AFC North: Arian Foster

PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau gave cornerback Cortez Allen a vote of confidence, but he also acknowledged it might do the fourth-year veteran some good to step back while he is struggling.

Allen is expected to lose snaps to Brice McCain and probably his starting job when the Steelers play the Houston Texans Monday night at Heinz Field. The two will likely flip positions, with McCain starting at left cornerback and Allen playing nickelback when the Steelers go with five defensive backs.

The Steelers might not play a lot of nickel with shutting down Texans running back Arian Foster, the NFL’s third-leading rusher, their biggest challenge in the nationally televised game.

Coach Mike Tomlin said earlier this week that there would be some lineup changes following a 31-10 loss at Cleveland. He also said McCain is a candidate to play more because of the “inconsistency” of other players.

It didn’t take any master code-breaking to figure out that Allen is in line for a demotion, even if it is only a temporary one. Allen leads the Steelers with two interceptions but consistency has eluded him.

The 6-foot-1, 196-pounder had a tough outing against the Browns, giving up a 51-yard touchdown catch to tight end Jordan Cameron, one of the key plays in the game.

“He’s still basically a young player and he’s at a difficult position and sometimes there are ups and downs there,” LeBeau said of Allen. “I have great confidence that he’ll find himself through it and be a very strong player.”

He better.

The Steelers signed Allen to a five-year, $26 million contract right before the start of the regular season, and they need to build around the former fourth-round draft pick at cornerback.

When asked if sometimes it helps struggling plays to take a step back and watch for a week, LeBeau said, “I’m thinking that it does. We’ll see.”

The Film Don't Lie: Steelers

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
A weekly look at what the Pittsburgh Steelers must fix:

Two successful misdirection plays allowed the Cleveland Browns to flip the momentum Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers -- and eventually blow out their longtime tormentors.

A 45-yard catch by a wide-open Jordan Cameron led to the Browns’ first touchdown. The tight end caught a 51-yard touchdown pass later in the second quarter, again after the Steelers were sucked in by play-action.

What left Steelers coach Mike Tomlin incredulous after the 31-10 loss is that the Steelers twice let Cameron run free after he had caught a 47-yard pass against them in the season opener Sept. 7.

The success of the Browns' running game this season set up the misdirection plays and the Steelers could see more of the same Monday night when they host the Houston Texans.

Arian Foster, who is third in the NFL with 513 rushing yards, is as good of a stretch-play runner as there is in the league. The Texans are likely to use play-action to Foster to set up shots down the field if the Steelers are too aggressive in trying to stop the run.

Foster gashed the Steelers the last time he played against them, rushing for 155 yards and a touchdown in 2011.
Ed Reed, Ray RiceGetty ImagesEd Reed returns to Baltimore for the first time as a Texan, while Ray Rice looks to improve from his slow start.
Sunday's AFC showdown between the Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens features the return of safety Ed Reed to Baltimore. Reed went to nine Pro Bowls during his 11 seasons with the Ravens and was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2004. He has missed the first two games of the season because of his surgically repaired hip and would make his Texans debut if he plays.

While there will be plenty of attention placed on the reunion with Reed, this game will factor into how the balance of power in the AFC shakes out. The Texans (2-0), one of five undefeated teams in the AFC, are the first team since the merger in 1970 to win each of their first two games of a season on the final play of the game. The Ravens (1-1), the defending Super Bowl champions, are trying to get back on track after getting routed by the Denver Broncos and struggling to beat the Cleveland Browns.

Texans team reporter Tania Ganguli and Ravens team reporter Jamison Hensley discuss how this emotional and pivotal game will unfold.

Hensley: The big storyline heading into this game is whether Reed will play. Like Ravens coach John Harbaugh, I would be surprised if Reed sat out this reunion game. But it was only three years ago when Reed underwent a procedure on his hip while with the Ravens and missed the first six games of the season. When Reed returned, he picked off two passes in his first game and eventually led the NFL in interceptions despite playing just 10 games. If Reed plays, how much of an impact can he make in his first game with a new team and a new defense?

