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NFL Preview - Houston (2-3) at Cincinnati (4-1)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Somebody should pinch Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, because he may not believe his team is 4-1 and alone atop the AFC North.
Whatever Lewis' mindset may be, reality proves that the Bengals are indeed 4-1 thanks to a four-game winning streak following a season-opening loss versus the Denver Broncos. They will try to keep the hot start going Sunday versus the Houston Texans at Paul Brown Stadium, where Cincinnati will be aiming for its first five-game winning streak since the Sam Wyche-guided Bengals opened the 1988 campaign with six straight wins en route to a Super Bowl appearance.
Cincinnati's wins haven't been against cupcakes, except the one over Cleveland in Week 4, and the team's recent 17-14 decision over Baltimore on the road was achieved with heavy hearts for defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Zimmer's wife, Vikki, died unexpectedly last week and the Bengals responded by winning a game in their coordinator's honor.
Zimmer was given the option to stay home with his family or join the team to Baltimore. He showed up for the flight to Maryland with his father, his son and one of his daughters.
A big reason for the victory against the Ravens in a duel for first place in the AFC North was running back Cedric Benson, whose resurgence has the Bengals rated ninth in rushing offense with 126.6 yards per game. Benson, the NFL's leading rusher this season with 487 yards, posted 120 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries to eclipse the century mark for the second time this year and the fifth time as a Bengal. Benson had just two 100-yard rushing games in three years with the Chicago Bears.
Benson's effort on Sunday helped Cincinnati complete a streak of three consecutive victories against AFC North foes, two of which were on the road. Cincinnati, which has only one winning record in the last 18 years, is off to its best start since the 2005 squad opened the campaign 4-1 before finishing with an 11-5 ledger. That was the last time the Bengals made the postseason.
Meanwhile, the Texans have been as inconsistent as usual under head coach Gary Kubiak, who has watched his team alternate wins and losses over its last eight games dating back to last season. This past Sunday's 28-21 loss at Arizona dropped the team to 2-3 on the season.
Houston had trouble containing Kurt Warner and the Arizona offense in the first half before the defense settled down while the offense rallied. Quarterback Matt Schaub got in a groove and set franchise records for completions and attempts by going 35-for-50 for 371 yards and a pair of touchdown strikes with a costly interception, which was returned 49 yards for a score by Arizona defensive back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
The Texans were forced to pass since their ground game was ineffective once again, managing 45 total yards. Running back Steve Slaton had just 39 yards on 13 carries for Houston, which is 30th in the NFL with an average of 75.4 rushing yards per game. Houston needs to improve its red zone scoring efficiency too, having scored on just 13 of its 18 trips inside the 20-yard line.
Wide receiver Andre Johnson had another huge day against the Cardinals, catching eight passes for 101 yards and two touchdowns. Johnson has to be frustrated, since the offense has yet to find its rhythm thanks to a poor ground attack.
The Texans are in the midst of playing four of five games on the road.
Cincinnati is 3-1 all-time against Houston, including the aforementioned 35-6 Texans win when the clubs met in Week 8 of last season at Reliant Stadium. Since that defeat dropped them to 0-8 on the year, the Bengals are 8-4-1 in the regular season. Cincinnati took the first three matchups in the series, winning (38-3) at Reliant Stadium in 2002 and at Paul Brown Stadium during the 2003 (34-27) and 2005 (16-10) campaigns. A Houston-based NFL franchise last won in Cincinnati in 1996, when the Oilers were 30-27 overtime winners at Riverfront Stadium.
Lewis is 2-1 against the Texans all-time, while Kubiak is 1-0 against both Cincinnati and Lewis as a head coach.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
Schaub (1,418 passing yards, 10 TDs, 4 INT) has been able to stay healthy this season and ranks third in the NFL with 1,418 passing yards, second with 10 touchdown passes and ninth with a 97.9 quarterback rating. He has thrown for more than 300 yards in three of his last four games, with 10 touchdown passes and three picks for a 107.4 passer rating over that stretch. Houston, which is 8-3 when Schaub has a rating of 100 or better, is ranked fifth in the NFL with 273.6 passing yards per contest this season. The offensive line has done its fair share of protecting the quarterback, having allowed six total sacks over the last four games and none against Arizona. Schaub needs all the protection he can get in order to hit Johnson, who is tied for the league lead with four touchdown catches, ranks fifth with 437 receiving yards and is tied for eighth with 28 receptions. He eclipsed 100 receiving yards for the 27th time in his career and the second time this season last Sunday, finishing the game with eight catches for 101 yards and two touchdowns, and is in for another strong day in Cincinnati.
