The Houston Texans from the first 12 games of the season returned Saturday, just in time for the playoffs.
It wasn't pretty, but this is Texans football. They held the ball for more than 38 minutes, rushing the ball 37 times. The defense swarmed, led by another monster J.J. Watt game (five tackles, one tackle for loss, one sack and another pass defensed). The Bengals' offense never had room to breathe. By the end of the game, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was seeing ghosts.
There are points to quibble with. The Texans never should have let the Bengals hang around. Matt Schaub threw a killer interception returned for a touchdown in the first half and often played it safe by checking down on third-and-long. The Texans settled for four field goals.
It says a lot that some fans will take issue with Houston's performance in a playoff victory. The franchise has come a long way under coach Gary Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith; wins in back-to-back playoffs help to validate them. The expectations have been raised.
Close score aside, this win should give the Texans a lot of confidence. It was the most complete performance by the team since its Week 7 domination of the Baltimore Ravens. Back then, the Texans looked like a sure-fire No. 1 seed that would be a Super Bowl favorite.
The Texans took a big step Saturday, but they still haven't shown they can exceed expectations on a big stage. They'll have their chance next week in Foxborough.
Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.