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(Saturday, January 7th)
Final Score: Houston 31, Cincinnati 10
Houston, TX (Sports Network) - While there were still two quarters left when defensive end J.J. Watt plucked Andy Dalton's pass out of the air and returned it for a touchdown, the play still seemed like a turning point.
And whatever chance the Bengals had of coming back, the Texans snuffed it out with a dominant second half.
Arian Foster rushed for 153 yards and two touchdowns, rookie quarterback T.J. Yates passed for a score, and Houston pulled away from Cincinnati for a 31-10 victory in the first postseason game in Texans franchise history.
In a year marked by the unexpected and potential pitfalls -- from the loss of starting quarterback Matt Schaub and backup Matt Leinart, to nagging injuries for star wide receiver Andre Johnson -- the Texans have put together the most successful season in the 10-year history of their franchise.
They captured the AFC South title and won 10 games for the first time in their short history, thanks in part to Yates. He helped them to the division- clinching 20-19 win in Week 14 against Cincinnati.
While Houston dropped its final three games of the regular season, it was in fine form during Saturday's dominant victory. Now the Texans are into the second round, and will face the Ravens in Baltimore next Sunday.
Houston earned Saturday's victory by dominating on both sides of the ball. While Foster powered the Texans' offense and Yates was mistake-free, their defense held Cincinnati in check.
Dalton passed for 257 yards, but was picked off three times -- a rarity for the rookie. He had thrown only 13 all season in leading the Bengals to a 9-7 record and wild card berth, including only one in the final six weeks of the season.
The Bengals fell to 0-3 in playoff games under head coach Marvin Lewis.
"I'm proud of how our guys fight and play, but I kind of told them it's my responsibility," Lewis said. "I didn't get us over the hump today."
Both teams had some success early. The Bengals got on the board midway through the first quarter thanks mostly to a 52-yard pass interference penalty, which moved the ball to the Houston 20. Dalton converted a third down with a 16-yard pass to Brian Leonard, and Cedric Benson rushed one yard across the goal line on the next play.
The Texans responded with an eight-yard TD run around the left end by Foster, and the teams traded field goals in the second quarter. Cincinnati's Mike Nugent connected on a 37-yard try with 7:09 left, and Houston's Neil Rackers made a 39-yarder with 1:48 to go.
But the game turned on the ensuing Bengals possession. Dalton had just scrambled for a 15-yard gain as the clock ran under a minute, and was looking to connect with A.J. Green.
However, Watt reached into the air and grabbed Dalton's pass. He didn't just alter the ball's path or swat it to the ground. He actually grabbed it out of the air, an impressive play both because the pass was just out of Dalton's hand and he had to stop the ball point-blank, and because he had to reach high into the air to get it.
Watt, the 11th overall pick of the 2011 draft, had been a tight end at Central Michigan before transferring to Wisconsin and becoming a defensive end. He used that pass-catching ability to make the pick, then ran 29 yards into the end zone to make it a 17-10 game with 52 seconds remaining.
"It's funny, you work all year doing it, knocking it down, and all of a sudden you hang onto one of them," said Texans head coach Gary Kubiak. "But [Watt's] been exceptional. He's played like a four- or five-year player. That was a huge play; it gave us a lot of momentum going into halftime."
The play sent the crowd into a frenzy, and Watt put an exclamation point on the first half by sacking Dalton on the final play.
The Bengals were down just seven points at that point, but never made up the ground in the second half. In five possessions, two ended in a punt, two ended in an interception, and another finished with a turnover on downs.
Moreover, their defense failed in key moments.
Late in the third quarter, Houston was still holding the one-touchdown edge and advanced into Cincinnati territory with Yates' nine-yard pass to Johnson on third down.
Two plays later, he hit Johnson with a 40-yard touchdown strike along the left sideline, after the receiver had shaken his defender free with a sharp stutter-step.
Yates was forced to become the team's starting quarterback in Week 13, after Schaub was lost for the season with a foot injury and Leinart suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.
He wasn't the driving force in Saturday's win, completing 11-of-20 passes for 159 yards. But he made big throws when he needed to, including the third-down conversion and TD pass to Johnson.
Cincinnati's defense failed again late in the fourth quarter, after Danieal Manning's interception of Dalton put the ball at the Bengals' 45.
Initially, the Bengals appeared like they would force a punt, limiting Foster to a total of three yards on two consecutive rushes. But on 3rd-and-7, the running back reached the right sideline and began to sprint upfield. While good blocking allowed Foster to get to the edge of the field, a failure to tackle allowed him to reach the end zone.
About 20 yards into his run, Foster needed to slow as he encountered cornerback Kelly Jennings trying to break through a block by wide receiver Jacoby Jones. That allowed safety Chris Crocker to catch up to the play. But in a particularly embarrassing moment, Crocker ran into Foster's stiff-arm, failed to push him out of bounds, then was pushed out of the way by the running back.
Foster continued the rest of the way unimpeded to complete the 42-yard touchdown with 5:15 to go.
The Bengals gained 300 yards and totaled 21 first downs, but were limited to 76 yards on the ground...Dalton completed 27-of-42 passes...Foster added three receptions for 29 yards...The city of Houston was hosting a playoff game for the first time since the Oilers faced the Kansas City Chiefs at the Astrodome on Jan. 16, 1994...Cincinnati made its second playoff appearance in the last three seasons. The Bengals haven't won a playoff game since beating the Oilers in a wild card contest following the 1990 season.
01/07 21:18:14 ET
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