The Bengals are 8-0, off to the best start in franchise history. They nearly have the AFC North wrapped up -- way behind in second place are the 5-4 Pittsburgh Steelers, who already lost to Cincinnati at home. The Bengals have their eyes set on a first-round bye in the playoffs, but they'll have to avoid overlooking opponents like the Texans.
Cincinnati has already exorcised one demon in this historic start, which was that of primetime Andy Dalton. Dalton has traditionally struggled when under the bright national TV lights, but he had little trouble putting away the Cleveland Browns last Thursday night. Dalton completed 21 of 27 passes for 234 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions as the Bengals cruised to a 31-16 win.
The Bengals have done plenty right in their undefeated start, showing little signs of the "Bungles" that have defined the franchise for generations. Now comes the tricky part of being a contender: Avoiding trap games. Cincinnati has a road game with the Arizona Cardinals in Week 11, and it needs to stay focused on the here and now instead of looking ahead to future opponents. And, of course, there's that last mountain to climb -- the elusive playoff win under Marvin Lewis. It certainly looks possible this year, but as with everything else, the Bengals will cross that bridge when they get to it.
As for the Texans, their goal is to stay afloat in a weak AFC South. With Andrew Luck set to miss 2-6 weeks with a lacerated kidney, first place could be up for grabs. So the Texans still have a lot to play for despite being 3-5.
Houston is coming off a bye week after handling the Tennessee Titans, 20-6, in Week 8. Their offense remains a question mark with Arian Foster done for the year and Brian Hoyer playing a strict game manager role. If Houston is to keep this game competitive, it will need the defense to play better than it has this year.
If the season ended today, the Bengals would have the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. This is mainly due to their conference record (7-0) being slightly better than the New England Patriots' (6-0), so beating the Texans takes on additional importance. The Bengals don't play the Patriots this year, but they do have a Week 16 road date with the Denver Broncos.
Cincinnati's success has come almost in spite of running back Jeremy Hill. After finishing eighth in the league with 1,124 yards in just eight starts last year, Hill was expected to do even bigger things in 2015. Instead, he has just 344 rushing yards and is averaging 3.3 yards per carry, a stark drop from last year's 5.1 average. Giovani Bernard has outplayed him in nearly every way, rushing for 511 yards and averaging 5.6 yards per carry.
Despite Hill's struggles, the Bengals' offense continues to hum along, ranking 11th in rushing yards and seventh in passing yards per game. On defense, Carlos Dunlap leads the way with 8.5 sacks, while Geno Atkins (finally healthy after a torn ACL in 2013) has six.
Houston's offense is just 29th in rushing yards per game, which doesn't figure to improve with Foster out. Alfred Blue has just 273 yards on 74 carries in eight games this year, an average of 3.7 yards per carry. With Chris Polk and Jonathan Grimes behind Blue, this figures to be an ugly committee for the rest of the year as Bill O'Brien searches for a hot hand.
The offense does rank sixth in passing yards per game, but a lot of that is due to garbage time production in blowout losses. Houston's defense continues to be a sieve, giving up 123.5 rushing yards and 25.6 points per game.
If there's one bright side, it's that J.J. Watt is back to his usual self. After a quiet stretch (by his standards) of just four sacks in the first six games, Watt more than doubled that with 2.5 sacks in each of last two games. Whitney Mercilus is also enjoying a hot streak with 5.5 sacks in the past three games. If Jadeveon Clowney starts living up to his potential, this has the makings of the fearsome pass rush we all expected before the season.
Who to watch
DeAndre Hopkins, Texans wide receiver: Despite the Texans' struggles, one shining beacon has been the emergence of Hopkins in his third season. Through eight games, Hopkins is fourth in the league with 66 catches, third with 870 yards and tied for seventh with six touchdowns. With a killer combination of precise route running, sticky hands and huge catch radius, Hopkins has proven almost impossible to cover. He has fully grasped Andre Johnson's torch as the next great Texans wideout.
Tyler Eifert, Bengals tight end: Pop quiz: Who leads the NFL in touchdown catches? It's not Julio Jones, or Odell Beckham Jr. or Rob Gronkowski. It's Tyler Eifert with nine scores in eight games. After a lost 2014 season, the 2013 first-rounder is finally living up to his draft pedigree, becoming a matchup nightmare for almost any opponent. When the Bengals are in the red zone, chances are good that Dalton will look Eifert's way.
How to watch
When: 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio
Announcers: Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters
The Bengals are 12-point favorites with an over/under of 47, according to OddsShark.
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