8:25 PM EST, NFL Network – Line: Texans -1, Over/Under: 42
A matchup that has played host to a number of Playoff Games is now something very different, as the Cincinnati Bengals travel to Reliant Stadium to face the Houston Texans with only the role of spoiler left to play. After five consecutive trips to the Postseason, the Bengals (5-8-1, 3rd in AFC North) will not be making a sixth such trip in 2016, as they come to the penultimate chapter in a campaign that can only be described as disappointing. Simply put, a year after winning the AFC North Title, Cincinnati has regressed mightily, but then again let’s give Marvin Lewis and his charges some credit for trying to carry some positive momentum into the Offseason. After a dreadful stretch in which they won just three out of twelve games, the Bengals managed to right the ship and string together back-to-back wins for the first time this year, and for about three-and-a-half Quarters of play handled the Steelers’ mighty Offense last Weekend. At one point, the hosts owned a 20-6 lead over their bitter rivals, relegating Pittsburgh to a quintet of Field Goals before allowing a 24-yard touchdown from Ben Roethlisberger to Eli Rogers with 7:29 left in the final stanza. However, there was one series in particular that encapsulated the problems they’ve faced this season, even harkening back to their inexplicable collapse in January’s Wild Card loss to the Steelers on that very same field. Inside of ten minutes left to play, Lewis witnessed his Defense commit four HUGE penalties on four consecutive plays (including a 15-yard Unnecessary Roughness that moved the ball to their 33-yard line), which led to four crucial First Downs, eventually culminating in the aforementioned Rogers’ touchdown. Scoring twenty points in the First Half, the home side was rendered scoreless over the final thirty minutes, as they struggled to gain any traction on the ground, rushing for seventy-six yards on twenty-eight carries, while Quarterback Andy Dalton hit the proverbial wall, completing 16-of-27 attempts for just 157 yards and an interception. The 24-20 defeat was yet another in a long line of narrowly close losses for the Bengals, who will be wondering what might have been when it’s all said and done, for each of their past four losses have been decided by five points or less. It’s appeared that Dalton (64.4% 265.1 Y/G, 6.55 NY/A, 16 TD, 7 INT, 64.5 QBR) has suffered the most from this regression, but then again his Supporting Cast has rarely been complete this season; Pro Bowlers Tyler Eifert (29 REC, 394 YDS, 5 TD) and AJ Green (66 REC, 964 YDS, 4 TD) have both missed significant time due to injuries, with the former sitting out the first six games, while the latter has missed the last four games with a partially torn Hamstring. Fortunately, Green may return to action tonight (he’s listed as Questionable), but Eifert has since been pronounced Out with a bulky back. Let’s not forget that Dalton has also been without the services of former Offensive Coordinator Hue Jackson, who left for browner pastures in Cleveland, while Receivers such as Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones departed in Free Agency. Furthermore, the Offensive Line has experienced it’s fair share of issues as well, for Dalton has been sacked thirty-seven times thus far, seventeen times more than he was dropped in 2015. Needless to say, it’s been a rough year for the 29-year old signal-caller. With the end nearly in sight, at least he and his teammates will get the opportunity to exorcise some demons, as they look to storm into Houston and spoil their Postseason aspirations. In both 2011 and 2012, the Bengals traveled to Reliant Stadium where their season would end; the Texans outscored them 50-23 in those two meetings, while Dalton played rather poorly, completing 41-of-72 passes (56.9%) for 414 yards, zero touchdowns and four interceptions, while sustaining six sacks.
Meanwhile, when you hear about the controversy going on under Center in Houston (8-6, T-1st in AFC South), you may think that they’re in the same boat as their opponent tonight, but the ongoing storm at the game’s most important position hasn’t necessarily stemmed the tide of success in Southern Texas. When the Texans acquired Brock Osweiler (59.6% 193.1 Y/G, 5.10 NY/A, 14 TD 16 INT, 50.0 QBR) in Free Agency for a hefty sum of $75 million ($37 million guaranteed), they felt that they had finally solved the riddle of Quarterback that had plagued them for years. After all, Bill O’Brien went through five different Quarterbacks a year ago en route to a Division Title, and Osweiler did show some promise in the five games he started in relief of an injured Peyton Manning during the Denver Broncos’ run to the Super Bowl. However, there was a sense of trepidation from some in regards to the cavalier nature in which his former employers took to retaining his services, and unfortunately for the Texans, it appears that their doubts were well-founded. Simply put, Osweiler has not lived up to expectations since arriving in Houston. Not by a long shot. His numbers across the board are not only well below the statistics he posted in his brief sample set in Denver, but below the cumulative production of the five different Quarterbacks that proceeded him in 2015. O’Brien has been lauded throughout his career for his ability to handle Quarterbacks, but this mess with Osweiler is as confounding as any; the 26-year old has proven a very poor fit for the scheme, while exhibiting jarring mechanics and footwork, and rarely looking in synch with the likes of Pro Bowl Receiver DeAndre Hopkins (68 REC, 788 YDS, 4 TD), who has suffered across the board due to his Quarterback’s glaring inaccuracy. Think about it, folks, the Texans have a solid Offensive Line and do a good job of running the football (122.7 Y/G, 5th Overall), while fielding a Defense that has relinquished fewer yards than any other team in the league (306.5 Y/G) despite sustaining a rash of injuries, none more prominent than two-time Defensive Player of the Year JJ Watt, who has missed all but three games with a injured back. So what does that leave? Quarterback. Being completely honest, O’Brien has given Osweiler every opportunity to prove himself (particularly in the Red Zone), and the only reason that a change wasn’t made earlier was the guy’s hefty price tag. However, that’s done, as the Head Coach finally pulled his would-be Franchise Quarterback midway through the Second Quarter of last weekend’s meeting with the woeful Jaguars. Starting the game 6-of-11 for forty-eight yards with two interceptions (the latter of which sealed his fate), Osweiler was promptly benched in favor of Tom Savage, whom Houston selected in the Fourth Round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Trailing 13-0 to a 2-11 team, Savage entered the game to a raucous applause from the Texans’ faithful, and went on to engineer five scoring drives, the last of which put them ahead 21-20 for a revelatory comeback victory which kept their Postseason hopes alive. On the day, Savage was a crisp 23-of-36 (63.9%) for 260 yards, while despite not throwing a touchdown committed ZERO turnovers and took ZERO sacks. Basically, it boils down to the eye test; whereas Osweiler never looked comfortable in this Offense, Savage stepped in and deftly operated like a seasoned vet. Granted, the third-year veteran should have a better handle on the scheme since he’s been in Houston longer than his higher-paid teammate, but it was impossible not to notice that the Offense as whole looked far more efficient when he was at it’s controls. And we get it, that was against the Jaguars, who promptly fired their Head Coach after the game, but it should nonetheless make for a very interesting story moving forward if this change is indeed going to be permanent rather than temporary.
Predicted Outcome: Bengals 17, Texans 16