The matchup with Cincinnati represents the biggest prime time challenge ever for the Houston Texans.
Long time observers could point to lopsided losses against the Patriots in 2012 and Seahawks ten years ago. But going into those games there was no way of telling what was about to go down. The Texans were 11-1 heading to New England and Seattle was only 4-2 after the '05 game.
Here they are facing an undefeated team in their den. The Bengals are in uncharted waters. They have never won eight in a row, which is notable for a franchise that's been to two Super Bowls and has made the playoffs four consecutive years.
It's impossible to ignore the Texans two blowout losses to Atlanta and Miami as reasons for concern going into the second half of the season.
But Carolina is the best team the Texans have played so far this year and they were tied with them in the 3rd quarter and had the ball down seven with less than 10 minutes to go in the 4th before a Ryan Mallett pick all but sealed the deal. The Texans are hoping the performances against the Falcons and Dolphins were aberrations that have been exorcised from their system.
The win over the Titans two weeks ago healed some wounds but Cincinnati has plenty of weapons to reopen them. We can recall the history between these squads yet 2011 and 2012 seem like a long time ago. The recent history has Brian Hoyer having played well against the Bengals and the Texans losing at home last year in a game in which they didn't hit 70 rushing yards.
The running game has been missing for most of this season. The Texans have only eclipsed 100 team rushing yards once (Tampa Bay) and you can bet that much of the bye week self-scouting effort was spent on how to remedy that. Ground game or not, Hoyer has to play at a high level to get the job done in prime time. If the Texans win you'll probably look at the stat sheet and see a QB rating in the high 90s or better.
Teams have moved the ball between the 20s against the Bengals but they've been kept out of the end zone as Cincy is number four in the NFL in scoring defense. Seattle rushed for 200 yards and won the turnover battle yet somehow lost at Paul Brown Stadium.
Bill O'Brien talked about the Bengals ability to run the football in a variety of ways. Job one is to slow down the ground game. And the Texans have to get heat on Andy Dalton. He threw two interceptions on a rough afternoon in Pittsburgh but the Bengals won largely because the defense had three picks. Dalton has been superb most of the season.
A look at the college connections between the Texans and Bengals.
The bye should have done the Texans some good. Self-scouting, soul searching and rest should aid them in their effort to relaunch the 2015 campaign. However, Cincinnati is coming off a Thursday game last week so they've had their own mini-bye.
A loss hardly ends the season with the way the AFC South is going. But a win would mean so much to a Texans team that's fighting to put together any kind of positive consistency and back to back wins for the first time this year.