Ganguli: Anything can happen when Reed plays. He’ll have a lot of free rein when he returns, as he’s helped not just his teammates but also given coaches advice. The Texans are being cautious with him. He had a blood-spinning procedure done three weeks ago that has a range of results in patients. Reed said it helped his hip feel better. He also said this hip injury feels more mild than the surgery he had three years ago. He practiced more last week than he did before the Texans’ season opener against the San Diego Chargers, so he is progressing toward playing.

Texans coach Gary Kubiak said last week that if Reed does play, the Texans don’t plan on starting him in his first game back. They’ll use him in certain defensive packages and continue to start Shiloh Keo. Asked about it this week, though, Kubiak said he would listen to Reed’s evaluation of his health.

Reed isn’t the only legacy gone from the Ravens’ defensive roster. How has that changed Baltimore’s defense?

Hensley: The two longtime faces of the Ravens defense will be there at M&T Bank Stadium, but both won't be wearing purple. Reed is on the other sideline, and Ray Lewis will be inducted into the Ring of Honor at halftime. The Ravens have seven different starters from the defense that lined up against -- and got beaten up by -- the Texans last October.

The biggest improvement has been the Ravens' run defense, especially with Daryl Smith in the middle. This is key because the Ravens gave up 98 yards and two touchdowns to Arian Foster in the last meeting.

Baltimore also upgraded its pass rush with Elvis Dumervil, but there are questions in the secondary. The Ravens have already benched cornerback Corey Graham and safety Michael Huff and replaced them with cornerback Jimmy Smith and safety Matt Elam.

Talking about new looks, how much has rookie receiver DeAndre Hopkins -- whom the Ravens liked in the draft -- helped the Texans passing game?

Ganguli: Hopkins had a breakout game in Week 2, catching seven passes for 117 yards and scoring the game-winning touchdown. He wears size 3X gloves, only one size smaller than J.J. Watt, who is four inches taller and 70 pounds heavier than Hopkins. Those big hands give him the confidence to catch with his hands and not worry about bringing the ball into his body. Because of that, Hopkins is excellent on contested catches.

Getting to the heart of your question, though, Hopkins’ impact will be big this season. He finally gives the Texans a complementary threat to Andre Johnson. Quarterback Matt Schaub became more confident in Hopkins through the game, especially when Johnson left with a concussion and he had to. That trend will continue during the season. The Texans threw to Johnson more than all their other wide receivers combined last year, and that will surely change this season.

Sticking with offense, what would be the impact of not having Ray Rice if his injury prevents him from playing?

Hensley: Rice injured his hip toward the end of the Ravens' not-so-thrilling win over the Browns. He will likely be questionable for Sunday's game against the Texans. He's always been a big factor in the Ravens offense. Rice was one of three running backs last year (with Doug Martin and C.J. Spiller) to produce more than 1,000 yards rushing and 400 yards receiving. The Ravens are 37-6 when Rice gets at least 15 carries.

The problem is the offensive line hasn't opened many holes for Rice, who is averaging 2.9 yards per carry. Backup running back Bernard Pierce has been the more physical back and has broken more tackles than Rice this season. The Ravens need to establish the run because they've lost too many weapons -- wide receiver Anquan Boldin was traded, tight end Dennis Pitta is on injured reserve and wide receiver Jacoby Jones is sidelined -- to rely solely on the passing game. Any chance the Ravens' ground game can come to life against the Houston front seven?

Ganguli: The Texans’ front seven has played inspired football in spurts this season, especially inside linebacker Brian Cushing, whose play is showing just how much he missed being out there for most of last season. The Texans gave up an 80-yard touchdown drive to start the third quarter against the San Diego Chargers but contributed to the biggest comeback in franchise history by allowing just 10 yards the rest of the game. In Week 2, Chris Johnson had only five rushing yards in the third quarter and 19 in the second half.

On one hand, the Texans defense hasn’t put together a complete game yet. On the other hand, it's been excellent with halftime adjustments. Even if the Ravens get going early, there’s a strong chance that won’t last.

A big part of that is Cushing, who has resumed his position as a leader on the defense. We talked about the on-field differences on the Ravens defense, but has anyone filled the leadership void?

Hensley: The Ravens' leadership in the past came from the veterans, like Lewis, Reed and Boldin. This team is going to rely on the likes of Terrell Suggs, Dumervil and Lardarius Webb. Suggs has taken over Lewis' role as the vocal leader, and I can see Webb becoming a more behind-the-scenes influence like his mentor Reed. The Ravens offense has strong character players such as Rice and wide receiver Torrey Smith.