Cincinnati's secondary will be the key to Sunday's success. The Bengals are 20th against the pass, allowing 208.8 yards per game, but held the Ravens to 175 yards through the air. Baltimore doesn't predicate its offense by passing the ball, and Ravens second-year quarterback Joe Flacco was intercepted by cornerbacks Leon Hall (18 tackles, 1 INT) and Johnathan Joseph (17 tackles, 3 INT). Joseph added to his team lead of three picks in the process. If Hall and Joseph pay too much attention to Johnson, Texans wideout Kevin Walter and tight end Owen Daniels will take on a more prominent role. Joseph has intercepted a pass in each of the last three games, with Deltha O'Neal the last Bengal to do it four straight weeks in 2005. Joseph returned one of his picks 30 yards for a touchdown in Week 3 against the Steelers. Veteran safety Roy Williams (28 tackles) returned to the field last week after missing the game at Cleveland, while safety Chris Crocker (26 tackles) owns 19 stops over his last three contests.
The Texans desperately need to shore up its short-yardage and running game this week instead of relying on the right arm of Schaub. They have fallen a yard short of the end zone in the closing minutes of two different seven-point losses this season, and last week's setback to Arizona was the back-breaker. There was no push up front to allow Slaton (231 rushing yards, 1 TD) any room to maneuver between the tackles or even outside. Chris Brown (61 rushing yards, 1 TD) has been used as Houston's power back, but has come up short each time with the game on the line. The Texans averaged a franchise-record 4.3 yards per carry with 115.4 rushing yards per game last season, so it's comes as a surprise that this team is struggling to score in the clutch. The offensive line, already without left guard Chester Pitts (foot), saw starting right guard Mike Brisiel sustain a foot injury against Arizona. Chris White and rookie Antoine Caldwell would probably split time if Brisiel is out. Kubiak reiterated this week that Houston will not give up on its 30th-ranked ground attack (75.4 ypg) and will stay committed in its preparation.
Bengals linebacker Dhani Jones (28 tackles, sack) and defensive end Robert Geathers (16 tackles, 1.5 sacks) each recorded a sack last week versus Baltimore, and hope to get after Schaub this week. Cincinnati has other candidates to do that job in linebackers Keith Rivers (29 tackles) and Rey Maualuga (27 tackles, 1 sack) and star defensive end Antwan Odom (19 tackles, 8 sacks). Odom needs just a half-sack to surpass his career-high of eight registered in 2007 as a member of Tennessee. Odom, who had five sacks in Week 2 against Green Bay, is tied with Denver's Elvis Dumervil for the NFL lead in that category. Run-stuffing tackles Domata Peko (13 tackles) and Tank Johnson (5 tackles) hope to keep Slaton on ice Sunday. Johnson has missed the last two games because of a foot injury and is listed as questionable this weekend.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Quarterback Carson Palmer (1,116 yards, 7 TD, 6 INT) hasn't been making all the highlight reels with his performance this season, but is doing enough to keep the Bengals winning. His elbow seems fine after missing most of last season because of the problem, and he has led Cincinnati to come-from-behind wins against Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Baltimore. Palmer fired a game-winning 20-yard touchdown pass to Andre Caldwell with 22 seconds remaining last week against the Ravens and finished 18-of-31 for 271 yards with an interception. Palmer was on the run most of the day and showed no side effects from his surgically-repaired knee from a few seasons ago. He was only sacked once and finished second on the team with 18 yards on five scrambles. Palmer's limited but successful mobility enabled him to find open receivers, particularly star Chad Ochocinco (24 receptions, 352 yards, 3 TD), who ended with a game-high 94 yards on seven catches. Caldwell (18 receptions, 2 TD) continued to emerge as a deep threat and a reliable third option for Palmer. Chris Henry (8 receptions, 1 TD) is a big playmaker whose 73-yard grab in the second quarter against Baltimore set up a Bengals field goal. Veteran wideout Laveranues Coles (10 receptions, 1 TD) has yet to find his niche in his first year with the team.
