All week, the Bengals-Texans playoff game was slated as Dalton vs. Yates — the first-ever NFL postseason matchup pitting rookie pivots against one another. But ultimately, this was probably going to come down to who could perform the best in spite of their rookie quarterbacks.
Unsurprisingly, the Texans prevailed in what ended up being uncomplicated fashion.
Houston’s defense intercepted Andy Dalton thrice and scored on a game-changing pick six, while the Bengals weren’t able to force the even lesser experienced T.J. Yates to make a single crucial mistake.
It was enough to make you wonder why anyone thought Cincinnati would stand a chance in this game.
The Texans were a much better running team in the regular season, and Arian Foster lightened Yates’ load by running all over the Cincy defense. Yeah, Geno Atkins and Jonathan Fanene and Co. made some great plays, but it wasn’t enough to hold Foster in check. For the Bengals, Cedric Benson had just 14 yards on seven carries.
The Texans had the better defense in the regular season, and their only big mistake Saturday was a first-quarter pass interference penalty on Glover Quin. They bent a few times, but they never really broke. And when it mattered, the pass rush kept coming up with clutch sacks on third down with the Bengals lurking.
Believe it nor not, Yates had been playing better than Dalton, who was really struggling down the stretch. And on Saturday, Yates was more efficient than his counterpart.
Cincinnati did have its moments. A.J. Green was killing Johnathan Joseph and Co. in the first quarter, and Dalton completed seven straight passes at one point in the first half. But they were also outcoached by the Texans, who seemed to blitz with perfect timing and had a smarter game plan on offense.
Cincy’s worst coaching decision — and there were a few to choose from — came when offensive coordinator Jay Gruden had his rookie quarterback throwing from deep within his own territory with one timeout and less than a minute to play in the first half. That pass and the ensuing interception return for a touchdown from another rookie, J.J. Watt, was the turning point. The Bengals were never the same after that, panicking on offense and failing to tackle Foster on defense.
But while those were factors, this wasn’t really about Dalton failing or poor coaching. This was about that Texans’ defense, which came close to going from worst to first in less than a calendar year. Two of their three interceptions Saturday came from Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning — both of whom were acquired by general manager Rick Smith in the offseason.
They didn’t let the Bengals score a point over the last 34 minutes, recording four sacks — three on crucial third downs — while smothering the dangerous A.J. Green from the start of the second quarter on.
What’s amazing is that they were that good without Mario Williams, who has been the team’s best defensive player for half a decade but hasn’t been available since Week 5 and won’t be back this year. In addition to bringing in Joseph and Manning to spruce up an historically bad secondary in the offseason, Smith went out and drafted front-seven cogs Brooks Reed and J.J. Watt. Reed had a huge sack today, while Watt had the play of the game, and an extra sack to boot.
And despite what those four brought to the table, the defensive player of the game for Houston might have been the unsung Antonio Smith, another recent Smith acquisition who brought constant pressure against Dalton.
It was a phenomenal defensive effort. And as a result, the people of Houston have their first NFL playoff victory since 1991, while the Bengals’ drought continues — they’ve now gone 21 years without a postseason victory.
Can Houston keep it going? The Texans’ win is supposedly good news for the Ravens, because it means they get to avoid the Steelers in the divisional playoffs. Baltimore did cruise against the Texans at home during the regular season, but they’ve developed a habit of playing down to allegedly inferior opponents. I’m not counting Wade Phillips’ defense out.