Suggs and Dumervil have made a similar impact on the field. Last year against the Texans, Suggs played his first game since tearing his Achilles. Now, fully recovered, Suggs looks even better than before because he is in the best shape of his career. Dumervil has been just as disruptive and destroyed right tackle Mitchell Schwartz last week. They've each had a sack in the first two games. How are the Texans tackles going to hold up against these Ravens' edge rushers?

Ganguli: That will be an interesting thing to watch in this game. Derek Newton is new as the Texans’ starting right tackle this year, and left tackle Duane Brown thinks he could be a game-time decision after suffering a turf toe injury against the Tennessee Titans. Losing Brown would be damaging to the Texans, who rely on him to win one-on-one matchups. Another matchup to watch is the kicking game.

Hensley: One of the biggest surprises last season was the consistent kicking from Justin Tucker, who hit 30 of 33 field goals. The biggest surprise Sunday was Tucker's inconsistency, missing twice wide right after only missing once in Baltimore as a rookie. Tucker isn't worried, and a short but strong body of work doesn't have the Ravens panicking either. But given all the injuries on the Ravens offense, they can't afford for Tucker to be off his game. It seems like the Ravens aren't the only team having a problem with a kicker.

Ganguli: Randy Bullock has struggled in his first two games, making only one of five attempts. They haven’t been easy attempts, none shorter than 40 yards and three longer than 50, but the Texans know he has the leg for making those. It might help his confidence if he was put in the position to kick shorter field goals. Though fans are upset, the Texans aren’t giving up on him. Why would they? He’s only two games into his NFL career, having spent his rookie season on injured reserve.

Joe Flacco, JJ WattUS Presswire, AP ImagesHow Baltimore's Joe Flacco, left, fares against Houston's explosive J.J. Watt could be key Sunday.

The last time we saw the Texans and Ravens square off, we were watching a divisional-round playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

Terrell Suggs had six tackles and a pass defended as the Ravens' rush linebacker. Houston featured third-string rookie T.J. Yates at quarterback, and his three interceptions -- paired with multiple special-teams gaffes by Texans returner Jacoby Jones -- were big factors in a 20-13 Baltimore victory.

The Texans returned home to rave reviews for their first playoff season but also couldn’t help wonder what might have been if they'd had injured starting quarterback Matt Schaub and played a cleaner game. Baltimore advanced to the AFC Championship Game in New England, where it lost to the Patriots, but a near-catch for a touchdown by Lee Evans could have won it with 27 seconds left and a missed 32-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff could have forced overtime.

This rematch doesn’t carry the same stakes but could have big implications. The winner will have the AFC’s best record at 6-1.

AFC North blogger Jamison Hensley and AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky will be watching closely.

HENSLEY: I think it's easy to say this is a battle of the two best teams in the AFC. Not really going out on a limb here because the Ravens and Texans are the only teams with winning records in this mediocre conference. I know there are going to be nine games after this one, but this is shaping up to be the Ravens' most important game of the regular season.

The result of this game could become a tiebreaker for home-field advantage or a first-round bye at the end of the season. The Ravens, who have won a league-best 14 consecutive games at home, don't want to go on the road in the playoffs. The Ravens' mindset is that they won't have to come back to Houston this year if they win there Sunday. What's the mindset of the Texans after what happened in Houston last Sunday night?

KUHARSKY: Because the Texans are so young, they've played a lot of "biggest games in franchise history." This is certainly the newest one to top the list. Their critics look at the 5-1 record and see wins over mostly softies and a pasting by the Packers on Sunday night. A victory over the Ravens validates everything they've done and regains a firm hold on Best in the AFC. A loss would create some serious concerns. They do have the cushion of playing in a terrible division they simply can't lose. But Baltimore has been an obstacle and ended the Texans' last season in the playoffs. If they meet again with such high stakes, they don't want to be traveling.

It might be a good time to draw the Ravens, too, right? I know Ray Lewis wasn't what he has been, but their first game without a leader like that and without an underrated, great corner like Lardarius Webb may make them a bit more susceptible, no?

