By KRISTIE RIEKEN
HOUSTON — The Houston Texans were looking forward to enjoying a bye this week before beginning their work in the playoffs as the AFC’s top seed.
Instead, a terrible month in which they lost three of four games dropped the Texans to the third seed. It has them in the exact same spot as year ago, hosting the Cincinnati Bengals in a wild-card playoff game today (11:30 a.m. HST, NBC).
The Texans wasted little time this week lamenting their missed opportunities, though, instead focusing on their next task.
“Would we like to be in a different situation? Yeah, but at the same time, it’s the playoffs. It’s the start of the playoffs. Everything you’ve done up to this point, it doesn’t really matter,” Houston’s Andre Johnson said. “It only matters what you do now … we just have to take advantage of the opportunity we have now.”
They’ll face a Cincinnati team that enters Saturday having won three in a row and seven of its last eight games. The Bengals are in the playoffs for consecutive seasons for the first time since 1981-82. Their last playoff win came Jan. 6, 1991 against the Oilers, the team the Texans replaced in Houston.
Cincinnati offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said he isn’t worried about the more than 20-year streak of playoff futility. He wants to focus on the improvement this young team has made.
“Last year, we did what it took to get into the playoffs when a lot of people predicted us to be 0-16,” Whitworth said. “This year, we got back in to the playoffs when a lot of people didn’t think we could. We’re here. The next step is winning a playoff game. Hopefully, we can let that be a chip on our shoulder.”
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was sacked four times and threw three interceptions in last year’s 31-10 postseason loss to the Texans. Houston defensive end J.J. Watt returned one of those interceptions 29 yards for a touchdown that gave the Texans a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Dalton, who grew up in suburban Houston, believes he’s grown since that game and learned from the mistakes he made.
“I definitely feel like I’m a better quarterback this year,” he said. “I’ve got more control of the offense. There’s a lot more stuff that I’m doing at the line of scrimmage, and making checks and doing different things this year than I was doing last year. But that’s helped me become a better player.”
Another player who has certainly improved in Year 2 is Watt. The defensive end led the NFL with 20 sacks this season, has 107 tackles, including 39 for losses, 16 passes defended and has forced four fumbles.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis got creative this week when asked how he planned to stop Watt.
“I wrote a letter to the commissioner to petition for 13,” Lewis joked. “I figure if we put a guy on each side of him and a guy in front of him, we’ve got a good opportunity.”
Then Lewis got serious.
“He’s been an incredible player and he’s fun to watch if you’re not preparing to play the Texans,” Lewis said. “He’s a great model for young players to look at and be like. He really is something.”
Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who has been coaching in the NFL since 1976, couldn’t say enough about Watt’s performance this season.
“This is the best defensive line play of anybody since I’ve been in football,” Phillips said. “He is by far the best defensive player. He should obviously be the defensive player of the year in the league.”
The AFC South champion Texans are also in the playoffs for the second straight year, the only two times in franchise history. Houston lost to the Ravens in the second round after beating the Bengals last January.
The Texans believe that experience will help them this time.
“I feel like we’ve come a long ways,” Watt said. “Obviously, this isn’t new to us. This is something we’ve been through before. We’re excited. We can’t wait. We had a taste of the playoffs last year and we’re really excited to get back in it this year and to go to work.”
Third-string quarterback T.J. Yates was behind center last year after injuries knocked out Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart. Now, Schaub, a nine-year veteran, will get his first postseason start.
He’s looking to bounce back from a tough month in which he threw three interceptions with just one touchdown pass. He’ll try to do it with two big weapons in Johnson and Arian Foster. Johnson led the AFC with a career-high 1,598 yards receiving, and Foster finished second in the AFC in rushing with 1,424 yards.
“They have three or four guys who have been playmakers in this league for a while,” Bengals cornerback Leon Hall said of the Texans. “It starts with Foster. Obviously, they have Johnson outside. It starts with knowing that we have to stop the run. If you don’t stop the run, you’re on your heels for the rest of the game.”
Schaub and Houston’s offensive line will have their hands full with a defense that boasts two solid pass-rushers in tackle Geno Atkins and end Michael Johnson. The pair has combined for 24 sacks this season, and the Texans have given up three or more sacks in each of the last three games.
“Pressure and those types of things, we have our work cut out for us,” coach Gary Kubiak said. “We’re going to have to play better than we have the past few weeks.”