AFC North: Houston Texans

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens tight end Owen Daniels remembers receiving the sheet of paper from the Houston Texans informing him of his release. Recounting the situation Wednesday, Daniels said there was a check mark by "wasn't good enough" on why the Texans were releasing him.

"I have [the sheet] with me in the house," Daniels said. "I don't have it up in my locker. I can see it. I have a decent memory."

Daniels
Daniels acknowledges that it's "going to be weird" when he plays in Houston for the first time since that divorce nine months ago.

The 32-year-old tight end left as the Texans' No. 2 all-time leading receiver with 385 catches and 4,617 yards. Daniels, who still lives in Houston, was one of the most popular players in franchise history as a result of his community work and two Pro Bowl seasons.

Leaving no doubt that his ties to the Texans still tug at his emotions, he didn't downplay the motivation of stepping on the same field where he starred for eight years.

"Obviously, when you work somewhere for so long and they say you're not good enough to play there anymore and you get a chance to play them that following season, you definitely want to prove to them that they made a mistake," Daniels said. "But I've been trying to do that all season with my play, and not just in this one game."

Daniels has exceeded expectations with the Ravens, filling the void left when tight end Dennis Pitta went down with a season-ending hip injury in Week 3. He is the Ravens' second-leading receiver with 45 catches and has scored four touchdowns. In last Sunday's 20-12 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Daniels delivered the two clutch catches -- a 29-yard reception followed by a 3-yard touchdown catch -- that helped the Ravens avoid the upset.

"I want to get him more involved because he is a good player," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "I think he makes us go when we get him involved."

The biggest concern about Daniels throughout his career has been durability. Last season, he missed the final 11 games because of a broken leg. This year, Daniels has only missed one game, and the Ravens have been keeping him fresh by giving him one day off from practice each week.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh said you can see the difference in Daniels when you compare the tape of the tight end from last year to this year.

"I'm just amazed at how well he's done as far as getting himself ready to play coming off the injury last year -- how fresh and young and how well he's running," Harbaugh said.

It's not lost on Daniels that he could possibly clinch a playoff berth against his former team. "A 'W.' That's the best thing that can happen," he said. But he made it clear that he still respects his original team.

"That organization gave me a chance to play in the NFL for the first time," Daniels said. "I can't be more thankful for Mr. [Bob] McNair and that organization for giving me that opportunity. They did what they had to do business-wise last year. I'm trying to be the best player I can be here. I have no ill will toward them at all."


HOUSTON -- Late November has arrived, and for teams that call cities north of the Mason-Dixon Line home, that means one thing:

"We've got to get our run going."

Credit that quote to Cincinnati Bengals receiver A.J. Green who uttered it after Sunday afternoon's 22-13 road win over the Houston Texans.

Like many of his teammates, Green's instant analysis of the victory was this: Cincinnati's offense was back in rhythm.

"The offensive line played great. The running backs played great. Everybody played great," Green added.

He played great, too, catching a career-high 12 passes for 121 yards.

But with the harsh realities of winter looming, Green wasn't thinking much about his performance. He instead was focused on the balance his offense exhibited; balance it will soon need. In two weeks, Mother Nature will force it. Wind, rain and snow could make passing difficult the rest of the year.

Of course, Houston doesn't qualify as one of the aforementioned northern cities, and neither will next week's Bengals locale -- Tampa, Florida. But with their past four games in Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, it was a good time to start showing the offense extends beyond Green and quarterback Andy Dalton.

As part of their preparations for December, the Bengals got physical Sunday. No drive better showcased that than the one that led to their first touchdown.

"It was big for the game as far as momentum," rookie running back Jeremy Hill said.

Plain and simple, the first-quarter drive set the right tone.

The series started quite inconsequentially. After the Bengals gained 3 yards on the ground and threw an incomplete pass, it looked like they would open the game with a second straight punt.

But when Mohamed Sanu darted into the middle of the field and caught a 10-yard pass for a first down, the Bengals' most physical and balanced drive of the season began.