HENSLEY: This is the most vulnerable I've seen the Ravens' defense in 13 seasons. Lewis wasn't playing like the Lewis from 10 years ago, but he was still an above-average linebacker in this league. The Ravens have given up more than 200 yards rushing in each of the past two games, and losing Lewis only makes that run defense shakier. Dannell Ellerbe, who has made seven starts since entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2009, will take Lewis' spot.

Though the Ravens will miss Lewis' leadership, the bigger loss is Webb. He was emerging as one of the top cornerbacks in the league. His nine interceptions since the start of the 2011 season was tied for the league lead. So, the Ravens have taken shots to both their run and pass defenses this week. How do you see the Texans attacking the Ravens' defense Sunday?

KUHARSKY: Although they might not run first chronologically Sunday, the Texans are a run-first team. Everything they do offensively is keyed on the one-cut-and-go running of Arian Foster, who did great work running for 132 yards in that playoff game on Jan. 15. They send him left most often now, because Duane Brown and Wade Smith are steadier blockers than the guys on the right side, where they have two new starters who aren't even full time.

Spinning off that run game, we'll see play-action heavy with bootlegs and rollouts. It's always remarkable to see Owen Daniels out in space awaiting a Matt Schaub pass. Andre Johnson is certainly dangerous too, though they've not been able to feed him the ball as much as usual. He hates the talk that he's getting older and slowing down, but he hasn't looked like the same player so far this season. Two weeks ago, Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie really smothered Johnson. I figured Webb would be a guy who could do similar work. If AJ sees someone like Cary Williams instead, it could be a different story.

Speaking of Schaub, let's turn to quarterbacks. He has been quite efficient this year, doing what Houston needs and not getting caught up at all in his numbers. I came into the season not sold on Joe Flacco and thinking the Ravens didn't have the right guy under center to become an offensive team. But he has done some very good work in the games I've seen and started to change my opinion. Even minus Brian Cushing, the Texans' front throws a lot at a quarterback. Green Bay might have exposed some coverage deficiencies. How's Flacco at assessing such things on the fly and taking advantage?

HENSLEY: Flacco's biggest improvement this season has been his ability to audible at the line. The Ravens are using the no-huddle more than any other time in Flacco's five seasons. It's not to the point of being Peyton Manning, but Flacco is constantly changing the play at the line. Flacco, who ran the no-huddle during his college days, is comfortable with this. He has wanted to have more control of the offense and he's now getting it.

A lot of credit goes to quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell, who is familiar with this style from his days with the Colts. Flacco makes his mistakes when he gets pressured. His pocket awareness has improved and he can scramble for yards. But Flacco will rush and make poor throws when a defender is in his face. Left tackle Michael Oher (four sacks) and rookie right tackle Kelechi Osemele (three sacks) have struggled at times keeping rushers away from Flacco. Is there any chance the Ravens slow down J.J. Watt and Houston's pass rush?

KUHARSKY: It sure seems like the key to the game for me. Watt is going to get his at some point, and it's not just sacks. Watch how he'll stop rushing when he knows he's not getting there and time his jump to bat down, or even pick off, a pass.

And although the numbers of the other guys aren't in his stratosphere, Brooks Reed, Antonio Smith and Connor Barwin are very effective rushers who will have a bearing on Flacco's pocket comfort. Force some mistakes with that rush, and I like Houston's chances. Get stonewalled and fall victim to the ball coming out super-fast, and I feel differently.

One note about the quicker Ravens offense: With Cushing out, Brice McCain, the nickelback, will have a bigger role in covering players such as Ray Rice and Dennis Pitta on routes. If the Ravens run hurry-up or no-huddle, they can potentially trap the Texans in base if they want McCain off the field. I am eager to see whether they try that. The Texans are obviously are familiar with Jim Caldwell's no-huddling.

How about special teams? Tell me how Jacoby Jones is now reliably explosive? The Texans have some serious special-teams issues.

HENSLEY: Jacoby Jones has been one of the bigger surprises this season for Baltimore. The Ravens were looking to upgrade the return game this offseason and failed to sign Eddie Royal or Ted Ginn in free agency. That's why they jumped on Jones when he was cut by the Texans. He has been average as a punt returner (9 yards per return), but he really keyed the win over the Cowboys on Sunday. His 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, which tied an NFL record, was the big play in that game.

