November 19, 2014

In Ryan Mallett's first NFL start, he threw a touchdown pass to a defensive lineman and handed the ball off so many times that a rookie sixth-round draft pick and injury replacement set a franchise record for carries.

The Houston Texans' latest victory was anything but conventional, but it was enough to help them gain ground in the AFC South race.

Houston's next test comes Sunday against AFC North-leading Cincinnati, which hopes Andy Dalton can build off a solid performance and help the Bengals end a five-game skid against the Texans.

Mallett took over for struggling starter Ryan Fitzpatrick as coach Bill O'Brien sought a new direction for the offense. After throwing four passes as Tom Brady's backup over his first three seasons in the league, Mallett went 20 for 30 for 211 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in last week's 23-7 win at Cleveland.

Houston (5-5) had lost four of its previous five but pulled to within one game of division-leading Indianapolis after the Colts lost to New England on Sunday night.

"I think anytime it's around Thanksgiving and you're still in the hunt, that's a good thing," O'Brien said. "You're in the 11th game of the season and you're still there. There is a lot to play for."

One of Mallett's TD throws went to defensive player of the year front-runner J.J. Watt, who recorded his second receiving touchdown of the season. Watt also has a fumble and an interception return for a score, making him the first defensive lineman to have four touchdowns in a single season since 1948.

"Hopefully it's not the end of it," Watt said. "There's nothing better than to score a touchdown and the whole offense runs over to congratulate you."

Alfred Blue didn't get in the end zone last week, but the rookie rushed for 156 yards on a franchise-record 36 carries against the Browns as a last-minute replacement for Arian Foster, who sat out with a groin injury.

Foster's status for this contest is unclear.

"Arian Foster is a proven player in this league," O'Brien said. "But at the end of the day, injuries occur, so the next guy has to be ready to step up no matter who you are. I think we all had confidence that Alfred would step in there and do the job."

Houston has won five straight meetings with the Bengals, the last two being wild-card victories after the 2011 and '12 seasons. Foster ran for 153 yards and two scores in a 31-10 win in the first playoff matchup before running for 140 and a touchdown in the next year's 19-13 victory.

Dalton threw four picks with no touchdowns in those two losses, but he may be in line for a better effort against the Texans after last week's encouraging effort.

After throwing six interceptions and completing just 52.3 percent of his passes over his previous four, Dalton recorded his first three-touchdown game of the season while going 16 of 22 for 220 yards in a 27-10 win at New Orleans.

"We honestly believe in him. That's the truth," offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said of Dalton. "He's our quarterback and he's our leader and there's no one in this locker room that questions that."

The Bengals (6-3-1) have won three of four and lead 7-4 Pittsburgh by percentage points in a stacked division in which each club has at least six wins.

"You lose and everyone wants to run you out," Dalton said. "You win, everyone is going to like you. I'm not too worried about it. It was a big win for us. So it's good to bounce back and get a big one on the road."

His favorite target, A.J. Green, is starting to find his groove after catching six passes for 127 yards and a touchdown. He combined for six catches over his previous two games after missing three with a toe injury.

"These couple of weeks I wasn't feeling like myself," Green said. "Not because I was injured. It was trying to just get back in the flow of things I missed those couple of weeks."

Giovani Bernard missed his third straight game with hip and clavicle injuries, but Jeremy Hill has filled in nicely. Hill, who was the primary ball-carrier ahead of Blue at LSU the past two seasons, rushed for 154 yards and two scores in a win over Jacksonville on Nov. 2 and had 152 against the Saints.

Coach Marvin Lewis isn't sure if Bernard will be able to play this week, but he'll be looking for more consistency out of the offense no matter who is in the backfield.

"We have still quite a bit to improve upon," Lewis said. "We had a lot of areas, particularly in the running game, where we could get better, make sure we're clicking on the same page throughout. And in the pass game, too."

Houston has allowed just 3.28 yards per carry since Week 5 - the third-lowest average in the NFL.

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