|Dalton starts the game off quite well, but tails off to finish with three interceptions and no touchdowns. (AP)|
HOUSTON -- Andy Dalton was controlled and smart, demonstrating in a tied game the kind of poise rarely seen in a rookie during a playoff contest. The Bengals, in many ways, were in control. The clock ticked to under a minute in the first half and then a Texas-sized avalanche hit. It began with a man named J.J. Watt.
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To say the roof caved in on the Bengals would be an understatement. The only thing that didn't fall on the heads of the Cincinnati players was the moon and the stars. It all seemed so promising for them until Watt's interception came with about 50 seconds left in that first half.
Dalton threw what seemed like a routine pass short to his back near the flat. The defensive lineman Watt plucked it out of the sky like it was a piece of fruit on a low hanging branch. Candy. Stealing. Baby. He ran 29 yards for the game-changing touchdown.
The score was just 17-10 at the half, yet after that play the game felt much more lopsided. Dalton looked deflated shaking his head and wincing, and many of the Bengals players, hands on hips, moved slowly off the field. One play changed everything and a Texans defense that some called overrated (at times it is) won the game. The 31-10 score wasn't indicative of how much Houston dominated after that critical Watt play.
"After J.J.'s interception it got to them," said linebacker Brian Cushing. And by "it" Cushing meant the pressure of the moment.
|There were chances to take control of the game, all of which disappeared (along with their season) when Andy Dalton's interception to J.J. Watt gave the Texans the lead for good and deflated the offense, which had no run game to speak of. The run defense, which was a disaster last week, cratered in the second half under the weight of Pro Bowler Arian Foster's performance.|
|Feeding off their crowd, the Texans shook off the early jitters of playing in their first postseason game and looked a lot like the team that ripped off seven straight wins at one point. RB Arian Foster (153 yards, two touchdowns) powered the offense, while the "Bulls on Parade" defense gored the Bengals with three interceptions and four sacks.|
|By Brandon Williams|
Dalton will learn from this. He's too smart. Too talented. But he ran into a Houston defense that was hot at the right time and, like 1,000 other rookies in 1,000 other playoff battles, he melted under the heat. Indeed, once again, the entire Bengals group did. Cincinnati becomes the first team in postseason history to participate in four straight playoff games, score first in each, and then lose each of those contests. Choking is in the Bengal DNA. But this was as much about Houston's defense as it was Dalton and the Bengals falling apart late in the game. The Watt play energized Houston's defense. It was actually a remarkable scene. The entire Reliant Stadium, already extremely loud, sounded like a rocket ship had just ignited its engines. Houston players went into another dimension.
Dalton finished the first half 13 of 18 for 120 yards. The Cincinnati offense had 156 total yards. In the second half, Dalton would complete only 14 more passes, throw two more interceptions and finish the game with a 51.4 passer rating. As the Houston defense smelled weakness, it picked up the intensity. The Bengals offense had just 144 yards in the second half and gave up four sacks total.
It was the prototypical feeding frenzy and it started with Watt.
"That play by J.J. was one of the best plays I've seen in my career," said Texans defensive back Johnathan Joseph, a sixth-year pro.
"That was the turning point of the game," said running back Arian Foster.
Texans players said Watt constantly tips passes during practices. Indeed, this is not the first time Watt has made a critical interception in a big game. When Watt was at Wisconsin he batted a pass thrown by quarterbacking stud Denard Robinson into the air, picked it off, ran it back and almost scored.
"I was running to the end zone trying not to fall down," Watt joked.
Didn't you have a 36-inch vertical leap at the combine, he was asked?
Is this Houston defense truly great? Is it Baltimore Ravens or Pittsburgh Steelers-like? Probably not. But are they dangerous? Hell, yes.
Just ask the overwhelmed Bengals.