll be taking the pounding up the middle that he had before. The Bengals have been able to absorb Bernard's loss quite well. Rookie Jeremy Hill has been better than advertised, ripping off a pair of 150-yard rushing performances in his absence. It's not far-fetched to make the claim right now that Hill is the best running back the Bengals have. That said, Bernard is the starter, and has ability in the pass-catching game that Hill and others don't. You'll see a heavy dose of Hill on Sunday. But if Bernard does play, it might not be the role Bengals fans are used to.

The personnel in Houston has changed significantly since the last time these teams met, but what, if anything, can carry over for the Texans from their playoff wins against the Bengals in 2011 and 2012? Those losses certainly have had staying power in Cincinnati, as they were the first of three straight postseason games Dalton has lost to start his career.

Ganguli: You're right that things have changed significantly here. The starting quarterback, head coach and both coordinators have changed. Since that 2011 win, the Texans have turned over most of their starting lineup, too. That 2011 win was the one in which Watt really became someone people noticed. It was before spectacular became normal for him and he made a spectacular play with that pick-six I mentioned earlier. I would say his ascent is the carry-over there. The 2012 Texans who faced the Bengals in that wild-card game were a team already declining. The seeds of their 2-14 season could be seen then as they were never even supposed to be in that position -- as the Texans bolted to an 11-1 start, they seemed destined for a first-round bye. By the way, Texans head coach Bill O'Brien would hurt you for this question. There's been a concerted effort from this team to not talk about the past -- especially not last season. They don't want to let those vibes creep back in.