AFC South: Quick Take

Quick Take: Texans at Patriots

January, 6, 2013
Five things to know about next Sunday’s Houston Texans-New England Patriots AFC divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium:

It was ugly last time: On Dec. 10, on "Monday Night Football," the Patriots smoked the Texans 42-14. New England was up 28-0 in the third quarter and the Texans basically waved the white flag by early in the fourth quarter. Linebacker Bradie James said after it was over that the Patriots had given the Texans a lesson in championship-caliber football. Houston believed if there was a playoff rematch, it would be at Reliant Stadium. But the Texans lost two out of three after that and allowed the No. 1 seed, home-field advantage and a bye week to slip away.

Top QBs shred the Texans: Tom Brady threw for 296 yards and four touchdowns in that regular-season meeting. Houston has had a poor season when it comes to defending topflight quarterbacks. Before Brady’s big game, Peyton Manning (in a loss) and Aaron Rodgers (in a win) had also posted big numbers against the Texans. What could be different this time? Well, Connor Barwin was better as a pass-rusher against Cincinnati than he has been much of this season, and if he can add to the threat J.J. Watt provides, that would help. And while cornerback Johnathan Joseph struggled in that initial meeting, Houston’s top corner is as healthy now as he has been in a long time.

The Gronk factor: The Texans struggled with Aaron Hernandez in the first matchup, as he caught eight passes for 58 yards and two touchdowns. As good as Hernandez is, Rob Gronkowski tends to present even more of a matchup problem. He missed the first game as he recovered from a broken arm. Brian Cushing might be good against him, but the Texans inside linebacker has been out since October after suffering a torn ACL. Nickelback Brice McCain just missed his fifth game since surgery to repair a broken foot. If the Texans were at full strength, Gronkowski would be a matchup problem -- and he and Hernandez together could be a giant problem. Minus two guys who might be able to do some effective work in that department, the Texans could really struggle to keep Brady from finding Gronkowski and Hernandez.

The third-down story: Heading into the regular-season meeting, the Texans were allowing offenses to convert just 28.2 percent of third downs and Bill Belichick raved about that facet of Bulls on Parade. Brady and the Patriots converted 50 percent in the win, and Houston’s defense finished the season allowing 33.0 percent. But in nine third-down opportunities in the wild-card playoff game Saturday at Reliant Stadium, the Bengals didn’t convert once. The Texans have their confidence back in that department, though they know the New England offense is a whole different deal than Cincinnati’s was.

Will the weather matter? The Texans beat the Bears at Soldier Field on Nov. 11 on a cold, rainy Chicago night that was super windy. Chicago’s offense is not as threatening or high-powered as New England’s, however. If Sunday afternoon is a blustery, Northeastern winter day, it’s less than ideal for the Texans. That’s part of why those failed chances to earn home-field advantage were so big.

Quick Take: Bengals at Texans

December, 30, 2012
Five things to know about next Saturday's Cincinnati Bengals-Houston Texans AFC wild-card game at Reliant Stadium:

Bengals seeking revenge: The Texans beat the Bengals twice last season. They clinched the first playoff berth in team history after winning 20-19 in Cincinnati on Dec. 11, 2011. Then they won the first playoff game in franchise history on Jan. 7, 2012, 31-10. Rookie quarterback T.J. Yates was at the helm for Houston in both games since Matt Schaub was done from the year as a result of a serious foot injury he suffered in the middle of the season. Cincinnati will be seeking revenge for that game, and will surely tire this week of seeing replays of J.J. Watt’s point-blank interception and 29-yard touchdown return from the postseason matchup.

Late-season struggles: The Texans lost their final three regular-season games last season after that playoff-berth-clinching win at Cincinnati, then won their playoff opener. The Texans lost three of their last four regular-season games this season. When coach Gary Kubiak talks of flipping things back around and getting the Texans playing like they were when they raced out to an 11-1 record that had them looking like the best team in the NFL, he speaks from experience. Last season they were able to regain the form that got them into the playoffs after an end-of-season lull. Of course being without their starting quarterback was a big story a year ago. Schaub is healthy and playing now, but he’s been struggling.

