JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Sitting in the nosebleed section of EverBank Field, John and Carol Yates had one of those milestone moments every parent dreams of, even if it came suddenly and unexpectedly. Likewise, the Houston Texans reached a couple of their own.
The issue now is whether the Texans, who currently hold the top seed in the AFC with five games to go, can survive all the colliding stones.
Houston survived its latest devastating injury for a 20-13 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars that put the Texans at 8-3, the first time in team history they have been five games above .500, and on track for their first playoff berth. Quarterback Matt Leinart(notes), who had just moved into the starting lineup after star Matt Schaub(notes) was knocked out for the remainder of the season with a broken foot, was sidelined in the first half against the Jacksonville Jaguars with a broken collarbone. Leinart suggested afterward that he's likely out for the rest of the season.
That left Houston with rookie T.J. Yates(notes), a fifth-round draft pick, as the quarterback. To say that Yates was relatively unknown to this point would be an understatement. He had never dressed for a regular-season game before Sunday. The only reason his parents made the short trek from Marietta, Ga., was because their son was actually going to wear a uniform rather than hold a clipboard, which he had done for 10 games.
"We were looking and wondered what was happening to Matt and then all of a sudden T.J. is on the field," John Yates said. "It was incredibly exciting, but it all happened so fast."
Quick changes have been the story of this season for the Texans and their star players. Aside from the three-headed monster that has been the quarterback position, the Texans have also lost linebacker/defensive end Mario Williams(notes) for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. On Sunday, they got wide receiver Andre Johnson(notes) back for part of the game after he missed six games with a hamstring injury. Earlier in the season, running back Arian Foster(notes) missed two full games and the better part of a third with a hamstring injury.
That's generally too many stars to cross out of a lineup and expect a team to survive. But as other Texans have done throughout the season, Yates did his best Sunday by leading a drive for a field goal at the end of the first half to put Houston up 10.
From there, Houston's defense took care of the rest as Yates did his best to stay out of harm's way. After all, with veteran quarterback Kellen Clemens(notes), who was signed last week after Schaub was put on injured reserve, still in street clothes, the backup quarterback at that point was tight end Owen Daniels(notes).
"We wanted to make sure [Yates] didn't get banged up," Houston coach Gary Kubiak said, referring to his conservative game plan in the second half.
Kubiak's next challenge is coming up with a strategy that keeps Houston on track the rest of the way. Oddly, the answer may be his defense. A year ago, the Texans couldn't stop the DVD player on their weekly defensive horror show. Now, they have the No. 1 defense in the NFL.
On Sunday, the Texans got seven sacks, including four from Connor Barwin(notes) and two from rookie J.J. Watt(notes). Yeah, it was only Jacksonville and rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert(notes), but seven sacks is no joke, particularly in a close game.
"Sometimes when you change personnel and coaches, you can get some pretty quick results," said cornerback Johnathan Joseph(notes), Houston's top free-agent acquisition in the hurried period after the lockout. "We've come together really fast and it's pretty impressive, but not surprising."
Said Watt: "Before the season, nobody would have ever asked, 'Can the Texans get carried by their defense?' But we're getting to that point. We have a lot of guys who come and fight, no matter how many guys get hurt."
That's because the other big acquisition beyond Joseph and Watt is defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. While Phillips may be a mediocre, at best, head coach, he has a fine defensive mind. His schemes and play-calling are quietly brilliant. More important, his attacking nature has fed the mentality of the unit.
"Guys picked up on things faster because Wade wants to attack and football players would much rather attack than sit back," Joseph said. "You want to be the guy punching somebody in the mouth."
That's all well and good, but Houston has to find a way to deal with yet another punch to the gut at quarterback. For his part, Yates didn't seem overwhelmed by the moment. He didn't do much (complete 8-of-15 for 70 yards), but he didn't do anything bad either. For the moment, that's enough.
"My first concern all the time was to make sure we took care of the ball and didn't have anything bad happen," said Yates, whose career at North Carolina was marked by steady improvement. The youngest of three sons, Yates has an unflappable nature.
When asked if the game seemed faster than when he played in the exhibition season, Yates said no, not really.
"He's always been like that because he played with a lot of older kids all the time. He was out there with his brothers, playing with kids six years older than him sometimes," John Yates said.
Really, about the only thing that seemed to get Yates off his game was the postgame routine. As a Texans public relations staffer prepped him for his news conference, Yates asked if he could leave his luggage in the locker room, whether he should wear a tie and when he should go into the interview room.
Compared to playing, it was a lot more complicated.
Houston hopes that's a sign of things to come.
