The regular season was not Johnathan Joseph's finest. Houston's cornerback, who is in year two of a five-year, $48 million-plus deal, struggled to stay healthy throughout 2012 and played far below an elite level when he was on the field.
Saturday, tasked with defending A.J. Green, Joseph delivered what might have been his finest performance as a Texan.
He made two absolutely critical plays in the second half of Houston's 19-13 win. The first, a pick of Cincinnati QB Andy Dalton, allowed the Texans to kick a field goal and extend their lead to nine in the final quarter. The second came on the Bengals' ensuing possession, as Dalton tried to find Green in the end zone, only to have Joseph knife in and bat down the pass.
Green did manage to come open twice in the game -- Dalton hit him for a 45-yarder in the third quarter, but overthrew him on what may have been a game-changing touchdown in the fourth. Other than those two slip-ups, though, Joseph won the battle against Cincinnati's most dangerous threat.
The Texans made it clear that they planned to take Green away from the Bengals, and it worked early -- for the first time in his career, Green did not have a first-half pass thrown his direction.
Green finished with six catches for 80 yards, but his struggles mirrored his team's, as the Bengals managed all of six points on offense.
Who else starred (and who flopped) in the NFL's postseason opener? First Down/Fourth Down takes a look ...
Neither team really succeeded at establishing much offensively. Daniels, though, came through for the Texans to the tune of nine catches and 91 yards (despite an early third-down drop). The veteran tight end also delivered a couple of timely blocks, including one on a 17-yard gain by Arian Foster early that helped set up the game's first field goal.
Graham, meanwhile, hauled in three balls for 29 yards -- paltry numbers, until you consider that his third catch came on a 3rd-and-2 in the final three minutes. The 7-yard completion (plus a personal foul penalty on the Bengals) iced the game.
Fourth Down: Jermaine Gresham.
Gresham's misery started early and lasted all afternoon. On Cincinnati's first possession of the game, Gresham dropped a perfectly placed pass from Dalton on a 2nd-and-8. One play later, Glover Quin beat Gresham to the spot to swat down a 3rd-and-8 pass. Cincinnati's tight end was targeted seven times, resulting in two catches for all of seven yards.
First Down: Leon Hall.
The Bengals' best offense Saturday came courtesy of a defensive player. Hall stepped in front of a Matt Schaub pass attempt to James Casey for a pick-6, which put Cincinnati on top, 7-6 in the second quarter.
That would be the Bengals' only lead and their only touchdown of the afternoon.
Hall also had an interception in Cincinnati's key Week 16 win over the Steelers.
Fourth Down: Houston's ability to find the end zone.
By all statistical accounts this game should have been a blowout. Houston outgained Cincinnati, 420-198, and had nearly 18 minutes more time of possession. But, aside from Arian Foster's 1-yard TD run that capped a great third-quarter drive, the Texans found it impossible to get in the end zone.
They settled for four Shayne Graham field goals, including three from the red zone. Houston also opted to punt twice on 4th-and-1 rather than go for the first down -- decisions that had the home crowd booing.
First Down: Arian Foster.
Foster has reached that point as an NFL back where it's easy to overlook him when he has "only" a solid game. He certainly delivered that Saturday, carrying the ball 32 times for 140 yards and the game's lone offensive TD. Along with Daniels, he helped keep the Texans' offense moving and, on more than one occasion, created gains out of nothing on the ground.
Fourth Down: A.J. Green's first half.
Mentioned above as part of the Joseph praise but ... well ... when one of the game's best receivers goes an entire half without even seeing a ball thrown his way, it warrants a second mention.
Blame Dalton, if you want, or Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jay Gruden (who may have cost himself the shot at some head coaching jobs with Saturday's game plan). Heck, give all the love to Joseph for putting the kibosh on Green. Whatever the explanation you want to go with, Green's completely silent first half is inexcusable.
Cincinnati had to find a way to get him the ball and only figured that out once it was in a hole.
First Down: Connor Barwin.
Barwin finished with just two tackles, so he did not exactly dominate the stat sheet. Still, the Houston linebacker managed to disrupt Cincinnati's offense consistently -- starting with a great read-and-react play to drop BenJarvus Green-Ellis for a six-yard loss off a screen pass in the second quarter.
Barwin added a pass breakup later, but more importantly, he stepped up across the board for a Houston defense that has struggled with injuries in the linebacking corps this season.
Fourth Down: Andy Dalton.
Saving the most disappointing for last ...
The Bengals wanted to believe that this season would be different. That Dalton, who tossed three picks in a playoff loss to Houston last year, could step up this time around against a Texans defense that has been susceptible to the pass.
Instead, the second-year QB finished the first quarter with minus-6 passing yards and went into halftime 4 for 10 for three yards. He also missed Green on that costly incompletion late (though the interception may have been more Green's fault, and Gresham's drops did not help). This was far from a breakout game for Dalton, and the Bengals may not be that far from reassessing if their current quarterback situation can get them over the top.