The Bengals vs. Texans may be the least attractive matchup of wild-card weekend, but we’ll get to see the top candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, J.J. Watt.
Texans DE J.J. Watt vs. Bengals offensive line
The opening to wild-card weekend features two of the best defensive linemen in the game, Watt and Bengals DT Geno Atkins. While Atkins has been a force and will be key in Cincinnati’s plan to stop Houston, Watt has shown more of a propensity to be a game changer, and has a better chance of altering the result of this one.
It bears repeating Watt’s ridiculous stat line from this season — 81 tackles (second on the team and unheard of for a D-end in a 3-4), 20½ sacks, 39 tackles for loss, 42 QB hits, 16 passes defensed (again, this is a D-end, not a DB), four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveies.
Watt made the play of last year’s playoff win over these Bengals, batting an Andy Dalton pass to himself and returning the interception for a touchdown, giving the Texans a 17-10 lead just before halftime. He also notched a sack in the 31-10 victory.
The interior of this year’s Bengals O-line is different than that game, with second-year OLG Clint Boling and rookie ORG Kevin Zeitler now the starters. Those guards have played well this season creating holes for RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis to run through, but their pass protection has left something to be desired. Boling and Zeitler have combined to allow 10½ sacks, per Stats LLC. The Bengals have allowed 46 sacks this season, the second most of the 12 playoff teams.
Watt moves around plenty but might spend most of his time going against Cincinnati’s right side, as he will try to take advantage of the rookie Zeitler — his former college teammate at Wisconsin — and ORT Andre Smith. That way, Watt would avoid OLT Andrew Whitworth.
Zeitler knows what he’s going up against from their Wisconsin days, but Watt’s game has continued to improve. One of the keys for the Bengals’ O-linemen is keeping Watt’s hands down, allowing Dalton a clear path for his throws and avoiding any tipped passes that could become turnovers.
Watt is strong, athletic and crafty, and will use different moves up front and get help from his teammates, including OLB Brooks Reed, who is returning from a groin injury that forced him to the sideline the last four regular-season games, to get into the backfield.
Dalton has taken steps forward in his second season, but he is prone to making a mistake when under pressure, and he threw three interceptions in last year’s wild-card loss.
The Texans enter the playoffs without much momentum, losing 3-of-4 games and falling out of the top seed on the last weekend of the season. Watt is a difference maker and can make things very difficult for an offense. One big turnover, and suddenly, the Texans have that momentum, and, at home, could use that to get a playoff win in the rematch.
The Bengals don’t have as many offensive weapons as Houston does and are not built for a shootout. One way to try to keep Watt at bay might be establishing the run with Green-Ellis, but Dalton will want to get his playmaking WR A.J. Green involved. The Bengals’ O-line will need to give Dalton the time to do so by blocking the NFL's top defender.