There's a theme of momentum heading into Cincinnati's postseason opener against the Houston Texans this Saturday. Last year it was an emotional celebration for Houston, charged by a rambunctious crowd supporting the Texans while the Bengals watched helplessly when J.J. Watt lifted Houston on his mountainous shoulders of momentum during a late second-quarter pick-six that translated into a Houston-dominated second half.
Momentum. It's a strange thing. It's also another way of saying that the Bengals collapsed in both effort and spirit. Yet Cincinnati emptied their reserves earlier that season, entering the postseason flat. Obviously they beat the teams they were supposed to in St. Louis and Arizona; the generic theme from last season. But the Bengals also lost a win-and-your-in season finale against Baltimore and a crushing defeat earlier that month against Pittsburgh, followed by a Houston 10-0 fourth quarter that ended with a last second touchdown to beat Cincinnati 20-19.
And despite Houston entering the postseason last year on a three-game losing streak, a feeling of momentum clearly favored Houston, if you believe in such things. Yet that raw emotion from last year from the Texans fanbase has taken a dip, which is traditionally piggy-backed when a team enters the postseason flat.
"I think it’s a mixed bag," said TexansDC, a writer with Battle Red Blog, SB Nation's excellent Houston Texans website. "On the whole, the fanbase is deflated. I mean, to go from 11-1 and entering a huge statement game against New England to being embarrassed and stomped upon in December took a lot of wind out of the sails. The Texan ship is haphazardly adrift with a few fans furiously trying to keep it on course."
Yet there is also a misconception of comparison. The Texans are in better shape this year than last season, health-wise with a core of players drawing on the experience of a successful postseason win. Frankly they're a better team and they've beaten the Bengals twice before.
"A fully healthy Andre Johnson, Matt Schaub at quarterback, an improved J.J. Watt, and postseason experience has me saying better. It’s not a perfect team, but this team can make a run. Last year’s team was held together by duct tape."
Believe in momentum, or don't. It's not something quantified with statistics, film, nor is there historical evidence of it, save for runs made by teams that generate high volumes of confidence. There is a slight shift in fanbases this year, as opposed to last. A season ago, Bengals fans were happy making the postseason, largely because preseason forecasts suggested that even the Cleveland Browns could knock Cincinnati into the cellar. The NFL lockout, in addition to rookies in so many key areas added to the grave forecasts of the 2011 Bengals.
Now, though, the expectation has shifted. Win or bust. A progression of goals that stalled after 2005 has a chance to resume in 2012. And right now the feeling is that Cincinnati is the more confident team heading into Saturday with a 7-1 record. But don't expect the Texans fans to sit idle. They'll make it as hostile as they can.
"I think fans will wake up for Saturday and could be sparked back into a fury with early big plays. It is the playoffs and Houston is accustomed to success. It would not take much to get the building going. Likewise, you could see the first 12-win team booed at home in the playoffs in the first quarter with a bad start."
It's all about momentum. Or not.