Ten plays later, it ended with Sanu muscling his way through a cornerback and into the end zone for a 6-yard touchdown reception.

In between, the Bengals got six runs into the middle of the field from Hill and Giovani Bernard, including back-to-back big gains. One play after Bernard gashed the Texans' interior, sprinting and spinning for 19 yards, Hill picked up 13.

Offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said many of those yards were produced by overzealous defensive linemen who were getting out of position.

"They take a lot of chances," Whitworth said of the Texans' front. "A lot of the plays [J.J. Watt] makes are doing stuff you don't normally do in that situation; jumping around a block or those kind of things. So it's feast or famine. When the right team has the right play calling and you do that, it's going to break out."

Mix Hill and Bernard's combined 6 carries for 47 yards with Dalton's 5-for-6, 46-yard showing, and you had a perfectly balanced 94-yard drive.

"We had everything clicking. When you get drives like that, it kind of gives you confidence further into the game and gets a feel, especially for [offensive coordinator] Hue [Jackson] -- he gets a feel for what types of plays are working," Hill said.

As they move forward, the Bengals need more long, balanced drives to continue setting a much-needed physical tone.
HOUSTON -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cincinnati Bengals' 22-13 win against the Houston Texans:

Jersey goes to dad: After exorcising one of his latest demons -- finally winning a game near his hometown -- Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton concluded his postgame news conference with an interesting gesture. As he stepped from the lectern, he grabbed his neatly folded, grass-stained, game-worn jersey and autographed it with the score and the date before giving it to his father, Greg. A native of nearby Katy, Texas, Andy Dalton was 0-2 in Houston before Sunday. In the win, he was 24-for-35 for 233 yards and a touchdown and an interception.

Kirkpatrick
Packing it up: An exuberant Dre Kirkpatrick was one of the first Bengals dressed after the game. Inside NRG Stadium's rather spacious visitors locker room, the third-year cornerback walked toward his locker and shouted with joy as he tried to get his teammates to speed along the changing and packing process. "Let's pack this thing up and go home, boys!" The Bengals have now won two straight road games ahead of a third next week at Tampa Bay.

Cincy's own Watt: While the typically effective J.J. Watt was slowed across the final three quarters by backup offensive tackle Marshall Newhouse, the Bengals still respect the defensive end's dominating style of play. Offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth respected it so much that he believes it's time the Bengals start seeing their own version of Watt in receiver A.J. Green. "The fact of the matter is, he's a dominant football player and a great one. We need him to be our J.J. Watt," Whitworth said of Green. "We need him to dominate people and let them know about it. Not necessarily with talk, but let them know about it with confidence and that swagger. 'If you want to cover me, then try.' We need him to be that way." Green caught 12 passes for 121 yards Sunday.

Rapid Reaction: Cincinnati Bengals

November, 23, 2014
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HOUSTON -- A few thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 22-13 victory over the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium:

What it means: Two years ago, the Bengals won seven of their last eight games to get into the playoffs. Last year, they went 4-1 in December to also reach the postseason. So with all that in mind, what did Sunday's win, one week after another victory in front of another hostile crowd, mean? It meant that maybe the Bengals aren't the inconsistent club they have been most of this season. Perhaps they're just a good late-season team? If you had told the Bengals before the season that they would go 2-0 in back-to-back weeks at New Orleans and Houston, they'd have taken it. As part of one of their more difficult parts of the schedule, it seemed the Bengals would be lucky to earn a split in these two games. But they now have a second straight win and are 7-3-1.

Stock watch: Linebacker Rey Maualuga's stock continues trending upward after six tackles and an interception Sunday. His presence has clearly had a positive impact on the Bengals' defense. After missing four games with a serious hamstring injury, Maualuga returned last Sunday at New Orleans. In each of the seven previous games, the Bengals had allowed opposing offenses to rush for 100 yards or more. In these past two games, the Bengals haven't allowed a team to gain more than 74 yards on the ground. Even if Maualuga isn't the one recording the tackles, he is moving teammates into the right running lanes and gaps that stop ball carriers quickly.

