The Cincinnati Bengals are back on track. They’ve won four straight contests, and Joe Burrow’s calf injury appears to be behind him.
Wins against the 49ers (31-17) and the Bills (24-18) out of the bye, respectively, are looking like trademarks to what could become another playoff campaign. The Ravens loom on Thursday night in a key road divisional game with what seems like a mere speed bump in the Houston Texans coming to town this Sunday.
With a new and unproven head coach this year, a poor 2022 roster that netted the No. 2 overall pick this past draft, and a subsequent rookie quarterback, this game looked like an absolute gimme when the schedule was released back in May. But, as the legendary Chris Berman would say, “THAT’S why they play the game.”
This upstart Texans team is 4-4 with said rookie signal-caller, C.J. Stroud, throwing just one interception this year against 14 touchdowns. Head coach DeMeco Ryans has used a combination of his impressive NFL resume, knowledge of the Texans culture, and installation of heady play to get this team overachieving in many senses. While there aren’t a ton of huge names on the Houston roster, they’re just plain getting it done.
Despite being the youngest franchise in the NFL, the Texans’ history with the Bengals runs surprisingly deep.
I wouldn’t blame you if you don’t remember the blasé 2-14 2002 season from the Bengals. But that team’s first win of the season came against David Carr and the expansion Houston franchise in Week 9.
Cincinnati followed that “signature win” up with two consecutive others in the entertaining 2003 and 2005 campaigns, but things hit the skids from there. A 5-8 overall record against this team, including 0-2 in the postseason head-to-head, has caused a name like T.J. Yates to be seared into the minds of Who Dey Nation.
Oddly enough, these teams faced off three times (one each season) from 2016-2018, with the Bengals garnering an 0-3 record against Houston. If you were looking for fireworks in those contests, well, not so much, as the combined scores of all three games were 25-35 in favor of the Texans.
This one on Sunday provides a ton of in-game matchups that resemble a tug-of-war battle within the game. Stroud’s care of the football this year gets tested against Cincinnati’s defense that is No. 2 in the NFL in net interceptions.
Cincinnati star pass-rusher Trey Hendrickson goes up against stud Texans left tackle Laremy Tunsil, while Houston’s No. 9 run defense against the run goes up against a Bengals’ offense that is last in the NFL in net rushing yards.
And we haven’t even talked about the injuries yet.
During the midweek injury report, the Houston Texans had 22 players listed on their report. On offense, Nico Collins, Dameon Pierce, and Brevin Jordan are all out. Further complicating matters for the visitors is that their starting kicker is out, so there might be a lot of “go-for-it (two)” scenarios this week.
The Bengals are without their other edge defender and star wide receiver Tee Higgins. Ja’Marr Chase is questionable with a back injury, putting pressure on other Bengals weapons to step up this week.
Marvin Lewis headed up the Bengals in 11 of the 13 total games played between these two teams, with a 3-8 record. For all of the good things Lewis did for this franchise, playing well in big games and/or in potential “trap games” were not his fortes.
While these Texans deserve more than a mere “trap game” designation, we can see the basis this Sunday being labeled in at least the same arena. This game placed right smack in the middle of two primetime ones, with next Thursday looming large for the AFC North race and the conference’s overall playoff standings, may give it that title.
With the injuries on the Bengals’ side of things, they’re going to need to rely on the savviness of this staff. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has worked more wonders this year despite early offensive ineffectiveness and personnel losses in free agency this spring.
the Bengals are 19-0 when leading at halftime since mid 2021— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) November 10, 2023
the BEST record in the NFL
losing in the 2nd half, offenses are averaging just 7.8 ppg
DC Lou Anarumo is a necromancer
and he's why HOU better come out VERY aggressive Sunday via @SportsGridpic.twitter.com/rW2v6vF8yB
When you look at the above-mentioned metrics, the fact that the Bengals are going up against a rookie quarterback, as well as their knack for causing frequent and timely turnovers this year, makes it feel as though the scales should tip in Cincinnati’s favor. Regardless of Stroud’s precociousness and care of the football, this has to be advantage Bengals.
If the Bengals can get past this one while resting a couple of important players and then getting them back for the big clash against the Ravens, then it’s an optimum situation. But this one just won’t be as easy as some think, and attention-detractors will be highlighted by this scrappy Texans squad.
It’s hard to know who the key players will be this week, with each team sitting so many contributors. The Texans not having Fairbairn and Evan McPherson kicking long field goals with regularity may be the difference in this one.
But, with Higgins out, look for a combination of Andrei Iosivas, Trenton Irwin, and Tanner Hudson to be used as remedies. Irwin stepped up admirably in Higgins’ Arizona absence, while Iosivas has been a nice rotational red zone weapon, and Hudson has emerged in two primetime games as a chain-moving mismatch for defenses.
On the Texans’ side of things, expect a lot of Dalton Schultz (four touchdowns) looks from Stroud, as well as various schemes to Tank Dell. When we talked to Scott Barzilla of SBN’s Battle Red Blog this week, he spoke of how Dell gets Deebo Samuel-like looks in the Texans’ offense, so the Bengals’ defense will need to be on its toes.
Ultimately, I think the overall roster talent, kicker situation, and strength/weakness pendulum swings in the Bengals’ favor. It just won’t be a stroll through Paycor though, as much as many Bengals’ faithful would like it to be.
Bengals 27, Texans 23