There's a lot of story lines to Sunday's game, making it a very interesting battle. Obviously, the game is intriguiing because it sets up two top teams in the AFC against each other. Both teams are fighting the injury bug, so it'll be interesting to see which squad rises above it all and prevails.
But underneath the obvious lies some other aspects that make this game a little more of a heated matchup than it normally would. There's a handful of Houston Texans that are making a homecoming of sorts this Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. Some evoke good memories, while others still leave a bitter taste in Bengals fans mouths.
Texans defensive end, Connor Barwin, makes his first trip back to the area as a former Bearcat since leaving the University of Cincinnati for the NFL draft. Barwin, a third-year player, has really come into his own in this season. He's stepped up big for the Texans with the loss of Mario Williams and has played an integral role on Houston's second-ranked defense. He'll no doubt want to make an impact in front many of his hometown supporters in the PBS crowd.Then there's former Bengals players who have left for Houston via free agency. The first is wide receiver Kevin Walter. While in Cincinnati, Walter didn't really make that big of an impact until late in the 2005 season. He was the leading receiver of the Wild Card playoff loss to the Steelers and collected a pretty big payday. He had a handful of productive years opposite Andre Johnson and Jacoby Jones.
Then, going into the 2010 season, the Bengals pursued Walter to come back to Cincinnati as their No.2 receiver. He ultimately signed another big contract with Houston and the rest is history. Walter's return to Cincinnati will be his second since leaving the club and he'll probably have a hard time recognizing many players from that 2005 playoff team.
The player whose homecoming could start the bad blood in this game is that of kicker Neil Rackers. Needless to say, Rackers had a tumultuous tenure while in Cincinnati, mostly blaming the choppy grass for his numerous struggles. There were also stories of him getting heckled in public places and not taking that too well. He had one solid season here, his last, and then bolted in free agency to Arizona. Rackers had a couple more nice seasons in Arizona, but fell out of favor after Arizona's last playoff appearance in 2009. He has since landed in Houston and will most likely be jeered during his homecoming at PBS.
And, lastly, there's cornerback Johnathan Joseph. We've already discussed his potential impact on the game and how his matchup against A.J. Green is a huge key to victory on Sunday. But, more than that, he'll no doubt encounter a hostile crowd and a team that should have a little extra motivation for beating him. Both sides felt snubbed during their contract negotiations this past offseason and this is were the bad blood really comes into play. It'll be interesting to see if Joseph plays tight because of the atmosphere and the enormity of the game, or if he'll step up and have one of his best games as a pro.