Bengals fans are starting to get a bit greedy nowadays, demanding things that fans of perennial winning franchises routinely ask for. Things like winning a playoff game and/or entering the postseason on a positive note. The Bengals have been the very definition of a "hot team" during the last half of the season, and the feeling going into Saturday's rematch in Houston is very different from a year ago.
Last season, the Bengals backed into the postseason and made the final Wild Card spot in the final week thanks to a number of teams losing along with them. Cincinnati lost three of their final five games in 2011, gaining the label of unable to beat a quality opponent. It carried over into the postseason and they were stomped by the Houston Texans in the first round.
Though the opponent and venue are the same, the Bengals don't appear to be the same squad from a year ago. They enter Wild Card weekend as winners of six of their last seven--their only loss was by one point to the Dallas Cowboys back on December 9th. Their defense has been dominant throughout the stretch, finishing with a No.6 overall ranking and it has been the biggest cog in their victory machine. Even though Cincinnati had the rare distinction of not having to play for anything in the final week, they still gave a good effort and beat the Baltimore Ravens. It was a stretch that included quality wins against the New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers and, as mentioned, the Ravens.
It wasn't all rosy throughout Cincinnati's stretch of dominance, though. While the defense shined in the final seven games, the Bengal offense sputtered at times--particularly when wide receiver Mohamed Sanu went down with a season-ending foot injury. The past two games have been dreadful for the Bengals rushing offense, mustering only 14 yards against the Steelers and 47 against the Ravens. Pass protection has also been a problem of late, as they have allowed a whopping 19 sacks in the past four games. These aspects need to improve in the postseason, though a 6-1 finish to the season is a promising development for the Bengals as they enter the postseason.
The Texans are seemingly going in a different direction. They enter Wild Card weekend as losers of three of their last four games, although the three losses were all to playoff teams in the Colts, Vikings and Patriots. Still, the fashion that they lost those games had to be alarming for a fan of the squad. In those four games, the Texans have been outscored 110-65 and have looked tired, disinterested and/or lethargic throughout the last month. It could be because they knew that they had made the playoffs, so they may have hit the brakes a bit, but they still had opportunities to capitalize on home field advantage and didn't seize them.
Still, the Texans were spoken of as one of the elite teams in the AFC and looked like it for most of the year. Even though the Bengals appear to be a better squad than last year, the Texans have the benefit of running Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Schaub out on the field and not a rookie named T.J. Yates.
What does this mean? We're not sure. Sometimes, momentum from the regular season, be it positive or negative, can carry over into the postseason. There are plenty of Bengals team that exemplified that, as there is with a lot of other teams in the NFL. We've seen teams ride the positive momentum through the playoffs, much like the Giants of last season. Sometimes the momentum means nothing and postseason success is nothing more than kicking it into that next gear to propel you to the Super Bowl.
Whatever the case, the Bengals are definitely the "hotter team" entering Houston on Saturday.