Here are five things to watch when the Texans (12-4, 1st AFC South) face the Cincinnati Bengals (10-6, 2nd AFC North) in a Wild Card playoff game at Reliant Stadium on Saturday. Kickoff is at 3:30 p.m. CT.
1. Running the ball: The Texans were 11-0 this season when rushing 30 or more times in a game. They were 9-3 with 30 or more rushes in 2011 and are 43-5 (.896) when doing so under Gary Kubiak over the last seven seasons. By contrast, they are just 3-31 (.088) under Kubiak when rushing less than 25 times. Houston ran the ball a team-record
Pro Bowl center Chris Myers said the Texans said this week that their offense was going to get back to "our base stuff, what we do best" – running the ball. The Texans led the NFL in time of possession (32:53) this season and ranked eighth in rushing (132.7) but topped 125 rushing yards just once in their final five games.
Texans running back Arian Foster ranked second in the AFC this season with 1,424 rushing yards and led the NFL in scoring with 17 total touchdowns. In his playoff debut last January, he gained 285 rushing yards in two games, the most in a player's first two postseason games in NFL history. That included 153 yards and two touchdowns in the Texans' Wild Card playoff victory against the Bengals at Reliant Stadium.
Foster will face a tough challenge this time around with a Bengals front seven featuring defensive tackles Geno Atkins and Domata Peko and hard-hitting linebackers Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict. The Bengals ranked 12th in rushing defense (107.2 yards allowed/game) but held five consecutive opponents under 100 rushing yards before resting many of their starters in Week 17. They allowed only 12.8 points per game in the final eight games of the season when they finished 7-1.
2. Pressuring Dalton: The Bengals have one of the best deep threats in the NFL in Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green, and the Texans have been susceptible to the deep ball of late. The best way to mitigate that, as defensive end J.J. Watt said this week, is by pressuring quarterback Andy Dalton, who was sacked 46 times this season, third-most in the NFL.
Texans defensive end J.J. Watt led the NFL with 20.5 sacks this season and had 39 tackles for loss, 42 quarterback hits, 16 passes defensed and four forced fumbles. He was involved in 95 plays of zero or negative yardage. Watt announced his arrival to the NFL in last year's playoffs against the Bengals, picking off Dalton at the line of scrimmage and returning it 29 yards for an interception in the second quarter to put the Texans ahead in a 10-10 game. He tied for the NFL postseason lead with 3.5 sacks in just two playoff games.
Dalton was sacked 17 times in three games from Weeks 14-16 and twice in two quarters in Week 17 before resting in the second half. The Texans tied for fifth in the NFL with 44 sacks this season and sacked Dalton four times last season in the playoffs at Reliant Stadium, leading to three interceptions in their 31-10 rout.
Green, a second-year pro, had 97 catches for 1,350 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. The Texans allowed a touchdown pass of at least 61 yards in three of their last four games but would obviously like to see that trend reversed on Saturday.
3. Schaub's 1st playoff start: In his nine-year NFL career, Texans quarterback Matt Schaub has thrown for 21,944 yards and 120 touchdowns. He has three 4,000-yard seasons. He has won 44 regular-season games. This will be his first time to start in the playoffs.
Schaub has appeared in one postseason game, playing as a reserve in the NFC Championship Game in 2004 with the Atlanta Falcons. He watched the Texans' inaugural playoff run last season from the sidelines with a broken foot. The Texans' starter since 2007, Schaub led the team to a 10-3 record in 2011 before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 10. He said all offseason and throughout this season that the experience was a source of motivation.
Schaub enters the playoffs with just one touchdown pass and three interceptions in his last four games as the Texans finished the season a disappointing 1-3. Before that, he had won 15 of his last 16 starts. Schaub threw for 4,008 yards, 22 touchdowns and 12 interceptions this season with a passer rating of 90.7, which ranked fourth in the AFC and ninth in the NFL.
Since joining the Texans in 2007, Schaub is 26-13 at Reliant Stadium. He has a 94.3 passer rating with 55 touchdowns, 29 interceptions and 65.4 completion percentage in those 39 games. Schaub is 10-3 at home since 2011 and has not lost back-to-back home starts since October 2010.
4. Pass protection: Schaub was sacked just 27 times this season, but 12 of them came in the last four games and 10 in the last three. The Bengals ranked third in the NFL in 2012 with 51 sacks, led by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins with 12.5. Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson had 11.5 sacks.
Atkins (6-1, 300) will be a major test for the Texans' interior linemen, particularly rookie right guards Ben Jones and Brandon Brooks. The 2010 fourth-round pick from Georgia has given opposing offensive lines fits all season long, recording a sack in five of the Bengals' last seven games and leading the team in quarterback pressures (35) and tackles for loss (15).
In their last four games, the Texans were outscored 110-65 and penalized 34 times for 263 yards, putting their offense – and Schaub – in undesirable situations. If they can avoid falling behind early and the mental lapses that have plagued them of late, they could be in much better shape.
5. Big-play 'Dre: Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson made his long-awaited playoff debut last season. He now has his second shot at the postseason in as many years, and this one is coming off the best season of his career.
Johnson, 31, has been with the Texans since 2003, the second year of the franchise. No other player on the roster has been with the team since before coach Gary Kubiak arrived in 2006. Kubiak said Johnson talked to the team a few times this week about how much the chance to play in the playoffs means to him after the early struggles of the franchise, a message that resonated with players throughout the locker room.
Kubiak also said Johnson told his teammates they can count on him, which should come as no surprise. Johnson had 12 catches for 201 yards and a touchdown in his first two playoff games last season, and he wasn't even 100 percent healthy then coming off of two hamstring injuries in the regular season. There's no doubt he's 100 percent now after a 112-catch season for a career-high 1,598 receiving yards.
Johnson had five catches for 90 yards and a touchdown against the Bengals in the Wild Card round in 2012. It'll be exciting to see what he does for an encore in 2013.