The 2011 playoffs feature six teams that weren't at the dance a year ago, including the Houston Texans and Cincinnati Bengals. Both teams enter this week's showdown with a rookie under center, which is definitely unique; only 15 rookie quarterbacks have started a playoff game since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. The Texans, who won the AFC South for the first time, limp into this game on a three-game losing streak. The Bengals have nine wins, but none of them came against playoff teams, and their loss to the Ravens in the regular-season finale very nearly cost them the postseason.
Which rookie quarterback can deliver on the playoff stage?
Playoff football is different from regular-season football. Cincinnati's Andy Dalton and Houston's T.J. Yates are heading for uncharted waters. How will these rookies perform in the pressure cooker that is the postseason?
Dalton is playing because ... well ... Carson Palmer never got on the plane back in August. To his credit, though, Dalton has responded with a fantastic rookie season as the full-time starter, throwing 20 touchdown passes and just 13 interceptions. (Whenever a rookie signal-caller throws more touchdowns than picks, his team has to be thrilled.) Dalton led Cincinnati to a 5-3 record on the road, connecting on 12 TD tosses. He also has just one interception in his last 184 attempts and boasts 15 red-zone touchdowns on just 65 passing attempts.
Yates was thrown to the wolves after Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart were injured in consecutive games. He's done just about everything a team could ask of a rookie in this situation, but the Texans have struggled to put up points with him under center. Yates injured his non-throwing shoulder last week, but he should be ready to go Saturday. He aired it out in Week 14 -- completing 26 of his 44 passes for 300 yards and two touchdowns (all season highs) -- and courageously guided Houston on a game-winning, 80-yard touchdown drive down the stretch. But he was also sacked five times by five different players. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer brought pressure from everywhere, and he will undoubtedly turn up the heat once again. When he looks at game tapes this week, he'll find that Yates has thrown just one touchdown pass and been sacked four times in his last 59 attempts.
The edge at quarterback has to go to Dalton, who is also going to be asked to carry much more of the offensive load than Yates. In Week 14, the Bengals settled for four field goals ... and lost by one point. Dalton will need to make at least two touchdown passes this time around.
Which team can run to the divisional round?
This season, the Texans ran their way right into the playoffs: Arian Foster and Ben Tate churned out 2,166 yards and 14 touchdowns on a combined 453 carries. While the Bengals held Foster in check in Week 14, limiting the dynamic back to 41 yards on 15 carries, he was given last week off and should be fresh. With Yates' inexperience, the Texans will want much of their offense to come from Foster. Expect Foster and Tate to split at least 30 carries this week, as the Texans will be looking for about 140 yards and a score from their running game alone.
The Bengals would love to have a running attack like Houston's, but they've struggled all season -- averaging a paltry 3.9 yards a pop -- and only ran for 95 yards on 27 carries against the Texans. Houston's run defense has been a real strength, but the Texans showed some vulnerability in Week 15, giving up 166 rushing yards to Carolina. Cincinnati hopes to ride Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott in a similar fashion.
Clearly, the Texans have the superior rushing attack. But with Yates under center, the Bengals can overplay the run and dare Houston to throw the ball. It will be dangerous to leave the newly healthy Andre Johnson, who was out for that Week 14 matchup, in single coverage, but the Bengals might have no choice. It's worth noting that Johnson doesn't have a touchdown reception in his last five games.
(Slight) Advantage: Bengals
Which defense can win the game if the offense falters?
With two rookie quarterbacks facing off, expect turnovers to play a big role in the outcome. The Texans have forced 27 turnovers on defense, five more than the Bengals. Houston has been extra stingy at home, giving up just 16 points per game while surrendering only four rushing touchdowns and sacking opposing quarterbacks once every 13 attempts.
The Bengals' solid defensive unit has fared well on the road, giving up 21 points a game, holding opposing rushers to just 3.7 yards per carry and sacking the quarterback once every 14 dropbacks. However, Cincinnati is susceptible to the pass. The Bengals still miss Johnathan Joseph, who signed with Houston in free agency, and an injury to Leon Hall significantly crippled the secondary. If Yates has time to throw, the Bengals will be in trouble.
It will be a tight battle defensively, but a slight edge goes to Houston. The Texans have home-field advantage and Joseph on their side.
Both of these teams defied convention, with the Texans weathering a storm of injuries and the young Bengals exceeding expectations to make the playoffs. This will be a tightly contested battle between two strong defenses, but Houston will earn its first postseason victory by stuffing the Bengals' final drive. Texans 17, Bengals 14