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Been a long time comin'.
Imagine the Bengals arriving in Houston and piling out of a relieved tour bus. With bags in hand, they bypass Reliant Stadium and head straight for NASA where they blast off into outer space and put their past behind them. Funny thing about outer space is the further you travel into it, the further into the past you go, so really they aren't putting anything behind them, and nor should they need to.
This Bengals team is growing up fast and the rematch against the Texans is an enormous litmus test to the Marvin Lewis Program. They seem ready, the fans seem ready, the media seems ready. Are we ready? We obsess with the team's past. These young Bengals have to haul all those dubious stats around with them like chains on a ghost, even though the vast majority of them are used to winning. Now when asked about their upcoming game, they can say, "this ain't my first rodeo," and actually mean it! I hope those that can are growing out some tough cowboy mustaches for the showdown. Why not?
Why not indeed. The Texans are ripe for the pluckin'. Comments about them of late typically include phrases that start with either out of, or off. Out of sorts. Out of rhythm. Out of gas? Off kilter. Off balance. Off.
That begs the question then: are they a good team due to turn things around, or are they a team unraveling as we speak? I think their swoon is a bit overblown. I agree that they are not at their best at the moment, but honestly, neither are the Bengals. Houston is still a solid team built from the ground up. They have great players in key positions and their collective talent always makes them dangerous. That being said, the Texans were never quite the same on defense once Brian Cushing went down and now it appears that they are struggling mightily to stop spread formations.
Jay Gruden should go to the jugular and have Andy Dalton come out firing. Use every player that can catch a pass within the first few possessions and sprinkle in the run once a two-score lead is in place. The foot should be firmly applied to the gas pedal on offense and get an early lead or die trying. I don't see the point of easing into this game. They did this exact thing one year ago; they know what to expect. Having early success in the spread and throwing to a variety of players would allow for a lot of operating space for the running game and the underneath stuff, but getting comfortable right away and putting up points would jolt this team's psyche and allow them to have fun playing. The offensive line has a big test against the wild banshees that are the Texans pass rush, and moving Andy Dalton out of the pocket to find better passing lanes might be a good idea against the indomitable J.J. Watt and his pass-swatting skills. I think the initial style of play demonstrated by the Bengals offense will determine how the whole game is played. If they come out conservative, it will be another slug-em-out game where Josh Brown becomes uncomfortably important. Come out blazing, though, and I think there will be some shots of Andy Dalton joking around on the sideline in the fourth quarter.
On defense, the Bengals must stay at home. The Texans do so many screens and play-action roll-out passes that an over pursuit by just one player could become a touchdown. Arian Foster is a master at following zone blocking and misdirections and draw plays could also be killers if Cincinnati isn't careful. They must stay at home and be patient.
That may lead to slightly less pressure on Matt Schaub than what would normally be the case, but it's necessary in order to stifle the dreadful explosive play. That might be a problem for the typical defense, but not for the Zim Clan. This is a sharpened bunch, fueled by their confidence and by their undying loyalty to Mike Zimmer. These men will do what it takes to make it happen and that won't change on Saturday. The pass rush will be good enough, the coverage will give up some yards but not a ton of points and everyone will tackle this year, especially Chris Crocker. If they stay at home and disrupt Houston's screen and play-action game, they can control the game on defense alone. As long as Pat Sims (founder of the Pat Sims Stop-The-Run Foundation) is in there on Saturday, we have little to worry about.
I honestly don't even feel that nervous about the game. The fact that they traveled to the same place at the same time of year for the same game last year only helps the Bengals' situation. There are seldom unknowns left in this match up. They are healthy, hungry and fairly experienced already. In the end, they will rocket out of Houston with their first playoff road win and give a giant middle finger to their dubious past.
Bengals 31, Texans 20
Mojokong—never been to a rodeo.