A week ago, before we all witnessed the slow-motion trainwrecks passing for the Bengals and Texans, most folks pegged these two franchises as likely playoff teams. After all, Houston won the division a year ago with Brock Osweiler, and Cincinnati improved this offseason after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
The Texans solved their Osweiler problem by dumping him on the Browns, who eventually dumped him altogether. Houston traded up in the first round to grab Deshaun Watson, and three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt entered the season fully healthy after playing in just three games in 2016 because of a back injury. And the team signed one of the league's best players, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, to a long-term deal. On paper, Houston looked very, very good.
On the field, they were an unmitigated disaster.
And unlike the Chiefs, who went into Foxborough and demolished the Patriots, the Texans weren't playing the league's elite. They got run out of Reliant Stadium by the Jaguars. Jacksonville had gone winless in the six previous matchups against its AFC South counterparts.
How bad was it?
The Jaguars registered 10 sacks -- a franchise record -- including four from Calais Campbell. They also forced four turnovers, and Texans quarterback Tom Savage spent the first half picking himself off the turf. He was replaced at halftime by Watson, who will against the Bengals.
The Jags led in Houston 19-0 at halftime in Week 1 and cruised to a 29-7 win. For the Texans, the performance not only meant they were 0-1, but they only had four days to regroup.
"'It was a terrible day on offense, but it wasn't that much better defensively ... we have a lot of work to do,'' coach Bill O'Brien said afterwards. ''I told the team we've got to stick together and we've got to get back to work right away.''
And Watt, who injured his finger in the first half and had just one tackle on the afternoon, was just as disgusted.
''Terrible,'' he said. ''There's only way to go from here and that's up. Can't play much worse.''
There's more: On Monday, the Texans' injury report included 21 names. Among those names: both quarterbacks, Hopkins, Watt and Jadeveon Clowney.
Meanwhile, the Bengals have their own issues. A year after going 6-9-1, the expectation was that this group would return to the form that saw it make the playoffs every year from 2011-15, which coincided with quarterback Andy Dalton's arrival in Cincinnati. Instead, the Bengals stumbled their way to one of their most embarrassing efforts and were blanked 20-0 in Sunday's home opener against the Ravens.
Dalton, considered the stabilizing force in an offense that runs through him, had five turnovers, including four interceptions.
The knock against Dalton has always been that he struggled when the lights were the brightest -- either in nationally televised games or in the postseason -- but this was a 1 p.m. ET kickoff at home in the season opener. This wasn't about nerves, this was just a lot of bad football.
"I didn't give us a chance to win this game," Dalton said after the game. "I didn't give us a chance to score the points we needed to win. It starts with me. ... You have to bounce back. That's where we're at right now. We're in a position where we have to bounce back and we have to come out and play way better than we did today. ... I don't have any doubt in this team that we're going to do that. I feel like we've got the right guys that can handle this."
On Thursday in Cincinnati, two teams that expected to challenge for playoff spots will face off after underwhelming Week 1 performances. And God help the loser of this game. Because at 0-2, they'll immediately find themselves in the middle of the "must-win" maelstrom, replete with ancillary conversations about the head coach's job security.
The last time we met ...
You only have to go back to Week 16 of last season when Savage, making his first career start, led three scoring drives after halftime to help the Texans to a 12-10 win, sealing the AFC South title and in the process giving the Bengals their ninth loss on the season. Savage finished 18 of 29 for 176 yards a week after he replaced the struggling Osweiler in the lineup.
The Bengals came into the game playing for pride, which is what happens late in the season when you've won just two of your last seven games. Dalton did his best to keep Cincy in the game; he finished 28 of 41 for 268 yards, including an early fourth-quarter touchdown that gave the Bengals the lead. A 24-yard touchdown run by Alfred Blue several minutes later sealed the win for the Texans.
"The way this season's gone, when we've needed to make a play, we haven't been able to do it," Dalton said at the time. "It's not one thing that's caused it. It's just the way things have gone this year. It's kind of been how our season's been, and it's unfortunate it's been that way."
Those lingering concerns have followed the Bengals into 2017. Whether it was just the first week or longer-term issues remains up for debate.
Should Deshaun Watson replace Tom Savage?
Two years ago, Bill O'Brien named Brian Hoyer his starter. That lasted a little more than three quarters until O'Brien Hoyer for Ryan Mallett. By mid-October, Mallett had played his way out of a job and . So it was no surprise when O'Brian named Savage the Texans' starter during the preseason and then, 30 minutes into the regular-season opener, gave him the Hoyer treatment.
