HOUSTON The Houston Texans were looking forward to enjoying a bye this week before beginning their work in the playoffs as the AFCs top seed.
Instead, a terrible month in which they lost three of four games dropped the Texans to the third seed.
It has them in the exact same spot as year ago, hosting the Cincinnati Bengals in a wild-card playoff game today.
The Texans wasted little time this week lamenting their missed opportunities, though, instead focusing on their next task.
Would we like to be in a different situation? Yeah, but at the same time, its the playoffs. Its the start of the playoffs. Everything youve done up to this point, it doesnt really matter, Houstons Andre Johnson said.
It only matters what you do now ... we just have to take advantage of the opportunity we have now.
Theyll face a Cincinnati team that enters having won three in a row and seven of its last eight games.
The Bengals are in the playoffs for consecutive seasons for the first time since 1981-82. Their last playoff win came Jan. 6, 1991 against the Oilers, the team the Texans replaced in Houston.
Cincinnati offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said he isnt worried about the more than 20-year streak of playoff futility. He wants to focus on the improvement this young team has made.
Last year, we did what it took to get into the playoffs when a lot of people predicted us to be 0-16, Whitworth said.
This year, we got back in to the playoffs when a lot of people didnt think we could. Were here. The next step is winning a playoff game. Hopefully, we can let that be a chip on our shoulder.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was sacked four times and threw three interceptions in last years 31-10 postseason loss to the Texans.
Houston defensive end J.J. Watt returned one of those interceptions 29 yards for a touchdown that gave the Texans a lead they wouldnt relinquish.
Dalton, who grew up in suburban Houston, believes hes grown since that game and learned from the mistakes he made.
I definitely feel like Im a better quarterback this year, he said.
Ive got more control of the offense. Theres a lot more stuff that Im doing at the line of scrimmage and making checks and doing different things this year than I was doing last year. But thats helped me become a better player.
Another player who has improved in Year 2 is Watt. The defensive end led the NFL with 20½ sacks this season, has 107 tackles, including 39 for losses, 16 passes defended and has forced four fumbles.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis got creative this week when asked how he planned to stop Watt.
I wrote a letter to the commissioner to petition for 13, Lewis joked. I figure if we put a guy on each side of him and a guy in front of him, weve got a good opportunity.
Then Lewis got serious.
Hes been an incredible player, and hes fun to watch if youre not preparing to play the Texans, Lewis said.
Hes a great model for young players to look at and be like. He really is something.
Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who has been coaching in the NFL since 1976, couldnt say enough about Watts performance this season.
This is the best defensive line play of anybody since Ive been in football, Phillips said. He is by far the best defensive player. He should obviously be the defensive player of the year in the league.
The AFC South champion Texans are also in the playoffs for the second consecutive year, the only two times in franchise history. Houston lost to the Ravens in the second round after beating the Bengals last January.
The Texans believe that experience will help them this time.
I feel like weve come a long ways, Watt said.
Obviously, this isnt new to us. This is something weve been through before. Were excited. We cant wait. We had a taste of the playoffs last year, and were really excited to get back in it this year and to go to work.
Third-string quarterback T.J. Yates was behind center last year after injuries knocked out Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart.
Now, Schaub, a nine-year veteran, will get his first postseason start.
Hes looking to bounce back from a tough month in which he threw three interceptions with just one touchdown pass. Hell try to do it with two big weapons in Johnson and Arian Foster.
Johnson led the AFC with a career-high 1,598 yards receiving, and Foster finished second in the AFC in rushing with 1,424 yards.
They have three or four guys who have been playmakers in this league for a while, Bengals cornerback Leon Hall said of the Texans.
It starts with Foster. Obviously, they have Johnson outside. It starts with knowing that we have to stop the run. If you dont stop the run, youre on your heels for the rest of the game.
Schaub and Houstons offensive line will have their hands full with a defense that boasts two solid pass-rushers in tackle Geno Atkins and end Michael Johnson. The pair has combined for 24 sacks this season, and the Texans have given up three or more sacks in each of the last three games.
Pressure and those types of things, we have our work cut out for us, coach Gary Kubiak said. Were going to have to play better than we have the past few weeks.