The revolution will be televised.
After sludging through 15 weeks with Brock Osweiler as his starting quarterback, Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien finally pulled the plug on his expensive experiment this week when he named Tom Savage the starter for their Week 16 matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals. The move came after Savage dramatically improved the Texans’ stagnant offense while leading Houston back from a 13-point deficit in place of Osweiler against the visiting Jaguars.
Entrenched as the starter — well, at least during his one-game audition — Savage is now tasked with leading Houston’s charge toward the postseason, one that begins with a familiar foe.
The Texans know the Bengals well, and they’ve had their number. Houston has taken six of their last seven meetings, including two wild-card wins at what-was-then-called Reliant Stadium.
Houston can afford to lose to Cincinnati and still take the AFC South with a win over the Titans in Week 17. But if Tennessee somehow falls to the Doug Marrone-led Jaguars this Saturday afternoon, the Texans can clinch the division with a prime-time win.
So even though Cincinnati’s hopes of a sixth consecutive postseason berth are dead and buried, Marvin Lewis’ squad still has the opportunity to play spoiler against the team that initiated their recent stretch of playoff misery.
Here’s what to watch for when the Bengals (5-8-1) take on the Texans (8-6) at NRG Field, exclusively on NFL Network:
1. Tom Savage is real, but can he be spectacular? If he employs the help of Houston’s offensive star, perhaps. In relief of Osweiler, the third-year quarterback demonstrated a stronger arm on passes past the sticks, had a more confident pocket presence and threw for 260 yards while leading a methodical comeback. But most importantly, he finally — FINALLY — got talented and oft-forgotten wideout DeAndre Hopkins involved. Hopkins saw 17 targets against the Jags, the most he’s seen all season and the second-most in his career. With Savage leading the offense, Hopkins also tallied his most receiving yards (87) in a game since Week 2. Thirteen weeks is far too long of a time for Hopkins to not have eclipsed the 100-yard mark. Will he top it against Cincinnati? The Bengals’ pass defense is middle of the road, but still boasts meddlesome cornerbacks in Adam Jones jersey and Dre Kirkpatrick. So all bets are off, especially considering this is Savage’s first ever start. But if we are to take the QB at his words — “I’m going to have some fun doing it and go rip it” — then we should be in for a Hopkins-heavy approach and a Texans offense that looks at least competent and at best explosive.
2. The Bengals are better than their 5-8-1 record suggests. The problem this season, aside from their offensive line, is that they’ve been saddled with injuries to their significant players. Tyler Eifert jersey missed six games to start the season (and won’t play Saturday with a back injury). Then Gio Bernard went on IR. More recently, it was A.J. Green’s four-week hiatus that sunk Cincy’s playoff aspirations. But come Saturday night, Cincinnati could have its All-Pro wideout back on the sideline. Green said Thursday that, after sitting out four games with a bum hamstring, he is healthy enough to play this week. The news of Green’s impending return is a boon for Andy Dalton and a Bengals offense that have been held to under 200 passing yards in each of their last two tests. While it’s too little, too late this season, Cincy fans can grab a glimpse this week and next of the Bengals offense that could have been.
3. Lost in all the hubbub surrounding Houston’s QB catastrophe is that the Texans’ defense has held its own sans J.J. Watt jersey, thanks in most part to the emergence of their prized top pick. Maybe it’s not news anymore, but it’s worth repeating: Jadeveon Clowney has finally made the leap. The athletic, but fragile third-year defensive end is having a healthy career year in place of Watt and is picking up the pace as the postseason nears. In his last two games, Clowney has two sacks, five QB hits and three TFLs, and his 14 tackles for loss are good for fourth in the league. Clowney’s speed off the line has been his most impressive asset; he boasts the quickest snap-to-tackle time (3.7 seconds) over any lineman with at least 30 tackles. The end should feast against Cincy’s O-line, which has allowed 37 sacks this season (third-most in league), and continue his impressive campaign.