Newhouse hangs tough: Although he didn't do enough to earn a game ball, you have to credit Bengals right tackle Marshall Newhouse for hanging tough given the harrowing circumstances in which he entered the game. Newhouse was forced into action in the first quarter after starting right tackle Andre Smith left with a left arm injury -- he got tangled up with defensive end J.J. Watt while trying to block a pass that Watt swatted. Charged with blocking Watt, Newhouse held the right edge pocket just long enough that the all-world lineman was held in check late in the game.

Game ball: Although the Bengals had a relatively balanced game plan offensively -- running 43 times and passing 35 -- they spent a good portion of the afternoon going to receiver A.J. Green, who nearly set a franchise record in catches. Green caught 12 passes, one shy of the record 13 that Carl Pickens had in a game in 1998. Green's 12 catches also set a career high, passing his previous high of 11 that he set last Halloween at Miami. While Green's receptions were spread throughout the game, his best sequence came on the Bengals' second drive, when he caught three passes for 27 yards on four targets. His final catch of that series put the Bengals into goal-line territory ahead of their first score of the game.

What's next? Cincinnati's great November road swing ends next Sunday when the Bengals travel to Tampa Bay for the last of a three-game stretch away from Paul Brown Stadium. The Buccaneers lead the all-time series 7-3 and haven't lost in the past six meetings. The last time the Bengals beat the Buccaneers was in 1989, the last year Cincinnati went to the Super Bowl.
CINCINNATI -- Among the hoopla surrounding Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, one part of his game that often gets lost is how he plays against the run.

Watt
Watt
Yes, he's a solid pass-rusher. Yes, he gets his hands up well at the line of scrimmage and can knock down or intercept passes. Yes, he can embarrass offensive tackles with his bull-rush moves. And yes, he can score touchdowns as a tight end, too.

Though most Cincinnati Bengals fans have probably read about -- and watched -- Watt do all of those things, they might not know about how good Watt is against the run.

Jeremy Hill, why don't you tell them about Watt's ability to play the run?

"He's very disruptive," said Hill, the Bengals' rookie running back who has rushed for 361 yards over the past two weeks. "Teams pay a lot of attention to him, and when you do that the other guys make plays. Then when you leave him one-on-one, he'll make the play.

"He does it sometimes without even trying really, because you put so much focus on him it helps other guys get freed up. You have to do a good job of focusing in on him and making sure he's not wreaking havoc on the game."

Though Hill's comments give a level of insight into blocking Watt, they don't tell the full story.

According to Stats & Information, 32 of Watt's 44 tackles this season have come on rushing plays -- 72.7 percent of all his stops. Additionally, of his 636 overall snaps, 255 have been on rushing downs. So percentage-wise, of all the times Watt has been on the field this season, just 40 percent of those plays have been when opposing teams have run the ball. Yet the vast majority of his tackles have been against the run.

To Hill's point about Watt's teammates getting freed up against the run, of the four fumble recoveries the all-world defensive end has, three have been after runs. Watt doesn't have any forced fumbles on running plays this season, meaning he's routinely been there to clean up the turnover when his teammates have caused it.

"He's definitely a game-wrecker," Hill said. "He makes crazy plays each game. Two or three of the plays he can make can really change the outcome of the game, so you have to make sure you get him blocked up."

There will be more on Watt between now and Sunday's game, but consider this about him from Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson:

"He's as good as I've ever seen play the game. He plays with unbelievable energy and tenacity, determination, desire. He makes a lot of football plays. ... What more do you want? So we're playing against a tremendous football player. But that's the beautiful part of the National Football League. What a challenge?"

What a challenge, indeed; one that won't just cause trouble against the pass. But one that could disrupt the run, too.