Tough defense: The Bengals went into Week 17 as one of just five teams in the top 10 in the NFL in overall defense, rush defense and pass defense. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins (13 sacks) is a highly underrated player who can give major problems to the Texans' interior line, where rookie right guard Ben Jones has been a part of recent problems. Michael Johnson is also a pass-rushing force, with 11.5 sacks. Cincinnati was first in sacks per pass play and 12th in third-down defense. Schaub is not playing his most confident football right now, and if the Bengals are able to knock him around early and set a tone, it could have a strong bearing on the result.

Linebacker depth issues: The Texans suffered a tough blow when inside linebacker Brian Cushing suffered a torn ACL against the Jets on Oct. 8. Now two guys who’ve been part of replacing him may be in doubt for this game. Darryl Sharpton, who was on PUP for the first nine games of the season with a hip issue, came out of the season finale with a hip issue. And Tim Dobbins, who’s been slowed some with a shoulder injury and missed a game, has another injury that Kubiak identified as a big concern after the loss in Indianapolis but was somehow unable to identify.

Pressure on Schaub: The Texans' offense all spins off their ability to run. If they can get Arian Foster going, then play-action and their rollout/bootleg game tends to really work. But in their three recent losses, they’ve gotten to 100 yards twice and run OK at least in stretches. What’s been a problem is Schaub’s decision-making. He’s clicking with Andre Johnson, but that doesn’t always mean good things. The quarterback has a tendency to be over-reliant on his top target when things aren’t going so smoothly with the Texans passing attack. He’s got to do better spreading it around. This is his first playoff game, and he’s long faced questions about big-game performance. He can do a lot for his reputation if he can lead his team to a win over the Bengals.

Quick Take: Colts at Ravens

December, 30, 2012
Five things to know about next Sunday's Indianapolis Colts-Baltimore Ravens AFC wild-card game at M&T Bank Stadium:

Familiarity: When the Colts hired Chuck Pagano to take over as head coach, they hired him away from the Ravens, with whom he was defensive coordinator. He should have special insight into Baltimore on both sides of the ball. But John Harbaugh and the Ravens will have an understanding of what Pagano is looking to do as well. The Ravens' offensive coordinator, Jim Caldwell, was coach of the Colts from 2009-11. While Indianapolis has a lot of turnover and new schemes in place, Caldwell knows plenty about a lot of the key holdovers. On the fan level, the Colts playing in Baltimore always brings out an extra degree of hostility, as the team’s departure from the city created the need for its recruitment of the Browns (who became the Ravens) from Cleveland.

Turnovers: The Colts have been a bad team with turnovers all season, giving away 18 interceptions and nine fumbles while taking the ball away only 15 times. But they fared well against the Texans in their regular-season finale with two Vontae Davis interceptions of Matt Schaub and no turnovers. Still, if they fall into the problems that created their minus-12 turnover ratio, giveaways tend to hurt more in the postseason. The Ravens finished the regular season at plus-nine. Safety Ed Reed is aging, but he has a propensity for making interceptions in big games.

Regular-season carryover: Pagano talked a lot with his team about carrying mojo into the playoffs, and the Colts played their starters all of Sunday in a game that didn’t mean anything to their playoff positioning. Indy’s 28-16 win hurt the AFC South-rival Texans. Indianapolis has won two in a row and five of six. The Ravens had a giant 33-17 win over the New York Giants in Week 16. But they’ve lost four of their past five and didn’t go all out to win their finale the way the Colts did. Joe Flacco threw only eight passes before he took a seat, and Ray Rice had just three carries.

Rookie readiness: The Colts are super-reliant on rookies well beyond quarterback Andrew Luck. Tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener and running back Vick Ballard are starters and T.Y. Hilton is the third receiver. There are four other rookies on the roster, and another five guys who aren't technically rookies but qualify as first-year players. The speed and intensity of playoff games elevate a notch. Are the Colts ready for it? Or does the bigness of the setting finally affect them somehow?

Time: Luck holds the ball too long at times in an effort to make a play, and sometimes the rush is on him too quickly because the protection is less than stellar. When he has time and space to step into his throws, he can deliver some impressive passes. When he's being hit as he releases the pass, things get exponentially more difficult. The Ravens' defense is no longer the team's strength, but if Baltimore can find ways to pressure Luck, it can really change the game.

