2011 Regular Season Final Record: 132-111 54% hits
*note: I did not pick the Week 17 games
Saturday 4:30 EST
Bengals @ Texans -3 (line taken from Bodog.com)
Hexagram 24: 复The Return
The trends to watch for in this game are duplication, returning, recovering, and getting revenge. The way of change for this trigram is one force ending a cycle and returning to its prior state.
These teams played each other just about a month ago, with the Texans escaping with a narrow 20-19 win. Saturday, they will meet again in Houston in the first playoff game of the Super Bowl Era of the NFL to feature starting rookie quarterbacks for each team. I believe this game will be very similar to their previous encounter.
Both teams love to lean on their stout offensive lines and effective running games. With so much on the line and dueling rookie quarterbacks, I don’t expect either team to deviate too much from this philosophy. The problem is that both teams also have excellent defenses. The Bengals finished 7th in total defense while only the Steelers gave up less yards than the Texans. Points will definitely be at a premium in the opening game of the 2011-2012 postseason. The team that is able to break off a couple big plays against the opposing defense will probably be the one that comes out on top.
One matchup that will be very important to deciding the outcome of the game is the Bengals new receiver against their former corner. A.J. Green has defied all the usual stereotypes and expectations of a rookie wide out. Normally, wide receiver is one of the slowest positions young players develop int o, and not much contribution is expected of even the most highly regarded prospects.
Since Carl Pickens won the award as a Bengal in 1992, three receivers have won the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award; Randy Moss, Anquan Boldin and Percy Harvin. In that same span of time eleven running backs and four quarterbacks have won the honor. Rookie receivers that have had an impact have mostly been guys that have come into the league with game changing speed and were drafted onto an established offense in which they were not the primary target. This is true for Moss’s monster first season and Harvin’s ROY campaign, as well seasons of other impact rookies like Desean Jackson and Julio Jones this year.
Green benefited from none of these factors this year. Since the first game of the his career, he has been the primary target, and attracting the defensive attention that comes with it, for a fellow rookie quarterback operating a brand new offense with limited off season preparation time because the lockout lingered into the summer.
A.J.’s impressive rookie season is most comparable to Boldin’s. In his rookie year with Arizona, Anquan used his great size, hands, route running and body positioning to catch 101 balls for 1,377 yards and 8 touchdowns, despite not having elite speed or any other weapons on offense. This line is ridiculous for any receiver, rookie or no, but it is even more amazing when you add in that Boldin had this season catching balls from a combination of Jeff Blake and Josh McCown, that he ran the 40 meter dash in 4.70 seconds at the pre-draft combine and that Larry Fitzgerald and Kurt Warner were still a year away from joining him in the desert.
I’ve always been a big Anquan Boldin fan. He is still a good possession guy and is undoubtedly one of the toughest wide receivers ever to play. However, because A.J. Green is faster (he ran a 4.50) and bigger (6’4 vs. 6’1) and was still a good enough all around player to put up number similar to Boldin’s huge rookie season (65, 1057, 7), I think the Bengal has an even higher ceiling than the current Raven. With his height and enough speed to get separation from most cornerbacks in the league, he is a nightmare to matchup with down the field, and is a constant threat to make a game breaking play at any time. If it wasn’t for Cam Newton’s record breaking season in Carolina, I have no doubt A.J. would be the favorite to win this year’s OROY.
The task of defending A.J. will largely fall to Bengals' defectee Jonathan Joseph. The corner signed with Houston in the off season after spending the first five years of his career in Cincinnati. Joseph has played a big part in the transformation of the Texans defense. In recent years, the defense of the other team in Texas has been a perpetual joke and the major factor that held back their past promising teams. Their defensive rankings from the previous three seasons before their rise to number two this year read as 22nd, 13th, and 30th last year.
But gone are the days when you would lick your chops at the sight of “HOU” in your fantasy QB’s or WR’s schedule. They ranked 4th against the run, 3rd against the past (a particularly glaring weakness in past seasons), and had the 6th most sacks. They consistently played some of the best defense in the league, even after losing their most dominant player in Mario Williams to season ending injury.
Everyone predicted the typical Texans fade down the stretch after another fast start, especially so once starting quarterback Matt Schaub was lost for the year as well. However, their defense has become such a strength for them this year that they have bailed out the suddenly struggling offense by keeping games close and low scoring when Yates & crew weren’t clicking. The defense kept responding to the call allowing 20+ points in only two of their last ten games.
There’s a lot of credit to spread around for this huge of an improvement. Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed have filled the passing rushing void left by Super Mario’s absence admirably. Rookie lineman J.J. Watt has been big, strong, fast and just as good at pressuring the passer as stopping the run. Corner Kareem Jackson has held down his side of the field impressively after a disappointing rookie season last year for the former first round pick.
Jonathan Joseph is, however, the most important new influence on this defense by far. His four interceptions and fifteen pass deflections don’t even do justice to the season he has been having this year. He has effectively shut down his half of the field and his skills at locking down opposing wide outs has gifted many a coverage sack to the Texans impressive total.
In their head to head matchup, I like Green’s chances to come out on top. If it is the close, low scoring game I expect it to be, then even if Green makes only one or two big plays on Joseph, it could make the difference in the game. Green’s height advantage over Joseph (5 inches) and his skills when the ball is in the air make it seem likely that A.J. will at least come down with a couple jump balls.
Wild Card Wild Card
Jerome Simpson is the wild card in this game. It has been a tumultuous season for a player that is not exactly a household name. He first gained notoriety when he busted for having pounds of dank Cali weed shipped to his house. It seemed that he was destined to join the Bengal tradition of running afoul of the law, but apparently he was never arrested or charged, and nothing has come of the incident yet. My guess is that one of his boys took the blame for it. Still, if you brought up Jerome Simpson to a causal football fan, “the Bengal that just got caught with pot,” would probably be the way to most effectively define him.
That was so until two weeks ago. Now he is “flip touchdown guy” after scoring on this amazing play: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MzaHnJBqSls&feature=fvst This is a much more favorable thing to be noticed for and it was a clear victory for the image consultants and public relations team of Jerome Simpson. He had another decent game last week against the Ravens, (5 catches for 54 yards) and if he continue to build momentum in the offense and can give Dalton another viable weapon on the outside, it will help the Bengals’ cause in this game immensely. If the Texans are forced to pay attention to both receivers, as well as underrated tight end Jermaine Grisham over the middle, then this will increase the probability of Cincinatti being able to gain big chunks of yards down the field.
I’m taking the Bengals. Ultimately, although they may have a slight advantage in overall talent, I think the Texans offense will be too predictable to score enough points to win this game. The Bengals know the Texans will come out wanting to run the football. Cincinnati’s defense is good enough to hold its own against Houston’s one dimensional attack.
It will matter a lot how the Bengals approach this game offensively too. I think they should come out aggressively attacking the Texans in this game. I like Andy Dalton as a quarterback much more than his opponent, and he has shown the ability at times this season to raise up his level of play when it matters most. If the Bengals can muster some early points, this will build the confidence of their own rookie quarterback while forcing Houston to completely alter their game plan and turn, as a last resort, to their own guy to save them the game.
The I Ching’s reading tells of a returning to a previous state. I think this is foretelling the Texans' return to their familiar place as disappointing underachievers. This may not be completely fair to them. They took big steps this year by making their first postseason and winning their first division crown, but they are presently lacking the dynamism on offense needed to beat these Bengals, who will advance on to the next round.