1. The Texans are in the playoffs for the first time, but with a dark cloud hanging over the season.
Houston had failed to reach the playoffs in each of its first nine seasons. In fact, it enjoyed only one winning record since its debut season of 2002, and even then just barely (9-7 in 2009).
So an AFC South title, an appearance in the postseason (and a home game no less) should be cause for considerable excitement in Houston.
But a certain pall hangs over the organization and has diminished the expectations for a powerhouse team that, halfway through the season, looked ready to run away with an AFC championship. No team in football, not even the Packers, provided a better 1-2 punch of great offense and shutdown defense than the Texans did into November.
The team looks much different today.
Houston enters the playoffs on a three-game losing streak (in what must be an NFL first, the AFC sends two division winners to the playoffs with three-game losing streaks, Denver being the other). It's not just that the Texans lost that's a concern, it's the teams to which they lost that sets off warning bells entering the postseason: the upstart 6-10 Panthers (a 28-13 loss in Houston); the pathetic 2-14 Colts (19-16 in Indy); and, back home again, to the 9-7 AFC South rival Titans (23-22).
Most importantly, the Texans simply cannot keep a quarterback on the field.
Starter Matt Schaub was in the midst of one of the best seasons of his career (15 touchdowns, 6 interceptions, 96.8 rating) when he suffered a season-ending foot injury during a blowout 37-9 win at Tampa in Week 10.
The injury was loaded with curious coincidences. Houston looked like the AFC's strongest horse after that game; that status changed when we learned the full extent of the injury. Schaub had actually played the best statistical game of his career in that victory (a near "perfect" passer rating of 154.9). And the player who fell on Schaub and caused the injury was Tampa defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth -- just days after he was released by the New England Patriots.
In other words, Haynesworth, who was useless this season in New England, may have paved the road to the Super Bowl for the No. 1 AFC-seed Patriots by taking out the Texans' top quarterback.
Backup Matt Leinart was injured in the very next game. Enter third-string rookie T.J. Yates, who played well and helped Houston win three straight to move to 10-3 in December. But he was unproductive in the three straight losses, and then even he was hurt in the season finale, though he's expected to play this weekend.
There were also notable injuries to defensive star Mario Williams (out for the season) and star wide receiver Andre Johnson, who missed most of the season but returned last week.
2. Cincinnati's young stars are on offense, but the team wins with defense.
Cincinnati rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, a second-round pick in the 2011 draft, was one of the great stories of the season. He put up solid, consistent numbers (20 TDs, 13 interceptions, 80.4 rating), especially by the low standards of rookie QBs. It looks like the Bengals have quickly found their proverbial "quarterback of the future" in the wake of the Carson Palmer debacle. (Dalton was hospitalized with the flu Wednesday night, but is expected to return to practice today.)
Dalton has a great partner in rookie receiver A.J. Green, the team's top pick in the 2011 draft. He led the team with 65 catches, 1,057 yards and 7 TDs. Battering ram running back Cedric Benson topped 1,000 yards (1,067) for the third straight season. And receiver Jerome Simpson provided one of the all-time great highlights in a 23-16 Christmas Eve win over the Cardinals, flipping head-first over Arizona linebacker Daryl Washington as if the defender were a human pommel horse, nailing a two-footed landing in the end zone.
With all that said, the Bengals won this year on defense, with its highly productive defensive line in particular. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins led the team with 8.0 sacks, a great number for an interior lineman. The rest of the defensive front added 25.5 sacks -- huge production in this day and age in which pressure is often manufactured by linebackers and safety/corner blitzes.
Only four teams generated more sacks than Cincinnati's total of 45.
Huge play up front is a big reason the Bengals improved from 4-12 and No. 24 in scoring defense (395 points) in 2010 to 9-7 and No. 9 in scoring defense (323) in 2011. And it's that vastly improved defense that gives the underdog Bengals a shot to win on the road at Houston Saturday afternoon.
3. Not even the Bengals produced a more dramatic defensive turnaround than the Texans in 2011.
Houston weathered all the injuries on offense so well this year because its dominant defense remains one of the best front-to-back units in the NFL.
The production of the defense was shocking this year given its historically bad performance in 2010. Credit the new system and new philosophy installed by first-year defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. (The Cold, Hard Football Facts discussed the team's dramatic reversal of fortunes on defense in great detail here on SI.com in the middle of the season.)
Here's a quick statistical snapshot of where the Houston defense ranked at the end of 2010 and then in 2011 in various commonly used stats and in the Quality Stats used by Cold, Hard Football Facts.com.
We've rarely in history seen a team improve so dramatically on defense in the space of one season. It's no coincidence the Texans hit their late-season losing skid when Phillips missed two games recovering from a health issue that required surgery.
It's that defense that carried the team to an AFC South title even as one quarterback after another limped off the field. And it's that defense that gives the team hope in an AFC field in which each contender has obvious flaws.
Of course, if you believe in karmic retribution from the Great Beyond of the Gridiron, the architect of that defensive turnaround may also be the unwitting architect of all the problems that befell the Houston offense this year. It's called the Curse of Doug Flutie, and we wrote about it in frightening detail here on SI.com after the Schaub injury.
Despite the carousel at quarterback, the Texans have negotiated the six games without Schaub fairly well.
They finished the year No. 10 in scoring offense (23.8 PPG), still possess a devastating ground attack led by Arian Foster (1,224 yards, 10 TDs) and Ben Tate (942 yards, 4 TDs) that produced 2,448 yards on the ground -- second in the NFL and an extraordinary number in a year in which most teams seem to have forgotten that quarterbacks can hand the ball off to a running back every now and then.
Most impressively, there has been a drop off in the passing game with the rookie Yates at quarterback, but not a dramatic one. Here's how the Texans ranked in Week 11, after Schaub's last game, and how they rank today in the various indicators the Cold, Hard Football Facts use to rank the passing game.
Clearly, Houston was not as good passing the ball at the end of the year as it was in the middle of the season. But many teams would have simply disintegrated offensively without their top quarterback (See 2011 Colts for evidence).
Houston did not. In fact, the Cold, Hard Football Facts rank every team across the board in more than a dozen Quality Stats. We call it our Quality Stats Power Rankings. The Saints were No. 1 in 2009; they won the Super Bowl. The Packers were No. 1 in 2010, even though they had a humble 10-6 record; they, too, won the Super Bowl.
The Texans were No. 1 in our Quality Stats Power Rankings when Schaub went down. They're still No. 1 today.
The wounded Texans and their rookie quarterback draw a fortuitous opponent in the Bengals -- another team led by a rookie QB. History tells us that neither team will reach the Super Bowl with such an inexperienced player at the helm of the offense.
In this case, it comes down to which team will play the best on defense. And the Texans have been just that much better on defense all year than the Bengals. That defense, and Houston's superior ground game, will carry them to a win on Saturday and then the second playoff game in franchise history.
Texans 21, Bengals 17