Quick Take: Bengals at Texans

January, 1, 2012
Three things to know about next weekend’s Cincinnati Bengals-Houston Texans wild-card game:

A rookie quarterback is going to the AFC’s Final Four: Much is made of how much of a strain is put on a rookie quarterback in a playoff game. But this game is going to feature two of them in T.J. Yates and Andy Dalton, which means a team led by a first-year signal-caller is going to be playing in the AFC’s divisional round on Jan. 14 or 15. Teams can turn conservative and rely on running games and defenses in the playoffs, even with a veteran quarterback, simply asking him to do no harm. Maybe that’s the script here. But Cincinnati’s gotten a lot out of Dalton this season, and the Texans have insisted they aren’t scaling back for Yates. So perhaps we’ll see one of these guys win a game rather than not lose it.

The Bengals are capable of slowing Houston’s pass rush: The Texans got to Dalton for just one sack in that first meeting. Houston’s super-active defensive front can call on eight different guys who have recorded a sack this season. The group swarms from all different angles and doesn’t worry much about what the other team is doing so long as it’s executing the game plan of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. In seven games this season, the Texans dragged the quarterback down at least three times. Cincinnati’s got a big offensive line, keyed around left tackle Andrew Whitworth. Phillips’ plan and the Texans' execution both need to be better. It doesn’t have to produce sacks, just discomfort and a mistake or two from Dalton. Houston bats down a lot of balls, that can be a factor, too.

Yates had his best game against this defense: When the Texans beat the Benglas 20-19 at Paul Brown Stadium on Dec. 11 and clinched the AFC South, Yates was starting just his second game. He led two 80-yard scoring drives in the fourth quarter, and tossed the game-winning touchdown pass to Kevin Walter with 2 second left. He threw for a season-best 300 yards even without receiver Andre Johnson playing. But he was sacked three times and threw an interception, and the Bengals will surely look back and feel like they had a recipe for making him uncomfortable. If they can find it and replicate it minus the bad ending, they are certainly capable of springing an upset at Reliant Stadium. The odds are low of the Bengals winning if they allow the Texans to convert 56 percent on third down like they did in the first matchup.

Quick Take: Ravens-Colts

January, 10, 2010
Three things to know about Saturday’s Ravens-Colts divisional playoff game:

1. We might learn a bit about the meaning of momentum. The Colts shut it down the last two weeks, sacrificing a shot at a perfect regular season with losses against the Jets and at Buffalo and finishing 14-2 before enjoying a bye.

Bill Polian insists that momentum means nothing as teams enter the playoffs.

While his team has none, the Ravens will come in riding high after the franchise’s first win over New England, a 33-14 wild card shocker at Gillette Stadium. Will we see rested hosts or rusty hosts?

On Nov. 22 in Baltimore, the Colts won 17-15. The Ravens were all field goals that afternoon and will head to Indianapolis knowing they won't stand a very good chance if they aren't able to finish drives with touchdowns in their second chance.

2. Peyton Manning will be working against a pass defense that can be suspect. The Ravens secondary was excellent Sunday in New England. But it’s without the injured Fabian Washington and doesn’t rate as a deep group.

As Baltimore jumped quickly to a big lead against the Patriots, the Ravens saw Tom Brady throw 19 incomplete passes, intercepted him three times, sacked him three times and held him to 157 passing yards. It certainly helped their cause that Brady’s favorite target, Wes Welker, was lost to a knee injury in the regular season finale.

It will be difficult for them to match that effort at Lucas Oil Stadium against the quarterback who just won his fourth MVP award and has a solid and complete stable of pass targets with Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon, who had six catches for 108 yards in the first meeting.

Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson thinks Manning will shred the Ravens’ pass coverage.

3. The Colts will have to prove, again, that they are capable of slowing a physical run game. Ray Rice ran for 159 yards at Gillette Stadium and the Ravens totaled 234 in the first-round win. If Baltimore is to spring an upset, it will likely have to be fueled by its rushing offense again.

The Colts were 24th in rush defense this season, but held Baltimore to 98 yards and 3.2 yards per carry just before Thanksgiving.

The Ravens' big, physical offensive line will look to pave the way for the backs and keep Joe Flacco safe against the Colts' smaller, quicker and more athletic defensive front. If Indy can get Flacco in third and long, they’ll be pleased to let Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis do their thing.