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Previewing Bengals at Texans: A time for cheer?

The Bengals head to Houston for a Christmas Eve matchup against the Texans. While they are working on the task at hand, they also have one eye on 2017.

Wild Card Playoffs - Cincinnati Bengals v Houston Texans Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

‘Tis the season to be merry and grateful, so perhaps Bengals fans can finally find solace in the fact that the team has been officially taken out of its 2016 misery. After going through massive offseason changes, underachieving most of the year, while also getting some raw deals by the league and its officials this season, Mike Brown’s team is officially looking to the future.

Before they wholly do that though, they face the Texans on Saturday night, as families cozy up to fireplaces around America to celebrate Christmas with loved ones. For very different reasons, this game is incredibly important to the futures of both teams.

For Houston, it’s both about what’s right in front of them and their long-term plans. After giving free agent quarterback Brock Osweiler a mega-deal, he was benched in his 14th game as a Texan. Tom Savage, a 2014 fourth round pick, is now at the helm and makes his first career start as Houston tries to lock up the AFC South.

So, after going through years with the likes of Matt Schaub, T.J. Yates, Brian Hoyer and Osweiler, the Texans need to find out if Savage is finally the quarterback they’ve been searching for since they drafted David Carr back in their inaugural season of 2001.

Meanwhile, the Bengals are wondering just how close they are to making another postseason run in 2017 after missing out on the dance this year. Major talent is still at key spots for Cincinnati, but a replenishment of youth and speed is needed at others.

Unfortunately for both teams, it’s been a statistically down year for stars on both teams. After propelling himself into the elite receiver category last year, DeAndre Hopkins hasn’t had the type of year the Texans and fantasy owners have hoped. He might crack 1,000 receiving yards, but because of the quarterback issues, he only has two touchdowns.

After shooting out to what looked like a career year in a resume filled with big numbers, A.J. Green suffered a hamstring injury. He missed what became the most important four games on the Bengals’ 2016 schedule, where the Bengals ended up going 2-2 in his absence. Andy Dalton had an MVP-like year in 2015, but player and coaching turnover this offseason has caught up to him, making his stats look like the guy we saw in his first couple of Bengals seasons.

If the NFL wanted to boost its struggling 2016 ratings with this game, they might be in for a rude awakening. Not only are the Bengals out of playoff contention, but the league’s version of Captain America, AKA J.J. Watt, is on Injured Reserve. When the powers-that-be made the decision for this game to be slated in primetime on Christmas Eve, it’s hard to imagine they thought both scenarios would have taken place.

When you look at Savage’s 23-of-36, 260-yard performance last week, a couple of things stick out. First, his committing of zero turnovers points to something special, especially when going up against a surprising No. 4 Jaguars passing defense. It’s also important to note that he didn’t throw or run for a touchdown in the critical Week 15 win against Jacksonville.

In terms of passing yards allowed per game, the Bengals are ranked 13th, while they are sixth in the league with 15 interceptions. It’s actually quite an accomplishment, given the massive amount of dropped interceptions by a number of Bengals defenders this season.

Ironically, the interceptions don’t necessarily reflect a positive effect from the defensive front. Even though the Bengals employ two Pro Bowl players on their defensive line, getting to the quarterback on a regular basis hasn’t been the once-prominent forte of the unit. Cincinnati only has 26 sacks on the season, which is tied for No. 24 in the NFL.

Conversely, without Watt, the Texans have the No. 1 overall defense and No. 2 passing defense, hence their 8-6 overall record with the quarterback issues. However, the one area in which they are clearly missing Watt and his nearly 13 sacks per year average, is in said category. Their 24 total quarterback sacks rank at No. 29 in the league, giving hope that Andy Dalton and his passing offense can make plays.

Oh, yes—did we mention that Green will likely be back this week?

Muddying the waters for the Bengals’ chances is a potential shuffle-up on an offensive line that has had trouble protecting against the pass. It’s in this battle of troubled areas in which the Saturday night game will be decided. Cedric Ogbuehi might be starting at left tackle with Andrew Whitworth kicking inside to guard, while Jake Fisher will be getting his second start at right tackle. With the struggles up front and other issues occurring, this is an area to watch while Santa gets his presents ready for dispersal.

For Texans fans, the future is now, but it also has long-term effects, as mentioned earlier. Whether it is the budding Savage-to-Hopkins connection, with Lamar Miller (who is expected to play through an injury this week) as the offensive triplet, or the multitude of high picks littering their defense, Bill O’Brien has to be both optimistic and cautious about things going forward.

What will be interesting from Who Dey nation’s perspective has to be in what Marvin Lewis’ plan will be in the final two games. He has proudly proclaimed that he won’t deviate off of the design of playing his vested starters, but with injuries piling up at this time of year, some younger players might get time to give an opportunity for the long-term future.

To be honest, I have no idea what to make of this game. If I were a betting man, I’d stay the heck alone from any lines here—mostly because of the ridiculous amount of lineup changes that could occur at this time of the year.

Bengals 14, Texans 17

AC— Let’s hope Santa brings better Bengals presents next year.