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NFL Playoffs: Cincinnati at Houston Is a Throwback Playoff Game to the Mid-90's

The Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Texans meet in a playoff rematch from last year, again in the 3 vs. 6 matchup. The Cincinnati Bengals have appeared the better team over the last month, as the Texans have limped in at 12-4 after an 11-1 start. As Bill Barnwell chronicled here, the problems for Houston really began when they were still winning those close games.

Houston comes into this game as a 4.5 point favorite at home, which seems about right on the money when you look at the power ratings, where Houston was 1.4 points better than Cincinnati for the entire season (then add in home field). Of course, if you believe in recency, you may be inclined to think this one is ripe for a Bengals win.

What does history say? Well, again I looked at past matchups in the playoffs that had the most similarity to this one. (See NFL Playoff Matchups: Seattle Seahawks at Washington Redskins, Can Seahawks Duplicate Packers Run Two Years Ago?) The results probably will surprise you.

First, the quick tale of the tape:

Cincinnati Bengals: 10-6 record, +2.1 SRS (13th), 5.2 yards per play (21st), 4.9 yards per play allowed (5th), +4 Turnovers (11th)

Houston Texans: 12-4 record, +3.5 SRS (tied for 11th), 5.5 yards per play (15th), 5.1 yards per play allowed (8th), +12 Turnovers (7th)

Cincinnati is in the postseason on the strength of their defense, which is a top 5 unit. The offense has continued to be inconsistent and ranks slightly below average. Houston, meanwhile, is likewise in with the defense performing better than the offense, though both have been on decline. The numbers point to what we also know about this game–both teams have pretty good defensive lines, led by J.J. Watt and Geno Atkins.

When we consider past similar matchups, you would expect them to be close, because not much separates them. However, when a below average offense and pretty good defense has gone on the road against a similar but slightly better team, it hasn’t worked out that way.

Sixteen games since 1990 show up as similar. It’s interesting to note that only six of them occurred in the wildcard round, so make of that what you will (and namely, it’s that this is a pretty good group of bye round teams record wise, and everyone in the playoffs has 10 wins). The average SRS rating in those games was 4.9 to 2.6 in favor of the home team, and the average point spread was 4.2 points in favor of the home team, very similar to the Texans on Saturday. Here are those sixteen games, in order of similarity.

Crazy. The home teams in these games went 15-1 (12-3-1 against the spread). Maybe it’s all just mumbo jumbo. Maybe there’s no reason that teams somewhat similar to Cincinnati have been bad in these types of games. What I do know is that in the last twenty years, teams with profiles like Cincinnati (modest SRS, pretty good defensive per play numbers, middling to below average offense) have not been the types of teams that have fared well in road playoff games. We’ve seen Houston struggle in some games against elite quarterbacks (Green Bay and New England come to mind), but I think the big issue here is whether the Bengals can muster offense and find someone else besides A.J. Green to step up. If not, J.J. Watt will continue the dominance that he flashed last year in the same game.

[photo via USA Today Sports Images]

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