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AFC WILD CARD PREVIEW

Bengals, Texans a tale of unlikely playoff teams

This photo made Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012 shows Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton throwing a pass during practice in Cincinnati, for this Saturday's NFL football playoff game in Houston. Dalton missed practice Wednesday with a flu but is expected to return Thursday. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)

Al Behrman/AP

Andy Dalton will travel to Houston for a playoff start in his rookie season.

The Bengals travel to play the Texans on Saturday in an AFC wild-card game. The Boston Globe looks at the matchups:

When: Saturday, 4:30 p.m.

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Where: Houston

TV, radio: Ch. 7, WEEI (joined in progress on radio)

Bengals on offense: It would be an understatement to say rookie quarterback Andy Dalton exceeded expectations. Projected by many as a fourth- or fifth-round pick, the Bengals tapped Dalton in the second round and he has developed into a solid leader. Dalton is smart and tough and has commanding presence in the huddle. He has taken a beating (24 sacks and untold hits) but he continues to stand in the pocket and deliver catchable balls. Fellow rookie A.J. Green has made Dalton’s job easier. A superb athlete with tremendous size (6 feet 3 inches, 211 pounds), Green uses speed and strength to gain separation quickly. Jerome Simpson is a solid tight end, while Jermaine Gresham has outstanding hands and a nose for the end zone. Cedric Benson put up another 1,000-yard campaign, and the perennial bad boy is still running hard.

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Texans on defense: Houston’s strength is in its linebackers. Brian Cushing (114 tackles) has excellent recognition and balance. He sheds blockers quickly and will explode into opponents with frightening force. DeMeco Ryans is always in the thick of things.

Texans on offense: Houston has had a revolving door at quarterback because of injuries. It doesn’t matter who is under center (T.J. Yates or Jake Delhomme), this offense revolves around Arian Foster. The muscular, tackle-breaking tailback piled up more than 1,800 yards from scrimmage and carried this team to the playoffs despite myriad injuries to its stars. Foster is one of the true workhorse backs in the NFL. Rookie Yates has shown great poise and toughness. He’s very accurate on dump-offs and intermediate routes. His accuracy suffers on long balls. Andre Johnson is an elite receiver. If he’s healthy (balky hammies), he uses superb speed and strength to get open. He’s too strong for defensive backs and too slick for linebackers. Owen Daniels, Jacoby Jones, and Kevin Walter are reliable receivers.

Bengals on defense: Read-and-react linebackers Thomas Howard (99 tackles) and Rey Maualuga (88) are inside monsters. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins had 8 sacks while massive end Michael Johnson (6-7, 267) had 5.5. Versatile and rangy safety Reggie Nelson had 85 tackles, 4 INTs, and 2 sacks.

Special teams: Brandon Tate (you remember him) is Cincinnati’s main return man. He is averaging 23.8 yards on 42 kick returns and 10.7 on 51 punt returns, including a touchdown . . . Mike Nugent has hit 33 of 38 field goals (with a long of 49) and has missed 1 of 34 PATs . . . Kevin Huber averages 44.2 yards on 91 punts and has a long of 71 yards . . . Danieal Manning has done the bulk of the kickoff-return duty for Houston, averaging 27.4 yards on 13 returns, though Sherrick McManis and Quintin Demps also return kicks . . . Jacoby Jones averages 10.6 yards on 49 punt returns, including a 79-yard TD . . . Neil “Nerve’’ Rackers has hit 32 of 38 FGs with a long of 54. He has missed 1 of 40 PATs . . . Matt Turk has taken over the punting duties the last month, averaging 42.7 yards on 16 punts.

Miscellany: This is the Texans’ first trip to the postseason . . . Houston beat Cincinnati, 20-19, in Week 14 when Yates connected with Walter with two seconds left . . . This is Bengals’ third postseason trip under Marvin Lewis (2005, 2009).

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