NFL Draft: The Top Five

March, 31, 2014
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The first five choices in the NFL draft remain up in the air, with three quarterbacks, two linebackers, two offensive tackles and a receiver all considered a possibility for the Houston Texans, the St. Louis Rams, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Cleveland Browns or the Oakland Raiders. What will happen? Check back in May.

Until then, the five NFL Nation reporters from each of the top five teams will get together periodically to offer their thoughts on what they would do. Your comments are welcome.

Here's the first look:

1. Texans: Tania Ganguli picks Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina. Of all of them, this is the player most worthy of the top pick. His talent is transcendent and the Texans need another pass-rusher. If they aren't sold on Clowney, I'd trade this pick to someone who is.

2. Rams: Nick Wagoner picks Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson. I would give strong consideration to one of the top two offensive tackles but this is a rare opportunity to get the No. 1 receiver the Rams have lacked since Torry Holt's heyday. Since the Rams also have the 13th pick, I'd look to address the offensive line. Of course, trading down would also be a possibility.

3. Jaguars: Mike DiRocco picks Khalil Mack, LB, Buffalo. There's a lot of temptation to take one of the quarterbacks, but general manager David Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley don't believe any of them are ready to play right away. Despite adding players to the defense in free agency -- ends Chris Clemons and Red Bryant and linebacker Dekoda Watson -- the Jaguars still need a lot of help. Mack has the versatility to rush the passer and play in coverage. Plus, the defense needs to get faster and Mack fits that bill, too.

4. Browns: Pat McManamon picks Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida. The first three picks from the ESPN.com reporters have put the Browns guy in a bind. Their preferred draft order should read Watkins, Mack, Clowney, but all three are gone. (If I'm the Browns and this happens, I might pull a Bill Belichcik, throw a hissy fit, trade out of the pick and take Craig Powell, Jr.) The three top guys on my board are gone. Which leaves Greg Robinson or a quarterback. Though none of the quarterbacks are exciting, Bortles has the size and arm strength and best potential of the three. I'm picking for the future, a selection that cements Brian Hoyer as the starter.

5. Raiders: Paul Gutierrez picks Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M. Well, this is not at all how I thought this would go. The Raiders need a playmaker, a Watkins-type for newly acquired Matt Schaub to throw the ball to in this revamped offense. But since he's gone, if I had my druthers, I'd trade down and pick up Mike Evans to become Schaub's Andre Johnson 2.0. But since we're not trading in this particular exercise, I suppose I could just gamble and use the pick on Evans, right? Thing is, those two stud tackles are still there and Matthews could be the best player in the entire draft, regardless of position. You build a team on the lines, so I'm going with Matthews at No. 5 for the Raiders to continue their "reconstruction" … for now.
Ben TateAP Photo/Nick WassNew Cleveland Browns running back Ben Tate rushed for 771 yards last season.
The most significant signing for the Cleveland Browns in the first week of free agency was adding running back Ben Tate.

In Tate, the Browns add a guy who has averaged 4.7 yards per carry for Houston, but has been often injured. Tate brings talent, fire and the ability to carry an offense late in the game when the team needs to run to win, something the Browns could not do a year ago.

ESPN.com Browns reporter Pat McManamon joins Texans reporter Tania Ganguli to discuss the signing.

McManamon: Tate had an excellent per-carry average in Houston, but had many injuries. Do you think his physical style of running means injuries will be a constant in his career, or were they bad luck?

Ganguli: There was certainly some bad luck involved for him in terms of his career overall. Tate was drafted to be the starter, but when he spent his rookie season on injured reserve, this undrafted guy by the name of Arian Foster swooped in. The injuries aren’t really wear-and-tear injuries, and I think we need more evidence of how he’d handle a bigger workload to connect his injury history to his style of play. He is a very physical runner, but his broken ribs last year came before he became the Texans’ primary back.

What are the Browns expecting from him?