The only reason the Ravens turned to Jones on kickoffs was because rookie Deonte Thompson fumbled a kickoff the week before. If you think about it, it's kind of funny that Jones got his chance to be explosive because another player couldn't hold onto the ball, especially after Jones' problems fielding kicks in the past. But that really hasn't surfaced so far with the Ravens.

Baltimore's coverage teams are both ranked in the top half of the league, which is a big improvement from last year. In 2012, the Ravens allowed three touchdowns on returns. Another improvement is at kicker. Rookie Justin Tucker has made 12 of 13 field goals this season and has hit both attempts beyond 50 yards. If this game is close, the Ravens have a lot of confidence in Tucker to make a pressure kick. So, what are the issues with the Texans' special teams?

KUHARSKY: Well, Trindon Holliday was absolutely electric as their returner in the preseason. But it didn’t carry over and they gave up on him. You saw Holliday playing for the Broncos on Monday night. Keshawn Martin is the man now. The team averages only 9.8 yards a punt return and 18.5 yards a kick return.

Their average start after a kickoff is the league’s worst -- the 17.7-yard line. Their coverage isn’t that bad -- it’s 31st in the league instead of 32nd. Opponents start at the 26.9-yard line.

Donnie Jones is a middle-of-the-pack punter in net average. Shayne Graham has been good on field goals, hitting 11 of 12, but is tied for 24th in touchbacks playing at home in what amounts to a domed stadium.

It’s gambler’s logic that the Texans are due to break through against the Ravens. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. If they don’t and Jacoby Jones has something to do with it, it’ll hurt a little bit extra.

It’s certainly no stretch to predict we’ll see these teams facing off again in the playoffs. In what round and where is the question, and Sunday’s winner will lead the race to be in position to host.

So, you have the first pick in your fantasy football draft. Who should you pick: the Ravens' Ray Rice or the Texans' Arian Foster?

Thankfully, you can click on the video and hear ESPN's fantasy experts hash it out. Honestly, you can't go wrong with either pick. Both backs can run the ball, catch it and score.

If you're looking for the more motivated back, that would be Rice. Foster already has his long-term contract. Rice, who is currently under the franchise tag, still has to put up big numbers if he wants the big-money deal.
The Eagles signed running back LeSean McCoy to a five-year, $45 million extension Thursday evening, $20.76 million of which is guaranteed. This continues to provide a framework of the market value for running backs, but this deal might not accelerate the signing of Ravens running back Ray Rice.

The problem is the disparity between the tiers for running backs. McCoy's deal is in line with the second tier like the Texans' Arian Foster (five years, $43.5 million, with $20.75 million guaranteed). But Rice could be shooting for the top tier that includes the Vikings' Adrian Peterson (seven years with $36 million guaranteed) and the Titans' Chris Johnson (six years with $30 million guaranteed).

What will likely get a deal done is finding a middle ground. Rice doesn't belong at the top of the pay scale because he hasn't averaged 13 rushing touchdowns over five seasons like Peterson and he doesn't have a 2,000-yard rushing season on his resume like Johnson.

But, based on the statistics, Rice deserves to get paid more than Foster and McCoy. In his three seasons as the featured back, Rice has produced 5,885 total yards, an average of 1,962 yards per season. That tops the three-year total yards by Foster (4,411) and McCoy (4,241).

That's why a five-year extension with $25 million guaranteed would be a fair deal for Rice.

Rice is currently scheduled to make $7.7 million this season as the Ravens' franchise player. If the sides can't reach a new deal by July 16, Rice will have to play this season under the tag.

He has yet to sign his tender and could skip training camp. Keeping in shape while working out on his own is not a concern for Rice.

"Training is something that I never worried about," Rice told the Carroll County (Md.) Times last weekend. "It's something that you got to want. I actually have the burning to desire to come back, not only for myself, but to come back ready to play. My training has always been part of my routine."

Rice has been training with former Philadelphia Eagles running back Brian Westbrook.

