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Week 10 Texans vs Bengals Preview: Media darlings under bright lights

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The Houston Texans travel to Cincinnati as the Bengals embark on their second consecutive primetime game this Monday night. It's a game that features stars, though the two teams are headed in different directions.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

"The prize for 8-0 is facing him."

Such is the tagline that ESPN came up with when promoting the upcoming Monday Night Football showdown between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Houston Texans. Is it another in a string of continued slights of the Bengals, regardless of their current seat atop the AFC? Or is it just a ploy to ramp up hype around a primetime game that features a team with a losing record? Both? Either way, "him" of course, refers to J.J. Watt, the All-Pro defensive end for Houston.

Every professional sport in every generation likes to cast its net around a handful of players as the faces of its respective league. Major League Baseball embraced former Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter for years, as many other "stars" began to get indicted for steroid use, while the modern day poster boy superstars are Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. The NBA rallied around Michael Jordan, David Robinson and Tim Duncan for the past three decades, as both sports highlight individual achievements often.

While the NFL is the most popular and successful league in American professional sports, individual stardom can be tough to come by for a variety of reasons. The sport is the ultimate example of team success and even the best players have their faces covered with heavy equipment while millions watch. In recent years, Watt has uncovered that magical formula to become one of the league's darlings.

Whether it's extensive air time on the HBO's "Hard Knocks" documentary this summer, his Instagram posts on ESPN's NFL homepage, or my wife's own personal favorite Verizon commercial showing Watt chopping firewood in the forest, the big defensive lineman is omnipresent in advertisements and highlight reels.

Watt's fame stemmed from his own independent dominance, but also the team's playoff runs in 2011-2012. Not coincidentally, given this Monday night's upcoming matchup, those postseason wins were each at the expense of the Cincinnati Bengals, with Watt making big plays. It was in these performances that began to propel No. 99 into a household name.

Since that time, his team has gone 14-26 in the two and half seasons, while the Bengals have gone 29-10-1 in the span. Cincinnati has its share of star players as well, but none who have the public gravitas that Watt has brought to the game. It's an odd dichotomy that Watt is the league's ad man while his team struggles, yet rarely are Cincinnati's players thrust into similar campaigns.

Nevertheless, all eyes will be on both teams as they clash on ESPN's Monday Night Football. It will be the fifth time in as many seasons that the two teams will play each other, with two of the previous four being those aforementioned postseason losses. The last three matchups have all been in Houston with the Bengals going 1-2 in those games--the last Cincinnati win coming in a somewhat-ugly 22-13 win at NRG Stadium last season.

In the Texans' 14 wins in the past two and a half seasons they've exemplified issues at the quarterback position, similar to the Cleveland Browns, who Hoyer used to lead. When the Texans came into the league back in 2002, their first order of business was taking care of settling the signal-caller spot. They thought they had done so with David Carr, but a lack of surrounding talent and skittish feet from Carr sent the team in a bit of a spiral, which has continued ever since their inception.

From 2007-2013, the Texans made a gamble on Matt Schaub, a talented, but unproven passer who began his career as a backup to Michael Vick with the Atlanta Falcons. After two mediocre seasons as a starter, Schaub his his stride in 2009, leading the Texans to a 9-7 season and a Pro Bowl berth. While he was largely responsible for the team's playoff berth in 2011, he only played in ten games that season, paving the way for then-rookie T.J. Yates to get a playoff win against the Bengals.

But, as what tends to happen with antsy fan bases and management with itchy trigger-fingers, the Texans ran Schaub out of town. Maybe it was deserved, given his post-Houston career, but Schaub did exactly what the Texans needed under Gary Kubiak for a number of years. Since, the former expansion franchise has been through five different quarterbacks. Brian Hoyer, a guy who beat the Bengals in 2014 on Thursday Night (a loss which the Bengals have since avenged twice), will be under center for the scrappy Texans on Monday night.