McManamon: To be the Browns' primary back. They didn’t have one last year, unless you count Willis McGahee’s 377 yards as No. 1 back-worthy. McGahee didn’t even average 3 yards per carry, as the former front office left the cupboard bare for the fired coaching staff after the trade of Trent Richardson. The Browns want Tate to be productive and durable. Their inability to run the ball last season contributed to their not being able to hold leads late in games.

Tate’s contract is worth just $3.1 million per season, and even with incentives won’t top $7 million total for two years. Does that seem like a fair price, and at that price why didn’t Houston keep him, especially since he signed with a team that has won 29 games total the past six seasons?

Ganguli: I think his durability was a big question mark for the Texans. They already have a starter who has proven he can be productive for a full season and Tate just hasn’t done that. Foster’s also more explosive and the Texans have committed a lot to him financially. Part of Tate not having proven himself in that primary role stemmed from him being behind Foster, but another part of that had to do with his injuries. I’m also not sure that, even if the Texans wanted to keep him at that price, he would have wanted to stay. He wants to be a starter.

What kind of system is Tate moving to with the Browns?

McManamon: The same one Kyle Shanahan ran in Houston. Zone blocking, one cut. It’s the main reason the Browns wanted him. They thought he fit what they want to do, and that his downhill running style will work well in the offense. Tate seems like a decisive, aggressive runner, which is exactly what they need.

Based on Twitter, at least, Tate’s personality seems pretty effervescent -- like Alka-Seltzer, always bubbling. Is he that kind of person on the team as well, and do you think come December the Browns will be happy they added him?

Ganguli: Tate is very honest with the media/public about how he feels, which of course will be good for your purposes covering the team. He pays attention to what’s being said about him, even if he says he doesn’t, and does what he can to improve his situation. I do think the Browns will be happy they signed him come December if he can stay healthy. This is very much a “prove it” contract, and that’s exactly the kind of situation Tate needs.

The Texans organization last season was one that allowed some of the players’ individual personalities room to show. Will the Browns be OK with Tate speaking his mind?

McManamon: That’s a tough one to answer given the Browns have a new coach in Mike Pettine. He’s certainly unafraid of being blunt or direct. Maybe he won’t mind his players letting their personalities show. It would be a welcome change in Cleveland, though it would be much more welcome if Tate can help the Browns actually win some games. That is something that is needed more than anything.

Live blog: Texans at Ravens

September, 22, 2013
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Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Houston Texans' visit to the Baltimore Ravens. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.
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.

Bengals quarterback Andy DaltonAP Photo/Dave EinselAndy Dalton and the Bengals again ended their season with a loss to the Texans.
HOUSTON -- The look on the faces of the Cincinnati Bengals' players entering the locker room Saturday night was telling.

Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham all had a look of disappointment and shock after a game in which they missed many opportunities.

The young Bengals entered Reliant Stadium for the second consecutive year seeking the franchise's first playoff win since January 1991. They were a year older and thought they were a year wiser.

However, Cincinnati repeated many of the same mistakes in a 19-13 loss to the Houston Texans. Houston advances to play the New England Patriots in the divisional round, while the Bengals enter another offseason wondering what it will take to get over the playoff hump.

"Experiences like this -- you keep knocking at the wall, and eventually you will knock it down," said veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth. "To keep getting in the playoffs is an accomplishment. The young guys need to realize that and take what the positives are.

"But we also need to find what we need to do better."

Cincinnati ended the regular season as one of the hottest teams in the NFL, winning seven of its last eight. But unfulfilled potential in the playoffs haunts the Bengals.

Whitworth, 31, has been in the league for seven years, all with the Bengals, and knows about the offseason pressure his younger teammates will endure after another failed postseason.

"Put it on me," Whitworth said sternly. "Put it on me to push [the young players] harder and get them further. I will be sure to do that."

Cincinnati can only go as far as its young core takes it. As Whitworth pointed out, these Bengals still have a lot of growing up to do.

The team's youth showed Saturday. Dropped passes, missed assignments and poor execution on third down prevented the Bengals from putting anything together. Cincinnati's ineptitude on offense is best summarized by its failure to make a single third-down conversion on nine attempts.

