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Wild-Card Grades: Bengals-Texans

Grading out the performances from Houston's dominant 31-10 win over Cincinnati Saturday night in AFC wild-card action.

Quarterback: Andy Dalton was sharp early in the game, at one point connecting on seven straight throws against a Houston defense that had dominated against the pass all year. Otherwise, the homecoming for the Katy, Texas, native and TCU product was an ugly and disappointing end to a strong rookie campaign. Dalton was intercepted three times, including a pick-6 right before intermission that was the turning point of a game the Bengals had controlled for most of the first half. Grade: C-

Running Backs: Except for a 19-yard Brian Leonard run in the first half and Cedric Benson's one-yard plunge for the team's only TD, Cincy's RBs were non-factors. They barely touched the ball and barely gained yardage when they did. Benson, fresh off his third straight 1,000-yard season, totaled seven totes for 14 yards. RBs Leonard, Benson and Bernard Scott combined for 16 carries, 59 yards and 3.7 yards per attempt. Grade: C-

Receivers: Jerome Simpson displayed his now-famous leaping abilities, hurdling Brice McCain late in the third quarter for a 16-yard gain. But it was the only play close to a highlight for Cincy pass catchers. Rookie star A.J. Green, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2011 draft, was limited to a quiet five catches for 47 yards. Leonard actually led the team with six catches as Dalton was reduced to dumping off the ball in the face of Houston's ferocious defensive front. Grade: C

REITER: TEXANS' DEFENSE MAKES ROOKIE YATES' JOB EASY

Offensive Line: Right guard Mike McGlynn's big block paved the way for Dalton to convert a 3rd-and-1 QB sneak in second quarter. But it was one of the few highlight moments for Cincy's overmatched offensive line. The Bengals surrendered four sacks and had trouble opening up holes for the ground game the entire afternoon. Grade: D

Defensive Line: Stud second-year defensive tackle Geno Atkins took down T.J. Yates early in second quarter, after a season in which he recorded an impressive 8.0 sacks from his interior line position. But it was the only sack the Bengals recorded from their front four, or even front seven, all game. The unit was gashed on the ground, allowing Houston's Arian Foster and Ben Tate to run 33 times for 190 yards (5.8 YPA). Grade: D

Linebackers: Thomas Howard led the team with six tackles in a largely quiet and ineffective day for the Cincinnati defense, and its linebackers in particular. Grade: D

Defensive Backs: Pac-Man Jones was toasted like a Pop-Tart by Andre Johnson for an easy 40-yard TD reception that gave the Texans a commanding 24-10 lead late in the third quarter. The score came just a few plays after Chris Crocker jumped a route on a pass thrown to tight end Owen Daniels that should have been a pick-6. Crocker was humiliated by Foster later in the game, as the Houston running back physically man-handled the Cincy safety while running down the right sideline on his way to a TD. Grade: C

Special Teams: Kicker Mike Nugent missed a 50-yard field goal attempt early in the second quarter. It would have been his longest of the season. He later hit a 37-yarder to give the Bengals a short-lived 10-7 lead. The return game was a non-factor. Brandon Tate returned one kick for 22 yards and added an eight-yard punt return. Grade: C

Coaching: Marv Lewis challenged the spot on a 3rd-and-1 play with 10:02 to go in the second quarter that he had little chance of winning. He expended his second challenge later in the same quarter, losing that one as well and leaving himself no chance to question a call in the second half of a do-or-die game. The muffed challenges proved a non-factor in what turned into a blowout loss. But the challenges, especially the first one, rang out as very public bad decisions in such a big game. Lewis and his staff had no answers for finding ways to move the ball. But it's hard to be overly critical; the Bengals were simply not as good a team as Houston all year long and not talented enough to overcome a dominant defense. Grade: C

Quarterback: Rookie T.J. Yates looked shaky out of the gate, struggling to hit open receivers and find his rhythm early in the game. But the fifth-round draft pick, thrown into the starting role after Houston lost its top two QBs in November, grew up before the nation's eyes, masterfully managing Houston's conservative offense. He completed just 11 of 20 passes, but averaged a solid 7.95 yards per attempt with that nifty 40-yard scoring pass to Andre Johnson and, more importantly, zero turnovers. Grade: B

Running Backs: Foster was the offensive star of the game, displaying an array of quick moves and uncanny cuts as he rushed 24 times for 153 yards and two TDs. His dominant performance was highlighted by a brilliant tippy-toed tight-rope jaunt down the right sideline, stiff-arming Crocker on his way to a 42-yard touchdown. Foster called the game's final score "an out-of-body experience" in his on-field interview with NBC reporter Alex Flanagan after the game. He added three receptions for 29 yards, accounting for 54 percent of Houston's offensive output. Grade: A+

Receivers: Andre Johnson, who spent much of the year on the sidelines with a hamstring injury, looked shaky throughout the day. He dropped what could have been a go-ahead score in the first half, dropped what would have been a first-down reception in the third quarter and bobbled another pass before catching it. But at the end of the day, he led Houston with five catches for a game-high 90 yards. Grade: B

Offensive Line: The Bengals entered the game with a powerful front four that had pressured quarterbacks all season and generated an awesome 25.5 sacks in 2011. Houston's OL dominated that crew for most of the game, paving the way for 188 yards on the ground while allowing just two sacks, one of which came on a safety blitz. In fact, Houston's front five might have been the most dominant unit in the game -- if not for the overwhelming performance by their teammates on the defensive side of the ball. Grade: A-

Defensive Line: Rookie J.J. Watt produced the most spectacular play of the game, pulling a Dalton bullet out of the air while battling right guard Mike McGlynn at the line of scrimmage, then showing some wheels as he raced 29 yards for a touchdown that gave the Texans a 17-10 lead with 52 seconds left in the first half. He then chased down Dalton to sack him on the last play before intermission. Those two plays changed the entire complexion of the game, gave Houston a lead it would not relinquish and highlighted a dominating effort by Houston's front four. Grade: A+

Linebackers: Houston's young, athletic and star-studded linebacking corps had a national coming-out party against the Bengals. The team's embarrassment of young defensive riches was evident everywhere: Brian Cushing, who starred all year after being moved to inside/middle linebacker, led the team with eight tackles, while Brooks Reed, a part of Houston's great 2011 draft class of defenders, recorded a sack. Grade: B+

Defensive Backs: Glover Quin was responsible for one of the biggest plays of the game, and the worst from Houston's perspective. His pass interference penalty while trying to cover A.J. Green in the first quarter handed the Bengals 52 gift yards and put Cincinnati in position to take an early 7-0 lead. But it was one mistake in a largely great day by the Houston secondary, which rendered Cincinnati's talented receivers largely ineffective, though getting a huge assist from a heavy pass rush. Grade: B

Special Teams: Matt Turk unleashed several booming punts, including a 51-yarder and a 56-yarder (that went into the end zone). Neil Rackers booted a 39-yard field goal in his one attempt and consistently put the ball in the end zone on his kickoffs. Grade: B

Coaching: Gary Kubiak won his first playoff game as a head coach. But defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has been the star of this staff all season, installing a new system, moving players to new positions and inspiring one of the great turnarounds in recent history from a unit that was one of the worst in the league just last season. That defensive turnaround is the biggest reason Houston made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. And a dominant performance by that defense was the biggest reason Houston won the first playoff game in franchise history. Grade: A

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