Here are the winners and losers for Week 12:
• For as much as I have criticized the way Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow(notes) plays (I still don't believe he's going to be effective in the long run), you have to give credit where credit is due. On the game-tying drive in the fourth quarter against the San Diego Chargers, Tebow made two sensational throws – a 39-yard toss to Eric Decker(notes) and a 23-yarder to Dante Rosario(notes) – to get the Broncos in field goal position. He also made a good decision later in the drive to throw away a pass when San Diego did a good job in coverage. He didn't do much in overtime, but it was enough.
• Kudos to CBS studio analysts Shannon Sharpe and Boomer Esiason for calling out Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh(notes) during the network's pregame show. Sharpe said Suh's apology on Facebook and via a written statement was inadequate and that Suh still needed to apologize to his team and to Green Bay Packers offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith(notes). Esiason used video to detail Suh's consistently reprehensible behavior in games and called for at least a four-game suspension, saying Suh is "trying to injure" opponents.
[ Related: Ndamukong Suh's distorted image meets reality ]
• New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez(notes) didn't post the prettiest numbers (17 of 35 for only 180 yards), but his four touchdown passes were critical as the Jets came back against the Buffalo Bills. Sanchez still has a long way to go, but these are the games that continue to give Jets fans hope, however faint it sometimes seems. A key pass down the stretch was an 18-yarder to wide receiver Plaxico Burress(notes) on third-and-11 on the final drive. That set up the 16-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes(notes) for the game-winner.
• Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson responded after a brutal game against the Atlanta Falcons the previous Sunday (12 carries, 13 yards) with 190 yards on 23 carries in the win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In particular, Johnson appeared to have his quickness back on his signature jump cut move. In two of the past three games, Johnson has had at least 130 yards rushing as he begins to look like the guy the Titans wanted when they signed him to a monster contract after a training camp holdout.
• After looking at the stat line for Arizona running back Beanie Wells(notes) (27 carries, 228 yards, one touchdown), there is one obvious question: Where did that come from? In just over two-and-a-half seasons, Wells had only two games with more than 100 yards rushing, including a previous career-high 138 yards earlier this season. He obliterated that on Sunday in the win against St. Louis. Yeah, it's the Rams, but that's still impressive.
• Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton(notes) continues to show preternatural skill in tough situations. Down 20-10 midway through the third quarter, Dalton helped rally the Bengals to a touchdown and two field goals for a comeback victory over the Cleveland Browns.
[ Related: Jerome Simpson flops, draws penalty on the Browns ]
• Cleveland rookie wide receiver Jordan Norwood(notes), an undrafted wide receiver from Penn State, had his most impressive game to date. He scored the first touchdown of his career and finished with four catches for 69 yards. Until this game, Norwood had 11 catches for 128 yards.
• A tip of the cap to Kansas City Chiefs GM Scott Pioli for claiming quarterback Kyle Orton(notes) earlier this week even though the team apparently has no serious plans to play Orton now or in the immediate future. Orton was inactive for Sunday night's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pioli kept Orton from going to a contender such as Houston or the Chicago Bears, who could have desperately used him down the stretch.
• Give New England Patriots all-purpose player Julian Edelman(notes) a lot of credit; he's not just going through the motions with this stuff on defense. On Sunday, Edelman looked good on a blitz as he pressured Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Vince Young(notes) into an errant throw. Overall, Edelman may be the best multi-purpose player in the league since Steve Tasker, who was great on offense and special teams, but never did anything like this on defense.
• San Diego coach Norv Turner seemingly jumped to one of the top spots in the "hot seat" list (OK, he can't get past Jacksonville's Jack Del Rio, but you get the point) with the loss to Denver on Sunday. At 4-7, it is clear to anyone who has watched the Chargers that Turner doesn't have the ability to motivate his team. Yeah, the Chargers have deteriorated when it comes to talent, but they still should be good enough to win the AFC West … or at least not be competing for last place.
• In this case, losers are sometimes winners and that's what happened with the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday as they dropped to 0-11 with a loss to the Carolina Panthers. The Colts now have a two-game lead with five games to play over both the Rams and Vikings in the race for the No. 1 overall pick and, presumably, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. The Colts play next at New England, one of the bitterest rivalries in the NFL. There is zero love between Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Colts president Bill Polian, and when Belichick doesn't like someone, you usually see that disdain show up on the scoreboard. After the Patriots, the Colts have the Baltimore Ravens, also on the road. You can mark the Colts down for 0-13 right now.
• Philadelphia wide receiver DeSean Jackson(notes) continues to have a terrible year for a guy looking for a contract. After his up-and-down evening against the New York Giants last week, when he had a gain wiped out by a taunting penalty, Jackson dropped two potential touchdown passes against New England. It might not have stopped the Patriots from winning, but it sure didn't help. Worse, it comes all while Jackson continues to gripe to people around the league about money.