The only time Cincinnati led Houston was after cornerback Leon Hall returned an interception 21 yards for a touchdown to give the Bengals a 7-6 lead in the second quarter. It was the only time the Bengals reached the end zone.

Dalton failed to get Cincinnati's offense going and has yet to throw a touchdown in two playoff games. He completed just 14 of 30 passes for 127 yards and an interception. The same goes for Green, who didn't touch the ball in the first half and missed at least two big plays that could have changed the game.

Third-year tight end Gresham also had a tough day. The Bengals wanted to get him involved in the offense early and often because they liked the mismatch with Houston’s safeties and nickel corners. However, Gresham had more drops (three) than receptions (two). He finished with seven yards.

Despite the ugliness for more than three quarters, the Bengals had one last shot to win. Dalton got the ball at Cincinnati's 20-yard line trailing by six points with 6:15 remaining. If there was ever a time for the Bengals to show progress, that was it.

“I was confident and telling everybody we’re going to drive down and we’re going to win this game,” Dalton said. “Everybody felt that, but we came up a little short.”

Dalton and the Bengals stalled again. He barely overthrew Green in the end zone on a play that pretty much summed up their latest playoff experience.

“This [year] is definitely more difficult,” Green said of the two postseason losses. “We felt like, even though it’s one of the worst football games we’ve played, we still had a chance to win the game. We didn’t pull it out.”

At some point, the Bengals will not be a young team, and inexperience will no longer be an excuse. Talented players such as Dalton, Green and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins have come in and raised the bar in Cincinnati. One-and-done postseasons are no longer acceptable for this talented group.

“We all need to get better. Obviously we’re not good enough,” said Bengals tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who played in last year's Super Bowl with the Patriots. “Whatever we thought was good enough obviously wasn’t. We need to go back to the drawing board and win these games that we lost. It’s very disappointing.”

The foundation is set in Cincinnati. It took 30 years for the Bengals to put together back-to-back winning seasons. The next step is proving to be most difficult.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

The Tim Tebow touchdown pass that beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime shouldn't have counted.

That's the assertion of the San Jose Mercury News, which says the Broncos should have been flagged for illegal formation. Using a pre-snap picture, the paper points out that Denver had six players -- and not the required seven -- on the line of scrimmage.

It appears that the tight end lining up next to the left tackle is not on the line. Based on that, the officials should've thrown the flag and moved the Broncos back five yards. Instead, Tebow threw an 80-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas on the first play in overtime.

Former head of officiating Mike Pereira was asked by the Mercury News whether it was an illegal formation.

"Watch on any Sunday. This is a good formation compared to many. They are not technical with this," Pereira said.

Hensley's slant: This is one of many plays that highlight how bad the officiating was for that game. There was a Ben Roethlisberger pass that was ruled incomplete that should have been a fumble because it wasn't a forward pass. But the officials said the play was whistled dead, and the Steelers went on to score. So both sides benefited from and were hurt by the officials throughout the game.

BENGALS: The Cincinnati Enquirer's Joe Reedy officially called the Carson Palmer trade one of the "all-time steals in league history" after coach Hue Jackson, who helped orchestrate the deal on Oct. 18, was fired by Oakland. The Raiders were 4-2 at the time of the trade and finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs. The Bengals get the Raiders' first-round pick, which turned out to be the 17th overall. Hensley's slant: Most people thought it was a steal the day it happened. The Raiders, the only team that would be bold enough to send two high draft picks for a 31-year-old quarterback, continue to be the NFL's most unstable franchise. The next head coach will be Oakland's seventh in the past 10 seasons, following Bill Callahan, Norv Turner, Art Shell, Lane Kiffin, Tom Cable and Jackson.

