Texans seek playoff spot against Bengals

Published 11:39 pm Saturday, December 10, 2011

CINCINNATI (AP) — Andy Dalton knows what this one means for his hometown team.

The Bengals rookie quarterback was 14 years old, living in suburban Houston, when the city got an expansion team to replace the Oilers. Dalton went to games at Reliant Stadium — only about a 15-minute drive from his home — and rooted for his team through its few good times and the many tough ones.

There was that groundbreaking 19-10 win over Dallas in the Texans’ first regular season game in 2002, one the fans still savor. There was the bottoming-out year — a 2-14 nosedive in 2005 — and the recent years of meltdowns and playoff near-misses.

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Finally, the Texans are on the verge of getting it right.

The Texans (9-3) can clinch the AFC South and their first playoff spot by beating Dalton’s struggling Bengals (7-5) and having Tennessee lose at home to New Orleans on Sunday. Dalton can appreciate what the folks back home would feel about that outcome.

“I think you’ve seen what Houston’s been able to do,” the former TCU quarterback said. “They’ve been close, and they’re playing really well this year.”

They’re heading to Cincinnati to play a young team that’s starting to run out of time.

With Dalton throwing to first-round pick A.J. Green, the Bengals took advantage of a favorable early schedule and emerged as a surprising playoff contender. They were in the thick of the AFC North race until they started playing other division teams.

They’ve lost three of four — once to Baltimore, twice to Pittsburgh — and have dropped back in a crowd of teams vying for the final AFC wild card berth with a month left.

They’re also starting to run out of time to win back their fans. There will be thousands of empty seats at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday for the sixth time in seven games. The only time they’ve sold out was when the Steelers came to town, filled the place with Terrible Towels and got a win.

“We’ve got some loyal fans, and then we’ve got some fans that just aren’t believing right now,” defensive lineman Domata Peko said. “We have to win them back by winning games. That’s the only way to get these fans back.”

It’s totally different in Houston, which is captivated by a team that’s been one of the league’s most resilient. The Texans have won six in a row despite going through three quarterbacks in three games.

Matt Schaub hurt his foot in one win, backup Matt Leinart hurt his shoulder in the next, and rookie T.J. Yates — a fifth-round pick — led the Texans to a 17-10 win in Houston last week that clinched only the second winning record in the franchise’s 10 seasons.

“There have been some sleepless nights, I can tell you that,” coach Gary Kubiak said. “I’ve got to get a picture of the quarterback room before this year is out. I’ve never had this many quarterbacks on one team. It’s just been challenging.

“But that adversity’s part of this league and when you’re able to fight through it, you have good years. And when you can’t fight through it, boy it can get the best of you.”

There’s been more adversity. Leading receiver Andre Johnson has been in and out of the lineup with hamstring injuries and is questionable for the game on Sunday. Yet, the Texans have kept winning behind one of the league’s best running games and one of its stingiest defenses.

“Everywhere you go, there’s the buzz going around the city,” running back Arian Foster said. “Houston has been wanting a winning team here for a long time. We’re glad that we can finally provide that little spark, but we’ve got to go finish.”

For the Bengals, it’s either win or be finished.

They got manhandled in Pittsburgh 35-7 last Sunday, their first lopsided loss of the season. Everything went wrong in a game the Bengals tried to forget immediately.

That’s not so easy.

“It feels bad,” safety Chris Crocker said a few days later. “It’s embarrassing to get beat like that, but we have to move on.”

Can they?

The defense had kept them in close games until last Sunday. The Steelers ran for 136 yards — the most that the Bengals had allowed all season. A week earlier, Cleveland ran for 134. The game on Sunday is likely to come down to whether Cincinnati’s run defense can get its act together.

The Texans ran the ball 44 times for 162 yards against the Falcons last week, protecting their young quarterback. Yates threw it 25 times.

“They’ve got a rookie quarterback starting now,” Peko said. “We’ve got to get after him. When you have a rookie quarterback and a new quarterback, the run game is their best friend. We’ve got to take it away from them.”

If they can’t, they could end the game watching the Texans celebrate a title in front of what’s left of another small Bengals crowd.

“A sense of urgency is desperately needed in the preparation for this game,” offensive lineman Bobbie Williams said.