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What to watch for in Texans-Bengals 'MNF' clash

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The Bengals host the Texans on Monday night in a battle between two teams heading in different directions. With a win, Cincinnati (8-0) can march one step closer to a first-round bye in the AFC, while Houston (3-5) needs a victory to stay relevant in the irrelevant AFC South.

Here are four things we'll be watching for tonight:

1. For everyone still waiting on Andy Dalton to crumble on national television: Give it up. His progress is no fluke. Since Dalton's Week 11 meltdown against Brian Hoyer and the Browns last season, the fifth-year starter stands among the league's best quarterbacks with 13 wins (tied for first with Tom Brady), a 68.1 completion percentage (third), a 29:12 touchdown-to-pick ratio (eighth) and a fifth-best passer rating of 102.4. On pace to establish single-season franchise records for passing yards, touchdown throws and quarterback rating, Dalton is playing with immense confidence. This year's Glowing Ginger Man is throwing the ball downfield and picking up yardage in chunks.

Every game, all season

"Andy's playing out of his mind," Bengals wideout A.J. Green told the Houston Chronicle. "He's just like a commander out there."

Texans coach Bill O'Brien praised the once-belittled arm as a "very efficient guy" and "an accurate passer."

"The ball comes out quick," O'Brien said of Dalton. "He can run, so his scrambling ability, his zone-read ability, is a threat. He's doing more at the line of scrimmage. His experience now allows him to get up there and change the play. He's tough, he's a good player and he's playing well this year."

Old-school Cincinnati fans fondly recall Boomer Esiason's heady 1988 campaign that led the Bengals to Super Bowl XXIII. Dalton is on pace to shatter every statistic Esiason recorded in that campaign -- and maybe much more if his play continues into January.

2. This isn't the sexiest matchup of the year, but the Texans have plenty to play for. Still very much alive in the ghastly AFC South, the Texans can forge a first-place tie with the Colts atop the division with an upset on Monday night. The secret to survival is no surprise: J.J. Watt. Last year's Defensive Player of the Year is on pace for 52 quarterback hits, which would top his 51 last year and serve as the most by any player since 2006. Still, his personal achievements can't single-handedly save a Houston defense that has just nine takeaways all year, good for a 23rd league-wide ranking. The Texans have held foes to fewer than 20 points just twice all season.

3. One bright spot for Houston and a potential difference-maker on Monday night: DeAndre Hopkins. Ranking fifth in the NFL with 66 receptions and third in yardage (870), Houston's third-year wideout has emerged as one of the NFL's premier pass-catchers. Single-handedly carrying this air attack, Hopkins ranks first league-wide in targets per game (14) and third in catches per game (8.3) and receiving yards per tilt (108.8).

"He is an impressive young guy," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said last week. "He has great body control, he is strong with the catch. He will be more fun to watch next week when they are playing against someone else."

4. Can we take Brian Hoyer's season seriously? With five straight games of two-plus touchdowns, the Texans passer has thrown 13 scoring strikes this season against just three picks, far exceeding his mundane totals with the Browns last season. Some of that work has come in junk-time relief of Ryan Mallett, but give Hoyer credit: He's shown much better command of this offense than any other passer on the roster. He'll be tested tonight against a frisky Bengals defense that hasn't allowed more than 24 points in a game all season.

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