"Nobody ever had to beat me in the head to get up and work out," Rice said. "Anybody who knows about my workout regimen, I've probably been through two before noon. Training has never been my issues but obviously, the team camaraderie, the lockout and all that stuff, that's the stuff that you kind of miss with the guys. But as far as being ready, I know I'll be ready."

AFC North links: Impact of Foster's deal

March, 6, 2012
Baltimore Ravens

Terrell Suggs weighs in on the New Orleans Saints' bounty program with Mike Preston of the Baltimore Sun.

The Sun's Matt Vensel wonders if Arian Foster's new deal will impact contract negotiations with Ray Rice.

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals are hopeful wide receiver Armon Binns can go from scout-team star to contributor.

Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer sees the Bengals selecting Stanford offensive lineman David DeCastro with their first-round pick next month.

Cleveland Browns

Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita might have been involved with the New Orleans Saints' bounty program, according to NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas.

Cornerback Joe Haden and offensive tackle Joe Thomas will represent the Browns in the online voting for the "Madden NFL 13" video game cover, writes Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said removing emotion from the equation was important when the team decided to part ways with Hines Ward, Aaron Smith and James Farrior.

Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette says it wasn't a surprise that the Steelers didn't use the franchise tag on wide receiver Mike Wallace.

NFL 32: Ray Rice vs. Arian Foster

January, 14, 2012

ESPN analysts Mark Schlereth and Herm Edwards discuss which running back will have bigger game Sunday: the Ravens' Ray Rice or the Texans' Arian Foster?

Final Word: Texans at Ravens

January, 13, 2012
Divisional Final Word: Saints-49ers | Broncos-Patriots | Texans-Ravens | Giants-Packers

Three nuggets of knowledge about Sunday's Texans-Ravens divisional playoff game:

[+] EnlargeVonta Leach
AP Photo/Nick WassThe Ravens' run game thrives behind fullback Vonta Leach, left, while playing at home suits Joe Flacco.
Flacco enjoys home cooking: Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has taken some heat for his postseason numbers (four touchdowns and seven interceptions for a 61.6 passer rating). But every one of his playoff starts has come on the road, a challenging streak that ends Sunday when the Ravens host the Texans. Flacco has been nearly unstoppable --as well as almost unbeatable -- at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium. He has won 18 of his last 19 home starts, throwing 29 touchdowns and eight interceptions. When he faced the Texans in Baltimore three months ago, Flacco threw for 305 yards, which was his third-highest total of the season. He also scored his only rushing touchdown of the season against Houston.

No playoff runs against Baltimore: There's no mystery surrounding the Texans' game plan on offense, especially with rookie third-string quarterback T.J. Yates starting his seventh career NFL game. Houston leads the NFL in rushing attempts (34.1 per game) and in time of possession (32:41). But there's no team better at shutting down the run in the playoffs than the Ravens. Baltimore limits teams to 81.9 yards rushing per game and 3.1 yards per carry -- both of which are the best in NFL postseason history. Texans running back Arian Foster is looking for his fourth consecutive 100-yard rushing game against a Ravens defense that hasn't allowed a running back to go over 100 yards in 15 consecutive games (third-best current streak).

From friend to foe: The Ravens are at their best running the ball behind All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach, who is quite familiar with the Houston defense. Leach played 75 games for the Texans from 2006-10 and paved the way for Foster to win the NFL rushing title last season. His impact on the Ravens' ground game has been just as significant. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Ravens average 91.4 yards rushing and 4.5 yards per carry on runs when Leach is the lead blocker. Baltimore has also scored 14 touchdowns running behind Leach. Establishing the run has been crucial for the Ravens, who are 12-0 this season when running the ball at least 20 times.

Quick Take: Texans at Ravens

January, 7, 2012
Three things to know about next Sunday's Houston Texans-Baltimore Ravens divisional game:

1. Tough against the run. The second-seeded Ravens (12-4) know the third-seeded Texans (11-6) will run the ball after Houston handed it off 59 percent of the time against the Bengals in today's wild-card game. Baltimore has a strong history of shutting down the run, and this season was no different. The Ravens finished ranked No. 2 in run defense, giving up 92.6 yards on the ground. Only five defenses allowed fewer rushing touchdowns than Baltimore this season. In the previous meeting with the Texans this season, the Ravens limited Houston to 93 yards rushing and held Arian Foster to 3.3 yards per carry.

