HOUSTON - The Houston Texans had quietly endured criticism of their late-season swoon, absorbing as motivation the popular opinion that their three-game losing streak was an omen for an early playoff exit.
Squandered momentum? The Texans shrugged aside that notion as a minor detail in a season in which they lost their top two quarterbacks and a star linebacker. On Saturday, Houston remixed a proven playoff formula, ratcheting up its running attack and its punishing defense for a 31-10 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in an AFC wild-card game at Reliant Stadium.
Arian Foster gained 153 yards on 24 carries and scored two touchdowns, his second on a 42-yard run in which he seemed trapped against the sideline but refused to be pushed out of bounds. Quarterback T.J. Yates, a third-teamer forced into action after starter Matt Schaub and then reserve Matt Leinart suffered season-ending injuries, completed 11 of 20 passes for 159 yards and a touchdown, without making the kind of crucial mistake some had predicted.
The Texans’ defense intercepted three passes, returning one for a touchdown, and held Cincinnati scoreless in the second half.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, a rookie, threw for 257 yards on 27-of-42 accuracy.
The Texans, seeded third in the AFC, will meet the second-seeded Baltimore Ravens next week.
“We played the football we had been playing when we were winning,” Houston coach Gary Kubiak said. “They found out a lot about themselves the last three weeks. We narrowed our goals and just talked about winning a playoff game. We got back to playing our type of football.”
The Texans took control with 1 minute, 8 seconds to play in the third quarter. Yates, who had been cautious with his throws, took a chance deep. He found Andre Johnson running free down the right sideline for a 40-yard touchdown pass that gave the Texans a 24-10 lead and thrilled a crowd that came to see the team’s first postseason appearance in its 10 years of existence.
The last playoff game in Houston was in 1994, before the Oilers moved to Tennessee, and any chance these Texans had of advancing figured to involve a key play by their No. 2-ranked defense. That came 52 seconds before halftime, when defensive end J.J. Watt fought off a block from right guard Mike McGlynn, held his position and locked his eyes on Dalton.
Watt, a 6-foot-5, 288-pound rookie from Wisconsin, anticipated the pass perfectly, rising as Dalton stepped into a short throw intended for A.J. Green. The ball hit Watt’s hand and stopped in midair, long enough for him to grab it and rumble 29 yards for a touchdown that gave the Texans a 17-10 halftime lead.