HOUSTON All week, the Houston Texans spoke of momentum as though it were an easily obtained commodity.
Arian Foster even scoffed at the concept, attaching identity on a per-game basis rather than importance to, say, the fact that Houston had lost three of its last four games and botched a chance at home-field advantage and an opening-round bye that comes with that.
After settling for three first-half field goals despite outplaying the Cincinnati Bengals, the once-formidable and 11-1 Texans appeared primed for an early playoff exit. Buoyed by Foster and a defense that did not allow a touchdown, Houston regained its swagger in a 19-13 victory Saturday in the AFC wild-card game.
The Texans advanced to the divisional round for the second year in a row and will play the Patriots next Sunday in New England. Houston also will receive a shot at redemption, having lost to the Patriots 42-14 on Dec. 10, a rout that began the Texans' slide.
"These guys have stayed the course the whole way," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "They've been part of an up-and-down month, and that's the reason we won today, because the guys on this team didn't panic and didn't quit."
The 10-7 Bengals, who were searching for their first postseason victory since after the 1990 season, endured their second consecutive playoff loss to the Texans.
Foster rushed for 140 yards on 32 carries and scored Houston's only touchdown on a one-yard run. He also became the first player in NFL history to rush for more than 100 yards in the first three playoff games of his career.
Texans quarterback Matt Schaub was 29 of 38 for 262 yards. He also threw an interception that was returned for Cincinnati's only touchdown.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton finished 14-of-30 passing for 127 yards.
The Texans dominated the first half, but the payoff was three field goals by Shayne Graham and only a 9-7 lead, reflecting their frustrating inability to score touchdowns during their late-season slide. Houston controlled the ball for nearly 16 minutes; Schaub was 19 of 26 for 144 yards; Foster averaged 5.4 yards on 16 carries; and the Texans outgained the Bengals 250-53.
Still, Houston managed to turn a statistical blowout into a suspenseful two quarters. Schaub provided the most nerve-racking moment for the record crowd of 71,738 at Reliant Stadium when he decided to throw a short pass on third-and-three from his 19-yard line to fullback James Casey near the left sideline.
Cornerback Leon Hall read Schaub's lapse in judgment perfectly and snared the ball in stride. His 21-yard interception return gave the Bengals a 7-6 lead midway through the second quarter, presenting another fearful scenario for the Texans.
"It's been a gut check for this organization the past month, and the players led the way," Kubiak said. "We didn't panic."
Graham had become the Texans' only reliable weapon during their monthlong fall from the AFC's top seed to No. 3, kicking 10 field goals in the final three regular-season games. So when the offense could not find the end zone again in the first half, the crowd greeted the decision to use Graham with a mix of boos and shouts to go for it on fourth down.
Two of those failed drives ended with fourth-and-three situations inside Cincinnati's 10-yard line in the second quarter. The Texans were stopped at the 4- and 9-yard line, giving Graham easy field goals of 22 and 27 yards. He also made a 48-yarder in the first quarter after the Texans failed to convert on a third-and-two play.
There were no critical decisions to be questioned on the Texans first possession of the third quarter. They drove 51 yards in six plays and scored on Foster's one-yard run, taking a 16-7 lead and re-establishing a sense of their former dominant selves that had been missing of late.
Now comes the big test: Playing the Patriots in Foxborough.
"It's one step," defensive end J.J. Watt told the Associated Press after Saturday's win. "We know what it means, and we have bigger goals than that."
He's glad the team got back on track this week but knows Houston will have to play better to beat the Patriots.
"They know what they're doing in the playoffs," Watt said. "They've been here many times before. They know what it takes, so it's going to take everything we have, and we're really excited about the challenge."