One of the two teams squaring off on Christmas Eve night is playing for the division title and the playoffs. That team is not the Bengals. But, the Texans’ rivals in the AFC South will surely be cheering for the visitors, as Houston has swept them during the season and has all the tiebreakers on their side.
The Bengals pulled off two strong wins against unimpressive rivals before starting hot and going scoreless in the second half of their game against the much-hated Steelers last Sunday. That scoreless half ultimately cost them the win. Can the Bengals find some spark on offense against one of the strongest defenses in the NFL? Can Paul Guenther’s unit send Tom Savage back to Earth after his not good but still better than Brock Osweiler performance against the Jaguars?
Here’s a list of the five key Texans players you should watch for while waiting for Santa. Remember, this is not a list of Houston’s five best players.
Tom Savage, quarterback:
Osweiler had been pathetic all season long, but it took Houston’s head coach, Bill O’Brien, 15 games to be willing to pull the trigger and send him to the bench. Savage is no savior but, guess which team led by a mediocre backup quarterback managed to beat the Bengals in the playoffs not too long ago? Exactly.
T.J. Yates, forever remembered by Cincy fans, beat the Bengals in the Wild Card game in 2012 and on Monday Night Football last year. Savage would be looking to repeat the feat, though in a much less important game for the Bengals.
Savage helped Houston come back from behind to beat Jacksonville last week, but he didn’t look all that impressive, doing just enough to get the win. Some passes should have been intercepted. But one thing he did much better than Osweiler was getting star wideout DeAndre Hopkins active. Savage connected with him eight times, eight more than Osweiler during his time on the field. That connection is what could make the difference for Houston’s offense again on Saturday.
Jadeveon Clowney, impact player:
He can play wherever he wants, he’s that good. The former first-round pick has dismissed the bust status some fans and members of the media had placed on him and is one of the best defensive players in the NFL right now.
Clowney hasn’t helped much to improve the Texans’ pass rush statistics, as only two more teams have fewer sacks - no, the Bengals are not one of them, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t bring pressure. He can wreak havoc every time he steps on the field, with a combination of strength, agility and speed very rare to see.
What is his best quality though? He’s outstanding against the run. That was already one of his best traits last year, but he’s taken it to the next level in 2016. Only three other players have more tackles for a loss than him, and he’s coming off a game in which he had three. Cincinnati might need more of Rex Burkhead this time if they want to have any kind of running game.
A.J. Bouye, cornerback:
The Texans’ nickel cornerback might have regressed a little bit since his amazing first half of the season, but he’s still having a great year. We’ve seen Tyler Boyd get involved more with A.J. Green out, but Houston was able to shut the star receiver down last year despite having Marvin Jones Jr. on the opposite side.
For the Bengals to be able to move the ball, they might need to beat Bouye often. He was fantastic against a strong offense like the Raiders down in Mexico, which doesn’t bode well for Cincinnati’s chances. At 6-feet tall he isn’t your prototypical slot cornerback, but Boyd is not the fast guy who could take advantage of it.
Benardrick McKinney, inside linebacker:
The Texans aren’t getting sacks and they still have one of the most formidable defenses in the NFL without J.J. Watt. One of the reasons why, apart from their underrated secondary, is McKinney. He can take advantage of the pressure that Clowney creates and attack the middle of the line. He’s not much more athletic than Cincinnati’s linebackers but you can’t tell when he rushes the passer.
McKinney is tied for second on the team with five sacks, but remember the Texans have little edge rushers other than Whitney Mercilus. The Bengals need to spread the field to counter him and Brian Cushing.
C.J. Fiedorowicz, tight end:
How many of you were saved by claiming him off waivers in fantasy football? He’s nothing special, but he’s reliable, which is a very good thing to be for a tight end. For Osweiler, he was the most targeted receiver on the team.
The Bengals have a reputation for being exploited by opposing tight ends, and you can see why Fiedorowicz could be in line for a good day. Cincinnati needs to force Savage to go outside with his throws, and that means stopping this guy.