CINCINNATI — Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton missed practice on Wednesday with the flu, leaving backup Bruce Gradkowski to run the Bengals' offense during another sub-freezing workout at Paul Brown Stadium.
Coach Marvin Lewis said Dalton should be back on Thursday. He's expected to play Saturday at Houston's Reliant Stadium, where he's never lost. The second-round pick grew up in the suburbs and played two games there in high school and another for TCU.
The Bengals (9-7) will be trying to get their first playoff win since the 1990 season when they play the Texans. Reliant Stadium has a retractable roof, so weather won't be an issue. The challenge is to stay healthy until then.
The temperature was 22 with a wind chill of 14 degrees when they hit the field on Tuesday. On Tuesday night, rookie receiver A.J. Green from Georgia tweeted: "It was so cold at practice today ... I couldn't feel my toes."
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Not a whole lot better on Wednesday, with a temperature of 35 degrees and a wind chill of 27 when practice ended. Players wore hoods under their helmets to try to stay warm.
Asked if it was the coldest weather he'd ever had for practice, Green said, "Oh yeah, definitely, by far. By far."
Temperatures in the 40s are forecast for Thursday's practice.
The Bengals are the only northern team without their own covered practice field either in use or under construction. They have the right under their stadium lease to cover one of their adjacent practice fields, but would have to pay for it.
The University of Cincinnati approached the NFL team about jointly building a bubble-covered field when Brian Kelly was football coach, but the Bengals declined. The university then built a practice field with a removable bubble on campus. The Bengals could rent the bubble for four hours at a standard rate of $2,500, but decided against it.
"The coaches determined there was not sufficient reason for us to get out of our regular element this week," club spokesman Jack Brennan said.
The concern on Wednesday was getting Dalton healthy and ready for one more cold-weather practice followed by a trip home. He grew up in the Houston suburb of Katy and attended games at Reliant as a fan. He won those three games there as well, making it feel like home.
"You get a chance to play in Reliant Stadium as a high school kid, it's a really cool thing," Dalton said on Tuesday. "That's how Texas high school (football) is. You get to play in NFL stadiums."
For the first time since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, a playoff game will feature two rookie quarterbacks. T.J. Yates, a fifth-round pick, took over after Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart got hurt and led the Texans to the playoffs.
Yates led a winning 80-yard touchdown drive in the final 3 minutes for a 20-19 victory at Paul Brown Stadium on Dec. 11. He and Dalton talked on the field afterward.
"It was a big, game-winning drive for him," Dalton said. "It's good to see rookies — my class — doing well. It was unfortunate that it was against us."
The overriding question with a rookie quarterback is how he'll handle playoff pressure. Dalton has the experience advantage over Yates because he won the starting job during training camp and started all 16 games. Yates started the last five games.
"I have all the confidence in Andy," cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones said. "Andy is a well-composed guy, doesn't get rattled by too much. He likes to win and likes the pressure on him."
Dalton looked like a rookie during a 31-24 loss at Baltimore on Nov. 20, throwing three interceptions that helped the Ravens get ahead 31-14 in the fourth quarter. He was much more careful over the last six games, throwing five touchdowns and only one interception in 184 attempts.
During the loss to Houston, Dalton and the offense had a miserable second half, blowing a 16-3 lead. They managed 81 yards in the second half, including only 9 yards on 14 rushes. Dalton fumbled on the second play of the half to start Houston's comeback and was 7-for-11 for 77 yards after halftime.
Dalton has been average overall much of the time, but that's been good enough to get Cincinnati into the playoffs. Four times, he's led the Bengals to victories with fourth-quarter comebacks.
"I don't think pressure's really been an issue for him," offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "The greatest competitors are the guys that want to win. They want the heat. That's a good thing — it drives them. I think Andy's one of those guys."