BROWNS: The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Tony Grossi offered up another candidate to be the Browns' next starting quarterback: Kevin Kolb. He disappointed in his first season with the Cardinals (going 2-6 as the starter) and is due a $7 million roster bonus from Arizona in March. Grossi believes Kolb would be more effective in the West Coast offense that he ran in Philadelphia, where his quarterbacks coach was Pat Shurmur. Hensley's slant: There's no doubt that Kolb is a better fit in Cleveland's system that the one in Arizona, which attacks downfield more aggressively. But I don't see the Cardinals cutting their ties with Kolb after giving him $21.5 million guaranteed six months ago. Getting Kolb seems more like wishful thinking at this point.

RAVENS: The team confirmed that offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was at the Texans-Bengals wild-card playoff game to do some advance scouting. “He’s done that quite a few times over the years when we’ve had bye weeks and stuff like that,” coach John Harbaugh said, via The Baltimore Sun. “So that’s something that I think he likes to do. It gives him a feel, watching the game live, scouting the game live. It’s not so much X’s and O’s as it is a feel for the tempo and things like that. That’s something he likes to do, and he’s done that over the years.” Hensley's slant: Cameron hasn't turned the Ravens into a top-10 offense yet (they were No. 15 this season) but he's done a solid job considering the quality of defenses that Baltimore has faced. The Ravens have played 11 games against top-10 defenses this year. The only top-10 defense that the Ravens didn't play (outside of itself) was the Philadelphia Eagles. So it's status quo for Baltimore when it lines up against Houston and the league's second-ranked defense.

Friday Forecast: Wild-card picks

January, 6, 2012
1/06/12
11:00
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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

lawdogg1214

Bengals 24, Texans 17

Steelers 35, Broncos 13

PREDICTION BREAKDOWN

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.

Warm-up: Run games take spotlight

December, 11, 2011
12/11/11
8:00
AM ET
Here's your Sunday game-day warm-up:

CINCINNATI -- The AFC North is expected to come up big today, at least according to ESPN NFL experts. The Ravens and the Bengals are overwhelming favorites in Sunday's NFL picks.

It's no shocker that everyone selected the Ravens to beat the winless Colts today in Baltimore. It did, however, come as a surprise that nearly everyone (six of eight prognosticators) chose Cincinnati to defeat the AFC South-leading Houston Texans. Here are my picks for today's games.

When it comes to today's AFC North games, being able to stop the run and establish the run are the main storylines:

BENGALS: No other team in the NFL has rushed more times than the Texans (432 attempts). In fact, no other team in the league has rushed more than 400 times this season. The Bengals have allowed 3.6 yards per carry, which is third-best in the NFL.

RAVENS: Teams have run the ball 418 times -- second-most in the NFL -- against the Indianapolis Colts. The Ravens have showed a renewed commitment to the running game, giving the ball to Ray Rice 20 or more times in three consecutive games. He needs 74 yards for his third 1,000-yard season in a row.

As everyone knows, the Browns and Steelers played on Thursday night. There will be blogs posted on both those teams starting Monday.

AFC North mailbag

November, 26, 2011
11/26/11
8:00
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If you have a question about the AFC North, send it to my mailbag. It's Saturday morning, so let's open up some mail ...

Devin from Ontario, Canada, writes: Why haven't the Steelers been able to take the ball away this year?

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters responds: There are two reasons. The first one is obvious: the Steelers need to catch the ball. There have been several interceptions that have been dropped. That would add to the total. The other factor is the pass rush. Of the top eight teams in takeaways, five (Green Bay, San Francisco, Baltimore, Detroit and Houston) rank in the top half of the league in sacks. When you get pressure on the quarterback, you force rushed throws that lead to interceptions and you can strip the ball from the quarterback. LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison have had good stretches in rushing the passer, but the Steelers need to do a more consistent job as a defense.

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Gene from San Diego writes: How would you grade Baltimore's defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano at this point in the season? They are still producing, but been a bit lapse the past few games. I like his mentality and that he infuses the young players.