2. Pass protection will be a major factor. One of the reasons why the Texans beat the Bengals was their ability to pressure the quarterback and protect their own. After giving up seven sacks in San Diego, Baltimore allowed just two sacks of Joe Flacco over the final two games of the regular season. In the previous meeting, the Ravens shut out Connor Barwin, Antonio Smith and J.J. Watt. On defense, the Ravens led the AFC with 48 sacks and need to get more pressure on Texans rookie quarterback T.J. Yates than the Bengals did. Baltimore sacked Matt Schaub four times when the Ravens beat Houston on Oct. 16.

3. Dominant at home. The Ravens put themselves in position to host a playoff game for the first time in five years by going undefeated at home for the first time in their 16-year existence. Baltimore roughed up teams at M&T Bank Stadium, where it won by double digits five times this season. One of those times was a 29-14 victory over the Texans when they had Schaub at quarterback. The Ravens have won 10 consecutive games at M&T Bank Stadium, the second-longest current home win streak in the NFL.
HOUSTON -- Here are my thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 31-10 loss at the Houston Texans:

What it means: The Bengals extended the longest current streak in NFL playoff futility. Cincinnati now hasn't won a postseason game in 21 seasons. Careless mistakes led to the Bengals' third postseason loss in seven seasons. After allowing 24 straight points, Cincinnati fell to 1-7 against teams with winning records. It was a disappointing way to end a season in which the Bengals went from 4-12 in 2010 to a playoff team this season.

Turning point: An Andy Dalton pass was intercepted at the line by Houston's J.J. Watt, who ran 29 yards for a touchdown late in the first half. This came three plays after the Texans had tied the game with a field goal. So, in a matter of 56 seconds, the Bengals went from being up by three points (10-7) to being down by seven (17-10). Cincinnati never recovered.

Costly drop: Bengals safety Chris Crocker had a chance to tie the game in the third quarter, but an interception bounced off his hands. It would have likely been a touchdown because only quarterback T.J. Yates stood between Crocker and the end zone. Three plays later, Crocker failed to provide help for a faked-out Adam Jones on a 40-yard touchdown pass to Andre Johnson that put the Bengals behind 24-10. In the fourth quarter, Crocker didn't push Arian Foster out of bounds on a fourth-quarter touchdown run.

Seeing red: Head coach Marvin Lewis made the head-scratcher of a decision to use both of his replay challenges in the first half. It was compounded by the fact that both challenges failed. That meant the Bengals couldn't contest a play after 4:33 in the second quarter.

Dalton's turnovers: Dalton threw three interceptions after only one in his previous six games. Of course, he wasn't helped by the pressure generated by the Texans' front seven.

Can't stop the run: It was another bad day for the Bengals' run defense, especially when it came to defending the outside. Foster ran for 153 yards and two touchdowns. This comes one game after the Ravens' Ray Rice ran for 191 yards and two touchdowns.

Wide right again: Bengals kicker Mike Nugent missed wide right on his first field goal attempt, which was nine yards longer because of a third-down sack. He sliced it wide right just like he did last week against Baltimore. This was his fourth miss in the past three weeks.

What's next: The Bengals head into what should still be a bright future. Cincinnati has two first-round picks as it looks to address the running back, guard and safety positions.
HOUSTON — Andy Dalton has played extremely well in his first playoff game. That is, until his late interception in the first half.

Dalton's throw was snatched out of the air by Texans rookie defensive lineman J.J. Watt, who ran 29 yards for the touchdown to put Houston up 17-10 at halftime of Saturday's wild-card game. This was only Dalton's second interception in his past seven games.

Before that turnover, Dalton was 13 of 17 for 120 yards and looked poised moving away from pressure. He also picked up first downs with a two-yard quarterback sneak and a 15-yard scramble. It will be interesting to see how Dalton responds to this adversity.

