On the first Saturday of the 2011 NFL playoffs, they save the best for last. And yes, that is me taking a shot at the Bengals and Texans in the first sentence of our 2011 NFL playoff preview. I’d say they’ve both earned the condemnation. This is easily the worst game of wild-card weekend, but that still makes it the 11th most important game of the year. So there’s that…

The top storylines:

1. Rookie quarterback vs. rookie quarterback. It’s the first time in NFL history that two rookie pivots have faced each other in a playoff game as Andy Dalton goes up against T.J. Yates.

2. Something has to give when it comes to droughts. The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since 1990, while the Texans have never even played in one. The city of Houston hasn’t experienced a playoff victory since the Oilers beat the Jets in the 1991 wild-card playoffs.

3. Underrated defenses. Both sort of sucked last year, but they’re both ranked top-10 in pretty much every major category this season. Guys like Dalton and A.J. Green and Andre Johnson and Arian Foster get most of the attention, but neither team would be alive right now if not for their defenses.

4. Johnathan Joseph vs. his former team. Joseph was the one that got away from Cincinnati in the abbreviated 2011 offseason, and he’s delivered in Houston as one of the top free-agent signings of the year. He returned home earlier in the year, struggling a tad against Green. But now he’s got a rematch against his former team on his new home turf.

The last time they met…

  • It was only four weeks ago in Cincinnati when the Bengals blew a nine-point fourth-quarter lead to fall to the Texans in Yates’ first career road start.
  • The Texans actually controlled the game from a yardage and time perspective, but four turnovers led to that two-score deficit after three quarters. They got their act together just in the nick of time.
  • The Bengals sacked Yates five times, though, while the Texans only took down Dalton once.
  • Neither Cedric Benson nor Arian Foster had a ton of room to work against stellar run defenses.

Injuries to watch:

  • Cincinnati’s biggest concern might be the flu, which hit Dalton hard and sent him to the hospital earlier this week. That’s nothing to sneeze at (oh man, I said it). Benson (foot) has been limited.
  • Houston has a slew of players that are hobbled but no one new should miss Saturday’s game. Andre Johnson should continue to gain ground as his hamstring improves. Joseph (Achilles) has been limited.

Why I’m picking the Texans by a touchdown:

1. Yates is arguably playing better than Dalton right now. The sample size isn’t huge for either, especially Yates, but here’s a comparison of their numbers since the start of December…

Yates: 59%, 879 yards, 3 TD, 3 INT, 7.1 YPA, 78.7 rating
Dalton: 54%, 889 yards, 4 TD, 1 INT, 5.8 YPA, 77.0 rating

At the very least, he’s been his equal. Yates also threw for a career-high 300 yards while outdueling Dalton in the regular-season matchup, so it’s hard to pick the Texans to lose because of Yates, especially considering the advantages the Texans have elsewhere.

2. The Bengals don’t have anyone to cover Andre Johnson. Houston didn’t have Johnson in the first meeting, but he’s back to face a Cincinnati secondary that lost Joseph to the Texans in the offseason and lost Leon Hall to a season-ending injury earlier in the year. Luckily for Cincy, it hasn’t had to face very many elite receivers sans Hall. That’ll change Sunday.

And while the Bengals also have an elite young receiver in A.J. Green, Houston has All-Pro-caliber corner Johnathan Joseph to keep the rookie wideout in check.

3. The Bengals beat only one team with a winning record all year. And that was the 9-7 Titans, who failed to make the playoffs. In addition to beating Cincinnati, the Texans beat the Titans and Steelers. Neither had a particularly tough run to the playoffs, but Houston had to do slightly more work and did win an extra game.

4. The Texans showed signs of life in Week 17 against the desperate Titans. Yates was 4-for-4 before exiting with a shoulder injury. The Texans controlled the clock and applied a decent amount of pressure on Matt Hasselbeck while outgaining the Titans with a quarterback who was raising horses six weeks ago (seriously).

5. The Bengals were less than impressive against Baltimore. In what they thought was probably a must-win game at home, that was a flat effort on both sides of the ball. A vaunted run defense let Ray Rice run wild all day while Dalton struggled with his accuracy and Green was kept at bay.

6. Here’s where I make excuses for Houston’s recent struggles: While Cincy has won two of three and the Texans have lost three straight, if you look closely at what’s gone down in those games, the Texans aren’t playing particularly worse than the Bengals are. Tough circumstances surrounded that 0-3 Houston finish to the season — they ran into Cam Newton at a bad time, then had to play the suddenly-feisty Colts on the road on three days’ rest, which was a bit of a scheduling suicide pass. Their finale against Tennessee didn’t matter, but as I pointed out above, they played okay in a game they probably should have won.

7. The Texans are simply better, pretty much everywhere. While Yates is a question mark, he has Arian Foster, who is clearly a superior back to Benson. Foster won the rushing title in 2010 and went for over 100 yards in three of his last four games. Benson struggled down the stretch (he’s averaged over four yards per carry just once since the start of December) and is dealing with injuries.

Both teams fared well all year defensively, but the Texans have an edge on Cincy in pretty much every major category except for sacks (which they trail, 45-44). Most importantly (in my opinion), they had 27 takeaways this season, while the Bengals had just 22.

And while both teams have great offensive lines, I have more faith in Houston’s.

8. Consider the flu factor. Word is Dalton was quite sick, spending his Tuesday night with a porcelain bowl. That doesn’t sound like something you get over immediately, and could have interfered with his preparation on a short week. Plus, there’s a chance the bug spreads. At the very least, it’s a mild distraction.

9. One thing working for the Bengals: They have 17 sacks since the start of December, while the Texans only have nine in that span. A strong pass rush against the young, inexperienced Yates could keep this interesting, which is one reason why I don’t think it’ll be a blowout.

10. I will also concede that you know what you’re getting from Dalton more so than Yates. But T.J. has too much support, and I’ve got a good feeling about the guy this week.

In conclusion, the Texans aren’t particularly special without Matt Schaub and Mario Williams and with Andre Johnson less than 100 percent … but the Bengals aren’t particularly good at all, especially on the offensive side of the ball. With the game in Houston, I feel pretty safe with my prognostication.

GLS prediction: Texans 20, Bengals 13

(Last year’s playoff GLS playoff record: 9-2 straight up and 9-2 against the spread)