- Associated Press - Saturday, January 7, 2012

First playoff game, first postseason win in Houston Texans history.

Next up: the Baltimore Ravens.

Rookie J.J. Watt’s leaping interception return for a touchdown late in the first half propelled the Texans to a 31-10 rout of the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday in an AFC wild-card game.

After watching the playoffs from home for nine seasons, the AFC South champion Texans (11-6) are postseason newcomers no more. They’ll take on the AFC North champion Ravens (12-4) in Baltimore next Sunday.

“This team believes,” running back Arian Foster said. “I’ve never been around a team like this before. We don’t need anyone else to believe.”

Third-string quarterback T.J. Yates, a rookie pressed into action when Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart were lost for the season with injuries, threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Andre Johnson. Foster followed with his second touchdown of the game, a 42-yard run in the fourth quarter, to finish off the Bengals (9-8).

Foster also scored on an 8-yard run in the first quarter to tie it at 7, and finished with 153 yards on 24 carries.

“The way we ran the ball today,” Yates said, “it will be hard to stop us in the playoffs.”

The Detroit Lions (10-6) were making their first playoff appearance since 1999, taking on record-breaking Drew Brees and the Saints (13-3) at New Orleans later Saturday.

In Sunday’s two matchups, Atlanta (10-6) is at the New York Giants (9-7), and Pittsburgh (12-4) is at Denver (8-8).

At Houston, Watt returned the first of rookie Andy Dalton’s three interceptions 29 yards for a score that broke a 10-all tie with 52 seconds left in the half.

As the game’s final seconds ticked away, Houston coach Gary Kubiak walked down the sideline, a broad smile on his face, and smacked hands with players and assistant coaches.

“As soon as we settled down and got in the groove,” Foster said, “we did what we do best.”

At East Rutherford, N.J., Eli Manning and the Giants are coming off big wins over the rival Jets and Cowboys to reach the playoffs after missing out the last two years and putting coach Tom Coughlin’s job in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, the Falcons are in the playoffs for the second straight year and third time in four seasons. But that experience hasn’t led to success as quarterback Matt Ryan has failed to lead the team to a victory.

“Yeah, it’s about time we won,” Falcons receiver Roddy White said. “This is our third time in the playoffs in four years. It’s about time we get a `W.’”

Manning, who was the Super Bowl MVP four years ago, is among a small core group remaining from the franchise’s third championship team.

“We have a lot of guys on this team that haven’t been in the playoffs before,” Manning said. “It’s a new year. We have different players. It’s a new team. It’s a new environment. We know what’s ahead of us and we can’t start looking too far up there.”

The key for the Giants will be slowing Michael Turner, who rushed for 1,340 yards, and Ryan, who threw for a career-best 4,177 yards and 29 touchdowns. White is Ryan’s top target, catching an NFC-leading 100 passes for 1,296 yards and eight touchdowns.

“I think we match up pretty well,” White said. “They’ve given up 71 explosive plays, so we’ve got to go up there and get some. That’s what we’re looking to do and exploit those guys in different aspects with mismatches.”

At Denver, Tim Tebow is looking to bounce back from a rough stretch with his first playoff appearance for the Broncos.

One of the NFL’s most intriguing stories, Tebow won seven of his first eight starts before losing his last three while completing just 30 of 73 passes with one touchdown, four interceptions and 10 sacks to go with three lost fumbles.

“The kid does have some special qualities and he rises to the challenge on the big stage, and that’s what the playoffs are all about,” said former Broncos safety John Lynch, now a Fox Sports analyst. “Here’s his opportunity.”

Well, not if the Steelers have any say. Despite having four more wins than the Broncos, they find themselves on the road after having to settle for a wild-card spot.

Pittsburgh is considered a heavy favorite despite running back Rashard Mendenhall (knee) being out for the year and All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey (ankle) possibly sidelined for the game. The Steelers’ top tackler, safety Ryan Clark, is sitting out as a precaution because of a blood disorder that’s exacerbated by altitude.

A sprained left ankle won’t keep Ben Roethlisberger on the sideline, though.

“Every year, it’s something,” said Doug Legursky, who would replace Pouncey _ as he did in the Super Bowl last year. “As long as you stay focused on what you need to do to get the job done, that won’t be a problem.”

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