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Friday, January 6, 2012
Bengals pounce on playoff opportunity

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

CINCINNATI -- Here come the Bengals, vaulting into the wild-card round like the flying, flipping wide receiver Jerome Simpson. But, the question looms: Will they stick the landing in Houston as Simpson memorably did a few weeks ago against the Cardinals?

"Yeah, I think so," Simpson said Wednesday, sitting in an empty locker room under Paul Brown Stadium. "We're practicing good, coming together as a team. Can't wait until Saturday."

The Bengals -- installed as a 40-1 long shot to win the Super Bowl by one oddsmaker -- and the Texans (a generous 25-to-1) aren't seen as real players in these playoffs. The Bengals lost the final regular-season game to the Ravens, and advanced to the playoffs only because the Denver Broncos and New York Jets both lost. But either the Bengals or Texans will advance to the AFC's final four.

A.J. Green, Ryan Clark
A.J. Green had more than 1,000 yards receiving, making the Bengals the first team to produce a rookie 3,000-yard passer and a rookie 1,000-yard receiver.
History permeates this matchup. This is the first playoff game in the Texans' decade-long existence. The Bengals' playoff victory drought extends more than 20 years, to 1990, the longest current streak in the league; the Detroit Lions have played 19 seasons without a playoff victory.

A.J. Green, Cincinnati's phenomenal rookie receiver, isn't burdened by a past he didn't witness.

"No," he said, "I don't think about that stuff. This is my first year here. This is a fresh start for this team."

Green, the No. 4 pick in the 2011 draft out of Georgia, caught 65 passes for 1,057 yards, a total that led all rookies. He is the first rookie receiver to make the Pro Bowl since Arizona's Anquan Boldin did it in 2003 and the first Bengals rookie at any position to make it since receiver Cris Collinsworth 30 years ago.

The strange thing? He had another rookie, Andy Dalton, throwing to him. Dalton, the draft's No. 35 overall pick from TCU, helped lead the Bengals to a 9-7 record and posted some surprising numbers. Dalton completed 300 of 516 passes for 3,398 yards, 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

He became only the third rookie in league history with 3,000 yards and 20 passing touchdowns, joining fellow rookie Cam Newton of the Panthers and Peyton Manning. The combination of Dalton-to-Green was unprecedented; the Bengals are the first team to produce a rookie 3,000-yard passer and a rookie 1,000-yard receiver -- a tribute to new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, brother of ESPN "Monday Night Football" analyst Jon Gruden.

Dalton was missing in practice action Wednesday, a cold, gray day in Cincinnati, with a case of the flu, but no one seemed overly concerned. Maybe it's because the Bengals know Dalton is a perfect 3-0 at Houston's Reliant Field. He played his high school ball in nearby Katy, winning both his games at Reliant, and was 1-0 while at TCU. Dalton and his father, Greg, each won a playoff game at the Houston Astrodome, the late, great Oilers venue.

"It'll be a lot of fun," Dalton said earlier in the week. "I'm sure I'll have a lot of people there that are from Katy or just a lot of family and friends. It's no more pressure. I expect a lot out of myself. I'm not going to worry about any of that other stuff. I'm just going to go out and play the game."

That also will be the agenda for Houston rookie quarterback T.J. Yates, who is expected to start, according to coach Gary Kubiak. Yates, a fifth-round draft choice from North Carolina, sustained a separated nonthrowing shoulder in the last regular-season game, against Tennessee. He finds himself under center after starter Matt Schaub and backup Matt Leinart went down with injuries.

Thus, this playoff game features another slice of history: It's the first of the Super Bowl era to feature two rookie starting quarterbacks. One of them will become only the fifth rookie to lead his team to a playoff victory in that time. In Week 14, Yates made his first NFL start and carried the Texans to a wild victory over the Bengals in Cincinnati. His 6-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Walter with two seconds left gave Houston a 20-19 victory and clinched the playoff berth.

Still, despite the league's No. 2 defense and No. 2 running game, the Texans lost their last three regular-season games, including one to the hapless Indianapolis Colts. They'll have to find a way to get the ball to supreme wideout Andre Johnson, who has been in and out of the lineup with a hamstring injury.

This troubling statistic favors the Texans: Cincinnati is 8-1 versus teams that are .500 or worse. The record against winning teams is 1-6. Houston will be, as they say, a big hurdle.

Jerome Simpson
Jerome Simpson said playing on a trampoline as a kid helped prepare him for his touchdown vault.
Simpson is familiar with that beast. When he caught a short ball from Dalton in Week 16 against Arizona, he had what looked to be a clear path to the end zone. He was thinking about one of those lovely leaps, a swan dive, perhaps, when he planted his feet at the 2-yard line. But Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington, slicing in from his right, was determined to blow him up.

"I guess it was a good thing he did come and brush me just a little bit, and I could propel myself forward," Simpson said. "When I felt my feet go forward, I felt like, 'OK, this feels like a front flip.' As a kid, we used to do these kind of tricks on trampolines and off hills all the time.

"So I just put my feet down as close as possible so I could land like a cat -- or a Bengal -- and land it and stick it. And I did my Olympic stance. Most people, they say they gave me a 10. I gave myself a nine because I touched the ground a little bit."

The Bengals are hoping it will be at least another week before they fall back to earth.

Greg Garber covers the NFL for ESPN.com.