• Besides Leinart, it was a bad day for backup quarterbacks who were called upon to start. Christian Ponder(notes), Caleb Hanie(notes), Curtis Painter(notes), Tim Tebow and Blaine Gabbert all struggled mightily with their accuracy. The only backups who won were Arizona's John Skelton(notes), who got help from the aforementioned Wells, and Tebow. Skelton completed only 12 of 23 passes for 114 yards and was intercepted twice. Obviously, Yates, was OK in relief of Leinart, but he didn't start.
• The rough season for Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman(notes) continued when he fumbled a fourth-and-1 sneak attempt with 39 seconds remaining in the game from the Tennessee 25-yard line. Tampa Bay started the drive from its own 20 to get in position for a possible game-winning touchdown. Instead, it was another rough loss for the Bucs and a rough outing for Freeman, who has regressed from his 2010 season. Freeman has 12 TD passes and 16 interceptions this season. Last year, he had 25 TD passes and only six interceptions.
• The many fans who emailed me this week after my Suh column, complaining that Suh was being manhandled by the Green Bay offensive line and therefore was pushed to act. Sorry, it doesn't work that way. Not when you have Suh's history of behavior. You retaliate by beating people in the game, not in the head or by stepping on their arm.
(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)
Loved: Buffalo wide receiver Stevie Johnson(notes) just went way up in my book in terms of fun players. After scoring a touchdown in the first half to give the Bills a 14-7 lead at New York, Johnson mocked counterparts Burress and Holmes by pretending to shoot himself and imitating the "jet" touchdown celebration. Johnson finished the routine by "crashing" the plane. Funny stuff. Too bad Johnson dropped a potential game-winning touchdown pass late in the game. The better part was the revenge Burress and Holmes got later on as they keyed the comeback win for the Jets. That's the stuff of great rivalries.
Loathed: The weird look that Jacksonville tight end Marcedes Lewis(notes) gave quarterback Blaine Gabbert after Gabbert overthrew him on a third-and-goal play in the second quarter. What exactly Lewis was complaining about, I'm not sure, but that was one play after Lewis dropped a wide-open touchdown pass. Lewis should have been apologizing.
Loved: The line from Sporting News columnist David Whitley, who was sitting next to me at the Houston-Jacksonville game. After Houston quarterback Matt Leinart got hurt at the end of the first half and most of us scrambled to answer the basic question of "Who is T.J. Yates?" Whitley replied, "Isn't he a William Shatner character?" Close, it was T.J. Hooker.
Loathed: The more and more I watch backup quarterbacks around the league, such as John Skelton and Yates, struggle when they get their chance to play, the more I loathe that there is no way to get these guys more in-season work. The NFL has to come up with some way to get quarterbacks as much work as possible.
[ Video: Chargers kicker relieves himself on sideline ]
Loved: Seeing Carolina quarterback Cam Newton(notes) score his 10th rushing touchdown of the season, leaving him two short of the record 12 scored by Steve Grogan in 1976. There is something both controlled and majestic about the way Newton runs when he gets outside the pocket.
Loathed: The idea that neither the New York Giants nor the Jets could make the playoffs this season. The Jets saved themselves with a huge comeback win over Buffalo, but they're still in big trouble as they trail Cincinnati. Not that I'm a fan of either New York team, but it would be really nice if the Christmas Eve game between the Jets and Giants would actually mean something to at least one of the teams.
Loved: The 80-yard punt return for a score by Arizona Cardinals rookie Patrick Peterson(notes), who is proving to be well worth the No. 5 overall pick. Here's a scary thought: What if Peterson had decided to stay at LSU for his final year of eligibility? Could the LSU defense actually be y better?
[ Related: Patrick Peterson on his 80-yard punt return ]
Loathed: The continued brutal play of the Cleveland field goal unit. Over the past three weeks, the Browns have missed three field goals. Normally reliable kicker Phil Dawson(notes) has gaffed, but Sunday marked the second time in that stretch where he was served a botched snap.
Loved: The goal-line stand by Atlanta in the fourth quarter of its victory over Minnesota. Of course, it helped that the Vikings didn't have running back Adrian Peterson. Still, the Falcons kept this game from getting away as they held on for their second win since coach Mike Smith's odd fourth-down decision against New Orleans.
Loathed: The fact that Washington essentially has no choice but to put Rex Grossman(notes) in the lineup. Grossman, who threw 2 TD passes and rallied the Redskins to their first win in seven tries, was also picked off twice. Grossman has been intercepted at least once in seven consecutive games.
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