Hensley responds: Pagano gets an A, and it's tough to argue otherwise. He vowed to be aggressive when he took over for Greg Mattison and he's backed that up this season. The Ravens are among the best in sacks, takeaways and points allowed. This has been a high-impact defense.

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Kurk from Budapest, Hungary, writes: I'm not ready to give up on the Bengals' chances of winning the division, but I'm enough of a realist to be hoping for a Wild Card spot. Which 5-5 team should worry Bengals' fans the most?

Hensley responds: The New York Jets. This might surprise you because the Jets wasted a prime opportunity when they lost at Denver. But New York should win its next three games: home against Buffalo, at Washington and home against Kansas City. Under that scenario, the Jets would get to 10 wins if they win two games in the final three weeks of the regular season: at Philadelphia, home against the Giants and at Miami. This is a team that knows what it takes to get to the postseason after advancing to the AFC championship game the past two years.

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Jared from Cleveland writes: Do you think Colt McCoy has showed enough the last couple of games to get people off his case and give him a chance? He'll never be able to put up great numbers with our lack of receiving talent this season. Cleveland needs to focus on building a team around one guy instead of continuing to waste draft picks on quarterbacks that they are going to discard after a couple of seasons playing for a terrible team.

Hensley responds: McCoy's stock has increased by completing over 70 percent of his passes the past two weeks. But he needs to start increasing points on the scoreboard. The Browns have scored over 17 points just once this season; Cleveland has yet to score a touchdown in the first and third quarters. As I've said repeatedly, you can put all the blame on McCoy because of the supporting cast around him. But the quarterback has to take responsibility for an offense struggling this much, no matter what the circumstances.

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David from La Verne, Calif., writes: I'm sure that using a Baltimore homer to report on the game wasn't your idea but it did seem there were two teams on the field which couldn't be discerned from the bulk of your story. Maybe if the Ravens had to cross the country on a short week the result might have be different.

Hensley responds: I cover the AFC North, so the blogs and columns will focus more on those teams. So I don't consider myself a "Baltimore homer." I'm just doing my job as the AFC North blogger. I also didn't have anything to do with making the 49ers go cross-country on four days rest. You can direct your anger at the NFL schedule makers for that one. I think Jim Harbaugh already has.

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Jack from Cincinnati writes: Happy belated Thanksgiving Jamison, lovin what you have been doing with the blog. In the AFC North chat this week you talked about how you still see the bengals winning nine games this season. Does that change with the announcement of Schaub being out for the season? There are no given wins in the NFL, but with games against the Cardinals, Browns, and Rams remaining, that seems like three probable wins, and I would think that it would be probable for the Bengals to beat a Texans team lead by Leinart or either the Ravens/Steelers as they were so close to beating them. Only winning one of those last three games gives them 10 wins. Is that more probable than nine?

Hensley responds: Thanks for being a part of the chat (shameless plug: it happens every Wednesday at 2 p.m.). I still feel that the Bengals will finish with nine wins. Your reasoning is sound. I agree that Cincinnati should beat the Browns, Cardinals and Rams. I think the rematches with the Steelers and Ravens will result in losses again (although it will be close again). And even though the Texans lost Schaub, they still have Arian Foster, Andre Johnson and the NFL's top-ranked defense. At this point, I predict the Bengals will lose that one. Of course, I will say that forecasting games is a week to week proposition. So, these picks are far from locked in.

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Dave from Westminster, Md., writes: Do you still think the Steelers are better than the Ravens now? Why the disrespect when you live near Baltimore?

Hensley responds: I'm a blogger and an analyst. My views shouldn't be shaped by where I live. It's funny how Ravens fans feel I "disrespect" the Ravens and other fans feel I'm a "Ravens homer." As far as your first question, the Ravens have better wins than the Steelers (including a sweep of Pittsburgh) but they have more embarrassing losses than the Steelers. There wouldn't be an argument if Baltimore had beaten Seattle and Jacksonville. The Ravens would the undisputed best team in the AFC. Those losses hurt the resume. Pittsburgh has been the more consistent team overall.

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