Cincinnati @ Houston
Cincinnati Must: Limit Houston's run game. This, obviously, is more easily said than done. The Texans finished second in the league in regular-season rushing offense as one of just two teams to produce two 900-plus yard backs. Change-of-pace runner Ben Tate is the thunder to feature back Arian Foster's lightning, displaying aggressive, punishing power and surprising speed en route to a 5.4 yards-per-carry average. Foster is the home-run hitter, ranking fifth in the NFL in rushing despite missing three games. Exceptionally versatile, Foster also ranked third among running backs in receiving yards. With rookie T.J. Yates at quarterback, Tate and Foster are the Texans' offensive foundation. If the Bengals take that away, they'll stay competitive throughout.
Houston Must: Make Andy Dalton beat them -- without A.J. Green. After an impressive start to the year, Dalton faded as defenses figured him out down the stretch. Whereas the rookie completed 61.5% of his passes with a 12:7 touchdown-to-turnover ratio in Cincinnati's first nine games, Dalton's completion rate fell to 54.8 with eight TDs and eight turnovers in the final seven. The Texans are equipped to check Green with top cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who routinely shadows opposing top receivers. When the Bengals and Texans met in Week 14, "J-Jo" held Green under 60 yards, and Green got most of his 59 on a 50-50 third-quarter jumpball for a gain of 36. Houston's defense ranks third against the pass, so will be a very tough matchup for Dalton.
X-Factor: Ben Tate. In these teams' aforementioned Week 14 meeting, the Bengals held Foster in check (41 yards, 15 carries) but were burned by his "backup" Tate for 97 total yards on 11 touches, including an explosive 44-yard first-quarter burst to set up an early field goal. Houston's game plan entering most weeks is typically to get Foster 20 carries and Tate 10, though the latter may pose more matchup problems for Cincinnati's quick but relatively smallish front seven. Yates separated his left shoulder in Week 17, so the Texans will likely make an effort to limit his number of pass drops. This could lead to more opportunities for Tate off the bench.
Why the Texans will win: Even with Yates struggling, Houston possesses more big-play ability on offense than Cincinnati and has a more well-rounded defense. Andre Johnson's return to a near full-time player gives the Texans a weapon the Bengals didn't have to sweat in Week 14. At home, I like Houston to hold Cincinnati to two TDs or fewer, and cover the three-point spread.
However, this other dude says they'll win:
Cincinnati Bengals @ Houston Texans
The Houston Texans' season can be summed up in one word – "Ouch!" Their down to the inadequate T.J. Yates at QB and the most dynamic scoring threat in the state of Texas, Andre Johnson, is still nursing a nagging hip injury. Houston will also be battling a disadvantage in the momentum category, coming off three consecutive losses to non-playoff teams (including Indianapolis). I like the Bengals' defense to come up with a big performance, committing to the run in order to hold Arian Foster in check while allowing Yates to attempt an assault on one of the league's most talented secondaries.