Here are five things to watch when the Texans (10-6, No. 3 seed) take on the Cincinnati Bengals (9-7, No. 6 seed) at Reliant Stadium on Wild Card Weekend in the first playoff game in Texans history.
Kickoff is on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. CT. The game will be televised on NBC and broadcast on SportsRadio 610 AM and KILT 100.3 FM.
1. Homefield advantage: With a fan base that has sold out all 100 games in team history in a city that hasn't seen an NFL playoff team in 18 years, it's safe to say there will be a decided homefield advantage at Reliant Stadium on Saturday.
The last time Houston had a playoff team was Jan. 16, 1994, when the Houston Oilers lost 28-20 to Joe Montana and the Kansas City Chiefs in the Astrodome. The last playoff victory in Houston was on Dec. 29, 1991, when Warren Moon and the Oilers beat the New York Jets.
The city of Houston didn't even have an NFL team from 1997-2001 after the Oilers moved to Tennessee. Texans founder, chairman and CEO Bob McNair brought professional football back to the Bayou City with the expansion Texans in 2002, and they're finally in the playoffs 10 seasons later.
The noise level inside Reliant Stadium was at an all-time high in Week 13 against the Atlanta Falcons. Texans players expect fans to be even louder on Saturday, when the roof will likely be closed.
"I think it will be the loudest it's ever been," outside linebacker Connor Barwin said. "They set the standard for Atlanta. That was a meaningful game here at home, and obviously this one means more.
"It's so important when the crowd is loud for us because it doesn't allow the offense to have a cadence. When you see us jumping offsides, that's because we can hear the quarterback yapping cadences. But when it's that loud, he not only can't have a cadence to get us to jump offsides, but his tackles can't hear. They're reacting as fast as we are, so we have a jump on them."
Cue the "Bulls on Parade" theme music. It's playoff time.
2. Johnson's time to shine: The Texans waited 10 seasons to reach the playoffs. Andre Johnson waited nine.
Since being drafted third overall by the Texans out of Miami in 2003, Johnson has made five Pro Bowls, earned first-team All-Pro honors twice and led the league in receptions and receiving yards twice. He signed two contract extensions, one in 2007 and one in 2010. Now, at the age of 30, the best player in franchise history finally gets to a chance to show what he can do on the postseason stage.
"I always said that I wanted to be a part to help this organization get to their first playoff appearance and hopefully win their first Super Bowl," Johnson said. "I didn't think it would take this long, but we're here now… Just sitting there watching playoff games, it used to be frustrating at times, but I used it as motivation because I knew that was where I wanted to be. With the opportunities I get on Saturday, I'm going to go out and try to make every play I can."
Healthy after missing nine games this season with injuries to his right and left hamstrings, Johnson is ready to seize the spotlight. He got a tune-up last Sunday with 15 snaps in the regular-season finale. In his last extended action with Yates, he had four catches for 97 yards in just three quarters. The Bengals will do their best to cover him with Adam Jones or Nate Clements.
Johnson is the only holdover on the roster from before Gary Kubiak became Texans head coach in 2006.
"Think about how long he's stuck it out here in Houston," Kubiak said. "A lot of guys in this day and time move along, go somewhere else, lose their patience. Andre has never done that. He's been a rock around here. How special is it going to be to see him walk out of that tunnel this weekend and get to see him play in a playoff game?"
Johnson has averaged 79.1 receiving yards per game in his career, the highest in NFL history among players with at least 100 games. He has more career receptions (706) and receiving yards (9,656) – by far – than any player in history before his first playoff game. The next-closest player in receptions was Lionel Taylor (561), while Steve Largent (7,608) was next in yards.
3. Rookie vs. rookie: For the first time ever, two rookie quarterbacks will face off in a postseason game. The Bengals' Andy Dalton, a second-round pick from TCU and native of Katy, Texas, has been a starter since Week 1. The Texans' T.J. Yates, a fifth-round pick from North Carolina, became a starter in Week 13 after season-ending injuries to Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart. Both rookie quarterbacks have shown poise beyond their years this season.
Yates is the first rookie drafted in the fifth round or higher to start a playoff game in the common draft era (1967-present). He practiced fully all week after a minor injury to his non-throwing shoulder last Sunday, and he'll have more opportunities to throw the ball downfield with Johnson back in the lineup.
Yates had his best game against the Bengals in Week 14, throwing for 300 yards and two touchdowns in his first-career road start. He led the Texans from a 16-3 halftime deficit to a 20-19 victory with two 13-play, 80-yard touchdown drives in the fourth quarter. Former Bengal Kevin Walter caught the game-winning touchdown with two seconds remaining.
Dalton is in the running for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors after leading a team that was supposed to be one of the worst in the NFL this season to the playoffs. He completed 58.1 percent of his passes for 3,398 yards, 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions with an 80.4 rating. He was sacked only 24 times. Against the Texans, he was 16-of-28 (57.1 percent) for 189 yards and a touchdown, good for a rating of 89.7.
4. Top-10 defenses: The game features a pair of top-10 defenses, with the Texans ranking second (285.7 yards/game) and Bengals seventh (316.3) in 2011. The Texans ranked fifth in sacks (44) while the Bengals ranked fourth (45).
Under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who will call plays from the press box on Saturday four weeks after kidney and gallbladder surgery, the Texans had one of the most-improved defenses in NFL history. Led by inside linebacker Brian Cushing (114 tackles), former Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph (four interceptions, 15 passes defensed) and former University of Cincinnati standout Barwin (11.5 sacks), they ranked third against the pass (189.7), fourth against the run (96.0) and fourth in scoring (17.4 points/game).
The Texans limited the Bengals to 285 yards in Week 14, including 81 yards and three points after halftime. Bengals running back Cedric Benson had eight carries for -1 yard in the second half after running for 92 yards in the first. Barwin ignited the Texans' comeback with a sack-fumble early in the third quarter.
The Bengals ranked ninth in passing defense (211.6), 10th in rushing (104.7) and ninth in scoring (20.2). They're led by outside linebacker Thomas Howard (99 tackles), defensive tackle Geno Atkins (8.0 sacks) and safety Reggie Nelson (four interceptions). They sacked Yates five times in Week 14 and forced four Texans turnovers. Pro Bowl running back Arian Foster had only 41 yards on 15 carries (2.7 avg.), his lowest average of the season. Ben Tate had eight carries for 67 yards (8.4 avg.) but lost a fumble at the goal line. Expect the best backfield tandem in the NFL to be hungry to exact some revenge on Saturday.
5. J-Jo vs. AJ: One of the best individual matchups of any first-round playoff game will be Pro Bowl Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph against Pro Bowl Bengals rookie wide receiver A.J. Green.
Green (6-4, 207) led the Bengals with 65 catches, 1,057 receiving yards and seven touchdowns this season. The fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft out of Georgia was the first rookie wideout to make the Pro Bowl since Anquan Boldin in 2003. He has the complete package with size, speed, agility, hands and leaping ability, and a great rapport with Dalton.
Joseph (5-11, 191) keyed the Texans' turnaround from 32nd to third in passing defense by locking down the opponent's top receiver every week. Green had a respectable five catches for 59 yards (11.8 avg.) on seven targets against him in Week 14, but Joseph and the Texans allowed only two wide receivers to top 100 yards all season. Joseph's biggest challenge will be defending the jump ball; Green had a leaping 36-yard catch against him in their last meeting.
Green's health could be a factor on Saturday. In the final two games of the season, he had only four catches for 51 yards on 17 targets after spraining his right shoulder in Week 15.