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Wild-card weekend preview: Arian Foster is the key to Texans making return trip to New England

Arian Foster is the key to a Texans' playoff win (Getty Images)

Saturday, January 5, 2012 - 4:30 p.m. ET
NBC

For the second consecutive January, the Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Texans will meet in an AFC wild-card playoff game at Reliant Stadium. When the two clubs met on Jan. 7, 2012, the Bengals seemed to be in control for much of the first half, keeping the Texans' offense on the sideline and leading 10-7 late into the second quarter. A 39-yard field goal by the Texans' Neil Rackers just after the two-minute warning was followed by a 29-yard interception return for a touchdown by J.J. Watt, who added a sack of the Bengals' Andy Dalton on the final play of the second quarter to swing momentum in the Texans' favor entering halftime. Houston broke the game open late in the third quarter when T.J. Yates hit Andre Johnson for a 40-yard touchdown pass. Arian Foster would seal the game midway through the fourth quarter with a 42-yard touchdown run (pictured above).

This season, the Texans stormed out to an 11-1 start and were well on their way toward a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. The Texans lost three of their last four regular-season games, but clinched the AFC South with a 29-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Dec. 16. All three of the Texans' losses were to playoff teams (New England Patriots, Minnesota Vikings, Colts). The Bengals enter the 2012 playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the league. A four-game losing streak had the Bengals at 3-5 midway through the season, but behind a revitalized running game and a strong defense, the Bengals would win seven of their last eight games and clinched a wild-card berth with a 13-10 road win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Dec. 23.

When the Bengals have the ball

In terms of raw numbers, the Texans (No. 7 in total offense at 372.1 yards per game) far outpace the Bengals, who ranked 22nd in the NFL with an average of 332.7 yards per game. When you go a bit deeper, however, and factor in things like who teams faced, the Bengals and Texans are neck-and-neck, with the Texans ranking 16th and Bengals 17th in Football Outsiders' offensive DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average).

One of the major factors in the Bengals' hot finish to the regular season was a running game that averaged over 150 yards per game from Nov. 11 to Dec. 13. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who signed a three-year, $9 million contract with the Bengals last March, went over 100 yards in four of those six games, putting him over 1,000 yards in his first season in Cincinnati. The Bengals' ground game struggled in their playoff-clinching win over the Steelers – 16 carries for 14 yards – and again in a Week 17 regular-season finale against the Baltimore Ravens, when the offense produced just 47 yards on 21 carries as Green-Ellis missed the game after suffering a hamstring injury during pregame warmups. Provided Green-Ellis' hamstring is healthy, getting the ground game going against the Texans should be a priority for the Bengals and could be a possibility as injuries at inside linebacker (Brian Cushing and Daryl Sharpton to injured reserve, Tim Dobbins battling an ankle injury) has left Houston vulnerable against the run. Over the last eight weeks, the Texans have allowed an average of 113.1 yards per game on the ground.

Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was added to the AFC Pro Bowl roster as a rookie and had an even better sophomore season. The 2011 second-round pick out of TCU completed 62.3 percent of his pass attempts for 3,669 yards with 27 touchdowns and an 87.4 passer rating. Dalton's top target – by a wide margin – is Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green, who caught 97 passes for 1,350 yards and 11 touchdowns, though only one of those touchdowns came in the final six weeks of the season. Green can expect to see plenty of Johnathan Joseph, who is making a return trip to the Pro Bowl. If the Texans focus their attention on Green, Dalton will look underneath to tight end Jermaine Gresham (64-737-5), Andrew Hawkins (51-533-4) and rookie Marvin Jones, who caught 10 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown over the final two weeks of the season.

When the Texans have the ball

Houston ranked eighth in the NFL in rushing offense, but were just 16th in rushing yards per play and 16th in Football Outsiders' rushing offense DVOA this season. Still, Arian Foster led the NFL in rushing attempts (351) and rushing touchdowns (15) and the now three-time Pro Bowl running back should be the focal point of the offense on Saturday. Foster went over 100 yards seven times in 2012 and, not surprisingly, the Texans were 7-0 in those games.

On the eve of the 2012 regular season, the Texans signed quarterback Matt Schaub to a four-year, $62 million contract extension that included over $25 million in guaranteed money. Entering the team's second playoff game, and Schaub's first appearance in the post-season, the 31-year-old Pro Bowler is the arguably the team's biggest offensive question mark. Schaub completed over 64 percent of his pass attempts, his highest completion percentage since his previous Pro Bowl season (2009), for 4,008 yards with 22 touchdowns and a passer rating of 90.7. Schaub also ranked 12th in Football Outsiders' DYAR (Defensive-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) metric. The 31-year-old struggled down the stretch, however, throwing more interceptions (three) than touchdowns (one) in the final month of the regular season.

Wide receiver Andre Johnson is heading to his sixth Pro Bowl after catching 112 passes for 1,598 yards, finishing second behind Calvin Johnson in Football Outsiders' receiving DYAR metric. Only five receivers – including Cincinnati's Green - were targeted more than Johnson (162) was this season and no other Texans wide receiver had more than Kevin Walter's 68. Despite missing one game, tight end Owen Daniels was targeted 104 times, catching 62 balls for 716 yards and six touchdowns.

How it could go: A month ago, the Texans appeared on their way toward having this weekend off. They had won 11 of their first 12 and broke out their letterman jackets on their way to a 42-14 shellacking at the hands of the New England Patriots. To their credit, the Texans bounced back and clinched the AFC South the following week, but a 17-point home loss to the Minnesota Vikings and a 12-point loss to the Colts in the regular-season finale have raised questions about the offense, and Schaub, in particular. While the pressure may be on Schaub, the Texans' key to winning rests on Gary Kubiak putting the offense on the shoulders of Foster and the running game. The more the Texans pound the Bengals' front seven with Foster – and Ben Tate, Justin Forsett – the more effective Schaub will be on play-action throws to Johnson, Daniels and Co. If Kubiak does that, and sticks with it, the Texans can dust off those letterman jackets for a return trip to Foxborough.

Prediction: Texans 24, Bengals 20

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