Houston gave up 296 passing yards last week to Arizona, as Warner recorded 302 yards and two touchdowns. New defensive coordinator Frank Bush's unit hasn't recorded an interception in three straight games. The secondary will be busy in defending Ochocinco, Caldwell and Henry, while cornerbacks Fred Bennett (17 tackles) and Dunta Robinson (16 tackles) will be tested early and often for the second straight week. The two had a hard time with Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, as they combined for 12 catches for 160 yards and two touchdowns from Fitzgerald. Bennett is a big defender at 6-1, 201 pounds and must slow down Cincy's receivers at the line of scrimmage. Rookie Glover Quin (21 tackles) has impressed in his first season out of New Mexico. Safety Bernard Pollard (13 tackles) has played the last two games after missing the first three because of injury, while Eugene Wilson (10 tackles, 1 INT) returned to his safety position last week after missing the Oakland game. Dominique Barber (16 tackles) and John Busing (15 tackles, 1 INT) have appeared in every game this season for the Texans.
Benson, the NFL's leading rusher, recorded 120 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries against Baltimore's vaunted defense. Benson became the first running back since Kansas City's Larry Johnson in December of the 2006 campaign to eclipse the 100-yard rushing mark against the Ravens, snapping Baltimore's 39- game streak of failing to allow a back to reach that number. Cincinnati is averaging 126.6 rushing yards per contest in 2009, good enough for ninth in the NFL. Benson, who is ahead of Minnesota's Adrian Peterson by six yards for the league lead in rushing, is spearheading a Bengals running game that's averaged four yards per carry over the past three seasons. Center Kyle Cook and guard Bobbie Williams have been instrumental in the development of the ground attack.
Palmer managed to get sacked only once last week, a number Texans defensive end Mario Williams would like to multiply on Sunday. Williams (18 tackles, 2 sacks) has only two sacks this season after he anchored Houston's defensive line with 12 sacks and was named to his first Pro Bowl in 2008. He is quick off the edge and could have a big day against Cincinnati book-end tackles Andrew Whitworth and Anthony Collins. Fellow defensive end Antonio Smith, who joined the Texans as a free agent after helping the Cardinals to Super Bowl XLIII last year, has yet to record a sack this season and posted just 3 1/2 a year ago. Palmer is not a very mobile quarterback, so maybe this is the week he gets off the schneid. Defensive tackle Amobi Okoye (17 tackles, 1.5 sacks) will team with stud linebackers Brian Cushing (39 tackles 1/2 sack) and DeMeco Ryans (33 tackles) in order to cool down Benson. Cushing is second among NFL rookies in tackles. However, Houston is 26th against the rush, allowing 140.8 yards per game.
Benson owners can give themselves a nice pat on the back for drafting the former Texas Longhorns star after a tumultuous tenure in Chicago. Benson has taken the fantasy world by storm and doesn't appear to slow down any time soon, with the Texans and Bears on the schedule. Palmer seems to be back at full strength and deserves a start each week, while the same sentiments hold true for Ochocinco and the emerging Caldwell. Give Henry a chance this week if regulars have a bye. Slaton has been a disappointment this season and it's because of his offensive line. He is still worthy of a start, however, because he's got the ability to break a long one for a touchdown. Andre Johnson is a fantasy nightmare for opposing owners and will be for the next few years. He has been on fire since the middle of last season. Schaub is putting up excellent numbers and is another must-start. Walter and Daniels fall into the same category as Henry, as they are relegated to emergency duty.
The Benson train will be full steam ahead once again this week for Cincinnati, which has a strong chance of making it five straight wins against the one- dimensional Texans. Benson has been simply masterful for the Bengals and takes a lot of pressure off of Palmer and the passing game. Houston is one of the worst teams at stopping the run this season and should expect a heavy dose of action on the ground. Even if the Texans put all their eggs in the Benson basket, Palmer has three speedy deep threats to go to in Ochocinco, Caldwell and Henry. Cincinnati knows that Houston has been experiencing problems running the football with Slaton and will try to exploit that immediately. If the AFC North-leading Bengals can force Schaub into throwing 75 percent of the time, then they'll be on their way to another victory.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 30, Texans 16
10/15 18:35:18 ET