Watson, the team's 2017 first-round pick, will be under center on Thursday night, and he will join the Browns' DeShone Kizer as the only two rookie quarterbacks to start. And while we all know why the Texans drafted Watson, should Savage have been yanked after just two quarters?
Put another way: What's O'Brien doing? We saw this to start the 2015 season and it's happened again. O'Brien is a quarterbacks coach -- that was one of the reasons he was hired in Houston. But his inability to stick to a decision about the most important player on the field makes you wonder what he's been looking at for the last six weeks.
CBSSports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora .
No coach has a quicker hook. No coach has been more prone to bench his starter mere quarters into the season. And no coach has been as predisposed to knee-jerk reactions that call into question why he gave invaluable starting reps leading into a season to one man, only to quickly reverse course without even three full quarters of regular-season game play than O'Brien. ...
It's an old and tired script, one that doesn't exactly unite a locker room, and the decision to move forward with rookie Deshaun Watson -- make no mistake, that's what's going to happen regardless of how long O'Brien waits to announce it -- is perilous at best given this team's limitations in pass protection as currently constructed. After reviewing the film of Savage's performance in Sunday's loss to the Jags -- and that of his teammates and coaches -- I'm more convinced than ever that Savage deserved so much better than to be stripped of his job at halftime.
As La Canfora points out -- and anybody with even a good eye already knows from watching the game -- the issue isn't so much Savage, NFL quarterback, but the Texans' inability to protect whomever was under center. Yes, Savage was sacked a whopping six times, but Watson went down four times too. There are bigger problems here, ones that won't go away just because you change the guy calling the plays in the huddle. Unless Watson can implore his offensive line to block in ways that Savage couldn't, the offense will continue to sputter and the Texans will continue to lose.
Meanwhile, about Daytime Dalton ...
It's hard to explain exactly why Dalton's Week 1 performance resembled one usually reserved for a national-television audience, but here we are. We're now at the point where Dalton's travails on the biggest stage have become slightly overblown, but since this game will be for a national audience we're compelled to look back at how different Dalton is when the sun is overhead and the coverage is regional.
Here's the game-by-game breakdown of his performances in nationally televised and primetime games dating back to his rookie season:
- Wild-card loss to the Texans, 31-10. Dalton: 27 of 42; 0 TDs, 3 INTs
- Monday Night Football, Week 1 loss to the Ravens, 44-13. Dalton: 22 of 37 for 221 yards; 0 TDs, 1 INT
- Sunday Night Football, Week 7 loss to the Steelers, 24-17. Dalton: 14 of 28 for 105 yards; 1 TD, 1 INT
- Thursday Night Football, Week 14 win over the Eagles, 34-13. Dalton: 13 of 27 for 127 yards; 1 TD, 0 INTs
- Wild-card loss to the Texans, 19-13. Dalton: 14 of 30 for 127 yards; 0 TDs, 1 INT
- Monday Night Football, Week 2 win over the Steelers, 20-10. Dalton: 25 of 45 for 280 yards; 1 TD, 0 INTs
- Thursday Night Football, Week 9 overtime loss to the Dolphins, 22-20. Dalton: 32 of 53 for 338 yards; 0 TDs, 3 INTs
- Sunday Night Football, Week 15 loss to the Steelers, 30-20. Dalton: 25 of 44 for 230 yards; 2 TDs, 0 INTs
- Wild -card loss to the Chargers, 27-10. Dalton: 29 of 51 for 334 yards; 1 TD, 2 INTs
- Sunday Night Football, Week 5 loss to the Patriots, 43-17. Dalton: 15 of 24 for 204 yards; 2 TDs, 0 INTs
- Thursday Night Football, Week 10 loss to the Browns, 24-3. Dalton: 10 of 33 for 86 yards; 0 TDs, 3 INTs
- Monday Night Football, Week 16 win over the Broncos, 37-28. Dalton: 17 of 25 for 146 yards; 2 TDs, 1 INT
- Sunday Night Football, Week 17 loss to the Steelers, 27-17. Dalton: 27 of 38 for 244 yards; 2 TDs, 2 INTs
- Wild-card loss to the Colts, 26-14. Dalton: 18 of 35 for 155 yards; 0 TDs, 0 INTs
- Sunday Night Football, Week 9 win over the Browns, 31-10. Dalton: 21 of 27 for 234 yards; 3 TDs, 0 INTs
- Monday Night Football, Week 10 loss to the Texans, 10-6. Dalton: 22 of 38 for 197 yards; 0 TDs, 1 INT
* Dalton injured the thumb on his throwing hand in the Week 14 loss to the Steelers, ending his 2015 season.
