By KRISTIE RIEKEN
HOUSTON — J.J. Watt swatted away passes, Arian Foster ran away from tacklers and the Houston Texans did just enough to knock Cincinnati out of the playoffs for the second straight year.
Matt Schaub made his first postseason start a successful one when Foster’s 1-yard touchdown in the third quarter helped the Texans to a 19-13 AFC wild-card win over the Bengals on Saturday.
“The whole stadium knew we had to line up and run the ball and boy, he was at his best there at the end,” coach Gary Kubiak said. “He’s become a fine, fine player, and it just seems like the bigger it gets, the better Arian gets.”
Now comes the big test. The Texans (13-4) move on to the second round on Jan. 13, when they visit the New England Patriots, who beat them 42-14 in Week 14. This time they’re 9 -point underdogs.
“It’s one step,” Watt said of the win. “We know what it means, and we have bigger goals than that.”
He’s glad the team got back on track this week, but knows Houston will have to play better to beat the Patriots.
“They know what they’re doing in the playoffs,” Watt said. “They’ve been here many times before. They know what it takes, so it’s going to take everything we have and we’re really excited about the challenge.”
Foster said he isn’t planning to watch too much film of Houston’s loss to the Patriots.
“They’re a new team, we’re a new team,” Foster said. “Anytime you play a team twice in a season … you have to attack it differently. It’s a different mentality. Different things are at stake.”
Shayne Graham kicked four field goals for the Texans, while Foster finished with 140 yards and became the first NFL player to have 100-yard games in each of his first three playoff games.
Watt finished with a sack and swatted away two of Andy Dalton’s pass attempts, once wagging his finger at the Bengals quarterback after the play.
“I think it was a full defensive effort, everybody was flying around and we were getting off the field on third downs,” Watt said.
The Texans defense smothered Dalton and the Bengals early. Their second drive ended when Connor Barwin tackled BenJarvus Green-Ellis for a 6-yard loss and Watt followed with a sack of Dalton.
Houston’s offense had the ball for almost 39 minutes as it ate up the clock with a season-high 32 carries from Foster.
“We controlled the line of scrimmage, and any time we do that it’s going to be hard to beat us,” Foster said.
The Texans had trouble finishing drives and managed three field goals in the first half against the Bengals (10-7). Houston struck first after the break, with Foster scoring the game’s only offensive touchdown to make it 16-7.
Schaub, who missed last year’s playoffs with a foot injury, had an interception returned for a touchdown by Leon Hall before halftime.
“It was never easy,” Schaub said. “Cincinnati is a great team. I made a turnover and gave them points. We just had to rally around each other and we did that.”
Johnathan Joseph, a former Bengal, came up with an interception for the Texans, who kept Cincinnati without a playoff win since the 1990 season, the league’s longest current streak.
Houston had struggled on third downs lately. This time, the Texans didn’t let the Bengals convert a third down on nine tries.
The Texans rebounded from a terrible month where they lost three of four games and the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. The win came in front of a record crowd of 71,738, including former Oilers great Earl Campbell.
The Bengals couldn’t do anything offensively before the break, and were outgained 250-53 in the first half. Dalton was 4 of 10 for 3 yards in the first half.
Schaub shook off his first-half miscue to finish 29 of 38 for 262 yards, and Dalton finished 14 of 30 for 127 yards.
The Bengals had a chance for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter, but Dalton’s pass sailed just out of reach of a diving A.J. Green in the end zone.
“The offense didn’t play as well as it could have,” Dalton said. “You can always look back and say, ‘What if?’”
Dalton’s 45-yard pass to Green got Cincinnati moving in the third quarter and set up Josh Brown’s 34-yard field goal. When Dalton tried to go to Green again, Joseph intercepted and got the Texans in scoring range again as the quarter ended.
In last year’s playoffs, the Texans routed the Bengals 31-10, with Dalton throwing three interceptions.
The main difference in this one: Schaub was back in charge for Houston. Rookie T.J. Yates filled in for Schaub, got the Texans a win in their first playoff game, but couldn’t take them any further.
On their second possession, Schaub completed an 18-yard pass, Foster had a 17-yard run and Keshawn Martin went 16 yards on a reverse, setting up Graham’s field goal.
It became a pattern — move the ball down the field, settle for three points. The fans started booing.
And then Schaub did the one thing he wanted to avoid — he let Cincinnati’s defense get its hands on the ball. Hall anticipated Schaub’s throw, stepped in front and returned it untouched, high-stepping the last few yards, for the defense’s fourth touchdown in the last four games.
Hall also ran back an interception 17 yards for the only Bengals touchdown in a 13-10 win over Pittsburgh that clinched a playoff spot. It was the first interception return for a touchdown against the Texans this season.
Like the Texans, the Bengals ended the season by hitting a wall on offense — one touchdown in the last two games. The offensive woes continued on Saturday when the Bengals failed to score a touchdown on offense again.
Cincinnati 0 7 3 3—13
Houston 3 6 7 3—19
Hou—FG S.Graham 48, 7:49.
Hou—FG S.Graham 27, 13:07.
Cin—Hall 21 interception return (Brown kick), 9:30.
Hou—FG S.Graham 22, 2:19.
Hou—Foster 1 run (S.Graham kick), 10:31.
Cin—FG Brown 34, 7:48.
Hou—FG S.Graham 24, 14:17.
Cin—FG Brown 47, 9:03.
First downs 12 24
Total Net Yards 198 420
Rushes-yards 16-80 39-158
Passing 118 262
Punt Returns 3-12 2-14
Kickoff Returns 6-156 2-47
Interceptions Ret. 1-21 1-14
Comp-Att-Int 14-30-1 29-38-1
Sacked-Yards Lost 2-9 0-0
Punts 5-46.6 3-42.0
Fumbles-Lost 1-0 0-0
Penalties-Yards 5-51 7-55
Time of Possession 21:11 38:49
RUSHING—Cincinnati, Green-Ellis 11-63, Dalton 4-15, Leonard 1-2. Houston, Foster 32-140, Martin 1-16, Schaub 4-1, Tate 2-1.
PASSING—Cincinnati, Dalton 14-30-1-127. Houston, Schaub 29-38-1-262.
RECEIVING—Cincinnati, Green 5-80, M.Jones 3-34, Hawkins 2-15, Gresham 2-7, Green-Ellis 2-(minus 9). Houston, Daniels 9-91, Foster 8-34, Johnson 4-62, Walter 4-26, G.Graham 3-29, Casey 1-20.
MISSED FIELD GOALS—None.