Here are other halftime observations:
  • Bengals coach Marvin Lewis made a very questionable decision of using up both of his replay challenges in the first half. It was only made worse by the fact both challenges failed. His last challenge was on a third-down catch with 4:33 left in the second quarter.
  • Bengals kicker Mike Nugent missed wide right on his first field-goal attempt, which was nine yards longer because of a third-down sack. He sliced it wide right just like he did last week against Baltimore. This was his fourth miss in the past three weeks.
  • The Bengals' run defense gave up 70 yards to Arian Foster in the first half, but it hasn't been that bad. Cincinnati allowed 44 yards to Foster on the scoring drive and 26 yards the rest of the first half.
  • Bengals receiver A.J. Green has made an impact in his first playoff game after being nonexistent the previous two weeks. He had four catches for 42 yards and drew a 52-yard pass interference penalty. The first-round pick only had two catches in each of his last two games.

Final Word: Bengals at Texans

January, 6, 2012
Wild-Card Final Word: Bengals-Texans | Lions-Saints | Falcons-Giants | Steelers-Broncos

Three nuggets of knowledge about Saturday's Bengals-Texans wild-card game:

Ending playoff droughts: While the Texans are in the playoffs for the first time in their 10-season existence, the Bengals have endured a much longer wait. Cincinnati has the longest active NFL streak without a playoff victory, going 20 years, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Bengals' last postseason victory came in the 1990 wild-card playoffs against Houston -- and that's the Oilers, not the Texans. On Saturday, Cincinnati will look to end that drought, which has spanned 7,768 days. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is trying to end his own losing streak in the postseason. If he falls to the Texans, Lewis would become the first head coach to lose his first three playoff games since Wade Phillips dropped his first four before earning a postseason win in 2009.

[+] EnlargeMarvin Lewis
Mitch Stringer/US PresswireMarvin Lewis is aiming to avoid seeing his personal playoff losing streak hit three games.
Making the tackle: If the Bengals can stop the Texans and the NFL's second-ranked running attack, they have a good shot at winning. To do so, Cincinnati has to fix a run defense that has crumbled down the stretch. In the first 10 games of the season, Cincinnati allowed 88.6 yards rushing per game. In the past six, the Bengals have given up 131.5. The run defense bottomed out in the regular-season finale when it got lit up by the Ravens' Ray Rice for 191 yards on the ground. The problem comes down to tackling, or the lack thereof. According to ESPN S&I, the Bengals are allowing 1.9 yards after contact per rush, seventh worst in the NFL. With running backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate, the Texans lead the league with 1,133 yards after contact this season.

Avoiding the swat team: Elias Sports Bureau confirms that this marks the first postseason game since the 1970 merger to have rookie quarterbacks starting for both teams (Andy Dalton for Cincinnati and T.J. Yates for Houston). Dalton rarely has to worry about getting knocked down. The Bengals allowed the fourth-fewest sacks in the NFL this season. His biggest concern is having his passes knocked down. Dalton had the most passes batted or defended this season (79), including eight against the Texans on Dec. 11, according to ESPN S&I. That's not unusual for Houston, which led all defenses in defending passes (94).

Friday Forecast: Wild-card picks

January, 6, 2012
This is Friday Forecast, where we'll see how my predictions hold up against our readers'. This week, I will go against lawdogg1214 (who correctly matched my total points for the Bengals-Texans game). The other reader who qualified, Phat1963, didn't record picks.

Here are our predictions for AFC North games on wild-card weekend:

Jamison Hensley

Texans 24, Bengals 17

Steelers 20, Broncos 6


Bengals 24, Texans 17

Steelers 35, Broncos 13


Texans 24, Bengals 17: While most of the attention has been on the rookie quarterbacks, this one will come down to the running game. If the Bengals can stop the run, they win. If they can't -- like the past six games -- they're going to be in trouble. I just can't see Cincinnati patching up that run defense against the likes of Houston's Arian Foster and Ben Tate, both of whom helped the Texans run for 144 yards against the Bengals last month. In the Bengals' past five losses, they've allowed eight rushing touchdowns.

Steelers 20, Broncos 6: Starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is hobbled by a high ankle sprain. Running back Rashard Mendenhall is out for the rest of the season with a knee injury. And Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey has been out all week with his ankle injury. This is the time where the Pittsburgh defense steps up and takes over the game. Expect the Steelers to force some turnovers (which has been a rare occurrence this season) against Tim Tebow, who has lost five fumbles in his past five games, and keep a team out of the end zone for a third consecutive game. Those takeaways will lead to some easy scoring opportunities for the banged-up offense.