- Sunday Night Football, Week 15 win over the 49ers, 24-14. McCarron: 15 of 21, 192 yards; 1 TD, 0 INTs
- Monday Night Football, Week 16 overtime loss to the Broncos, 20-17. McCarron: 22 of 35 for 200 yards; 1 TD, 0 INTs
- Wild-card loss to the Steelers, 18-16. McCarron: 23 of 41 for 212 yards; 1 TD, 1 INT
- Thursday Night Football, Week 4 win over the Dolphins, 22-7. Dalton: 22 of 31 for 296 yards; 1 TD, 0 INTs
- Sunday Night Football, Week 8 tie vs. the Redskins, 27-27. Dalton: 27 of 42 for 284 yards; 1 TD, 1 INT
- Monday Night Football, Week 10 loss to the Giants, 21-20. Dalton: 16 of 29 for 204 yards; 1 TD, 1 INT
- Saturday Night Football, Week 16 loss to the Texans, 12-10. Dalton: 28 of 41 for 268 yards; 1 TD, 1 INT
Prime time record: 5-10-1
Daytime record: 51-25-2
Playoff record: Dalton: 0-4
Thursday night's game feels like an immovable object-irresistible force-type situation.
Fun fact (if you're not a Texans fan looking for stability at quarterback)
This explains a lot:
Keep an eye on these guys
Adam Jones. The cornerback was suspended for the first game of the season and he'll make his debut on Thursday night. One of his big takeaways from watching the blowout loss to the Ravens as a spectator? Watching his teammates help Baltimore players up off the turf after a play. That stops now.
"I'm not big in helping nobody up. And I have friends that play on other teams," Jones said, via ESPN.com. "But especially when we're losing. I'm definitely not when we're winning, I'm really not when we're losing. The competitive edge, you just have to keep it up at a high level and realize that everybody's playing for jobs. We're going to make mistakes, but don't forget the competitiveness."
Carl Lawson. The former Auburn standout was mentioned as a possible first-round pick in the weeks leading up to the draft but Lawson lasted until Round 4. A pass-rushing terror in college, Lawson picked up where he left off during the preseason. And last Sunday, he was one of the few bright spots for the Bengals -- he had four QB hurries and graded out as Cincy's best player, according to Pro Football Focus. Given the Texans offensive line's struggle to block, Lawson could be in for a big evening.
The Texans' injury report. There were five players in concussion protocol on Monday -- inside linebacker Brian Cushing, wide receiver Bruce Ellington and all three tight ends on the active roster, C.J. Fiedorowicz, Ryan Griffin and Stephen Anderson. By Tuesday, Fiedorowicz had been placed on injured reserve and O'Brien conceded that the others "are probably going to be out for the game" against the Bengals. This is in addition to the 16 other names on the injury report. If Houston doesn't find a way to win in Cincinnati, it feels like the season could quickly get away from O'Brien.
They said these words
O'Brien, when asked who would start for the Texans at quarterback: "I don't think there's a rule that says I have to publicly announce it."
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis telling reporters what everybody else already knows, even if O'Brien won't admit it: "We're kind of planning on it being Deshaun. Because if they made the change like they did at halftime, I would imagine it would be him coming forward here, at least this week."
Dispatches from Fantasy Island
If you're desperate for a quarterback, DeAndre Hopkins, but Watson can develop into a quality Fantasy option in two-quarterback leagues. He's worth 1 percent of your FAAB dollars."writes that Watson could be an option: "The best thing he did for Fantasy owners was lean on
Dalton, meanwhile, is among the quarterbacks you should drop: "Dalton was terrible against Baltimore in Week 1 and should struggle Thursday night against the Texans given his prime-time woes. He'll be someone to add again later this year, but there's no reason to stash him if you have a capable starting option or can swap him out."
Who ya got?
Just three of eight CBSSports.com experts have the Bengals covering the four-point spread, but seven experts have the Bengals winning straight up.
"The quarterback is up in the air for the Texans, but the offensive line is the bigger issue -- no matter who starts. The Bengals have the same problem, and Andy Dalton is coming off a bad game. Can either of these teams get the offenses going? I think the Bengals will to some extent, but it won't be easy." -- CBSSports.com's Pete Prisco, who have the Bengals winning, 20-13