The Houston Texans might be the Cinderella team of the AFC playoff bracket, but if this weekend was supposed to be the ball, the Bengals are the party crashers that just might stay all night. No matter how good AJ Green was supposed to be, no one expected the Bengals to be here. Not after kicking out their top three playmakers of 2010 and starting over with young, unproven replacements. But here they are, and they just might have staying power.
We talked to TGS contributing writer Dave Biddle, founder of Three Way Chili, a Cincinnati sports blog here on the Bloguin network, to get his perspective on this young team’s accelerated growth curve.
TGS: Andy Dalton and AJ Green might be new to the NFL playoffs, but Marvin Lewis is not. How is he preparing this team for the next level of competition?
Well, Lewis is mostly a figurehead at this point, with first-year coordinator Jay Gruden having complete control of the offense (and Gruden has been a tremendous upgrade over Bob Bratkowski who had been the Bengals’ OC for 10 years) and the well-respected Mike Zimmer running the defense. So, it’s really more on the coordinators than Lewis himself.
Overall, I don’t think Lewis is a great coach by any means. However, you have to give the man credit for getting Cincinnati in the playoffs three out of the last seven years – including two AFC North championships. This was a moribund franchise that didn’t sniff the postseason from 1991-02. Then Lewis arrived in 2003 and immediately turned them into a contender. They made the playoffs following a 14-year drought in 2005 and Lewis has proved to be at least a solid NFL head coach.
TGS: What do the key playmakers (Dalton, Green, Cedric Benson) have to do to give their team a chance to win?
Well, you certainly named the three keys right there, in addition to the offensive line as a whole. Tight end Jermaine Gresham and wide receiver Jerome Simpson will also be involved in the game plan – maybe heavily-involved – but clearly the three main guys are Dalton, Green and Benson.
Dalton has been a godsend for the Bengals, who found a steal in the second round of the 2011 draft. He’s mature beyond his years, has excellent accuracy and is a natural leader. It’s huge for him just to have the opportunity to play in the postseason as a rookie.
Same for Green. Everyone expected him to be good, but not this good. Not “Make the Pro Bowl as a rookie” good. Not “first rookie WR to go over 1,000 receiving yards since Marques Colston in 2006” good. Green is a future stud for sure if he stays healthy. Wait, did I say “future”? He’s already a stud.
As for Benson, he’s a steady, hard-running RB and Cincinnati needs to establish a quality running game in this contest, if nothing else to set up the play-action to Green and others. Benson did go over 1,000 rushing yards for the third-consecutive season, although that’s not any huge accomplishment with 16 games. (Benson played in 15 due to a one-game suspension.) Doing it three years in a row is a big accomplishment, but I’m saying a running back reaching 1,000 yards in a season isn’t any big deal.
The bottom line is that all three of them – Dalton, Green and Benson – have to have good games for the Bengals to win on the road on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. in the first playoff contest of the NFL season.
TGS: Who are the unsung heroes of this team that will have to step up?
Good question. As mentioned previously, the offensive line needs to have a good game. And if I had to pick one guy on there, it would be third-year right tackle Andre Smith. Not sure you can call someone who was the No. 6 overall pick of the draft in 2009 an “unsung” hero. However, I fully thought he was a bust at several points in his career. In fact, I thought he was going to be a bust from the moment the Bengals drafted him. And it looked like I was absolutely right for a while.
I was wrong.
However, while Smith has turned himself into a solid player, there is still untapped potential and it would be immense for the Bengals to have him clear the way on the right side for Benson to have a big game. Although, the Bengals do like to run left a lot behind left tackle Andrew Whitworth, definitely their best O-lineman.
Also, I would say the entire “no-name” defensive line that is one of the best in the NFL. Cincinnati has an excellent front four, which is led by second-year DT Geno Atkins, a fourth-round pick who leads the team with eight sacks. However, the player who many believe is the Bengals’ best defensive lineman – end Carlos Dunlap who had 9.5 sacks as a rookie in 2010 – has battled hamstring injuries for much of the year and only has 4.5 sacks this season. Dunlap rising up and putting consistent pressure on rookie QB T.J. Yates would be huge for this defense.
They also need one of the cornerbacks to step up; it’s the glaring weakness of the team. Eleven-year veteran Nate Clements, who is playing in the postseason for the first time in his career (which elicited tears from Clements in the postgame locker room last week), has been good not great. But he’s been as good as anyone could have expected given his age of 32. The Bengals were dealt a tough blow when corner Leon Hall was lost for the season with a torn Achilles. And the Bengals allowed their top offseason priority – Johnathan Joseph – leave via free agency late in the summer to, ironically, the Texans. So, Clements will probably be his usual steady self, but the Bengals need either Pacman Jones (who is terrible) or Kelly Jennings (not much better) to step up and surprise everyone by playing well.
TGS: What is your gameplan against the Houston Texans?
There definitely needs to be balance offensively, and defensively the Bengals must contain the Texans’ explosive running game led by Arian Foster, while also getting pressure and affecting Yates. In a game that’s expected to be this close, the difference will likely come down to special teams and turnovers, as cliché as that sounds.
TGS: What’s your prediction for this game?
It will be a tight contest that could go either way, but I’ll go with the home team, the Texans. Both teams have good defenses, but I like the Texans’ better – mainly due to the Bengals’ situation at cornerback.
This will be a battle of rookie quarterbacks – with Dalton for the Bengals and Yates for the Texans – which makes it more-interesting. And certainly more-winnable for the Bengals since the injured Matt Schaub is one of the top-10 quarterbacks in the NFL. Yates has played unexpectedly well for a fifth-rounder, but the Texans are riding a three-game losing streak entering the postseason and many think their magical season might come to an end this weekend.
This will be a rematch as the Texans were very lucky to pull out a 20-19 win at Cincinnati four weeks ago in Yates’ second career start. That said, I’m picking the Texans, 23-20.
Our thanks to Dave for dropping in for his Bengals perspective. You can get your fill of Ohio valley sports knowledge from Dave… he covers the (cough) pro game at ThreeWayChili.com, and the (cough cough) amateur game of Ohio’s college powerhouses at Bucknuts.com. You can also find him on Twitter at @davebiddle.