In some sort of act of desperation, struggling teams in transition turn to the New England Patriots for filling of the two most important jobs on a football team--the head coach and quarterback. Bill O'Brien turned around Penn State after the school, its students, fans and alumni experienced a pain no one should have to bear. It was the Bill Belichick pedigree, combined with the ability to turn trash into treasure, that got the sailor-mouthed coach his position as Gary Kubiak's successor.

After an inspiring 9-7 finish, where the Texans barely missed the playoffs in his first season, they've stumbled to a 3-5 start in 2015. Their saving grace lay within the perennial AFC South champs, the Indianapolis Colts, tripping on their own feet to a 4-5 start, thus making Monday night's game at Paul Brown Stadium big for Houston.

Back-to-back wins against the Steelers and Browns, respectively, have the Bengals playing for the AFC North crown the next couple of weeks, and a postseason bye for the next eight. It's an unprecedented time in The Queen City, as no Bengals team has ever started the way Marvin Lewis, Andy Dalton and Co. have this year. It's almost too good to be true after so many years of heartache and being oh-so-close on the precipice of NFL legacy.

In three straight weeks, the Bengals will have played in three prime time games on all three major networks that broadcast such contests. For all of the regular season success Lewis and his teams have had over the past twelve years, it's in these arenas that Cincinnati has been a constant disappointment. For all of the past demons the Bengals have played this season, it's the gauntlet provided by Weeks 9 through 11 that will test the fortitude of this potentially-historic Bengals team.

Cincinnati is coming off of a long break from their three-touchdown win over the Browns, an while they are staying at home, one has to think that plays into their hands. However, as razor-focused as the Bengals have been through their first eight games, two straight divisional matchups with former quarterback Carson Palmer on the horizon next Sunday night could provide distractions.

With all of the deserved hype around Watt, lost in the shuffle is the consistency and 2015 performance of defensive end Carlos Dunlap. While being a well-rounded defensive lineman since entering the NFL in 2010, Dunlap has benefited from the resurgence of Geno Atkins and the return of Michael Johnson. Dunlap has 8.5 sacks on the year, good for second in the NFL, tied for--yep, J.J. Watt.

Cincinnati has yet another Pro Bowl wideout in A.J. Green, but like Watt's overshadowing of every defensive lineman in the NFL, DeAndre Hopkins will be fighting to get out of No. 18's shadow on Monday night. Even though the Texans have had a bit of a quarterback carousel lately, Hopkins has broken out as a star receiver in his third season. Hoyer will undoubtedly be looking for Hopkins to get the Texans back in the weak AFC South division race.

Speaking of receivers and those who might be covering them, Jonathan Joseph might be disappointed with the lack of free Gatorade at his disposal upon his return to his former stomping grounds. Green is on pace for a Hall of Fame career, but there have been some cornerbacks who have been a thorn in his side. Joe Haden is the prime example, while Joseph is another. He's been physical with Green, both to the detriment and benefit of the veteran corner, but he's largely had the upper hand in the previous three head-to-heads. The most recent example was Joseph's pick-six last year in Cincinnati's blase win in the Lone Star State. It's a star-studded battle that will be highlighted by Jon Gruden and might even make his "Grinders" segment, whoever comes out on top.

It sounds like linebacker Rey Maualuga will be back from a calf injury this week and he'll be key on defense with Vontaze Burfict, who has played the past two games after missing the past calendar year with a knee issue. Tight end Tyler Eifert leads the league in receiving touchdowns and will keep spreading his giant wingspan to provide that security blanket for Dalton.

Meanwhile, Watt will likely look to exploit Andre Smith's absence on Monday night on his tour around the defensive line. After making big plays in the first three games against Cincinnati, Watt was held relatively ineffective against the Bengals last year, even with Smith out of the lineup. I mean, we're talking occasional matchups of Watt against Marshall Newhouse and havoc was not wreacked. Go figure.

All signs point to Cincinnati running away with another one at home before heading to the desert next week. Hoyer will undoubtedly look to play spoiler for the Bengals once again, but with Arian Foster out and the Bengals uncannily getting healthier as the year goes on, it's hard to go against the Orange and Black on their home turf.

Texans 20, Bengals 30

AC -- Working on the glamour muscles daily to channel my inner-J.J. Watt.