While the newly crowned AFC South champion Houston Texans clinched their first playoff berth last weekend, coach Gary Kubiak's focus remains on what lies ahead.
Houston's immediate future, though, remains a little unsettled with news of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' temporary medical leave of absence.
Hoping to persevere through Phillips' leave, the Texans look to extend their franchise-best winning streak to eight games Sunday against the visiting Carolina Panthers.
Three days after leading Houston's stifling defense in a thrilling 20-19 win at Cincinnati, Phillips announced he'd be undergoing surgery on his kidney Thursday morning. He won't be on the sidelines against the Panthers (4-9) but expects to return to the Texans within 10 days.
"The team is we, it's not me. I've been getting too much credit, but it's a football team, and they're going to play," Phillips told the Texans' official website. "I haven't done a good job if they're not ready to play."
In his first year with the Texans, Phillips has helped turn their defense into one of the NFL's best. Houston, which last season finished 30th in the league with 376.9 yards allowed per game, is surrendering a league-low average of 274.9. The Texans are also giving up 16.0 points per game - 10.7 less than in 2010.
Linebackers coach Reggie Herring will take over as interim defensive coordinator.
"I feel very confident about this," Herring said. "The players are all in a good frame of mind right now. We have a lot of things to finish, home-field advantage and we're number one in the (AFC) right now. We have a lot to play for. Players have shown a lot of character and pride. I don't see any letdown in these guys."
While Houston had plenty to celebrate last weekend, it's one of four 10-3 teams in the conference vying for home-field advantage.
"They've got to keep going ... they understand what's ahead of them," Kubiak said.
"We don't have many guys on our team that have been in playoff games. You probably could count on 10 fingers. I don't know how many we have, but the few that we do have need to keep our guys focused on what it's all about."
The Texans held a seventh consecutive opponent to under 20 points in Week 14, but it was rookie quarterback T.J. Yates who was instrumental in the win.
The fifth-round pick out of North Carolina threw for 300 yards and two touchdowns - including a game-winning six-yard TD to wideout Kevin Walter with two seconds remaining. The Texans won the division with a Tennessee loss to New Orleans later that day.
"It's pretty crazy," said Yates, thrown under center with Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart out for the season. "A lot of people in this organization have waited a long time for this. This is a special day for this team and this organization."
In addition to Schaub and Leinart being out, star linebacker Mario Williams (torn pectoral) was placed on injured reserve in October. All-Pro wideout Andre Johnson, who missed six games with a right hamstring issue earlier in the year, was held out last weekend due to a strained left hamstring. He's uncertain to play Sunday.
Starting right guard Mike Brisiel became the latest Texan to go down, suffering a leg fracture against the Bengals. He is expected to miss at least three weeks.
After winning back-to-back games for the first time, Carolina let what seemed like a third consecutive victory slip away last Sunday. The Panthers took a 23-7 lead into the break but were outscored 24-0 in the second half, falling 31-23 to Atlanta.
Carolina has found itself with a lead in nearly every game but hasn't been able to capitalize.
"When you lead 12 out of 13, you have a chance to win games. We're a lot better than we're giving ourselves an opportunity for," coach Ron Rivera told the team's official website. "We've got to grow up and get past a lot of things. We've got to get past, 'It is what it is,' because it's not. We are better than that, and we have to start playing like that. We have to start growing up."
Rookie sensation Cam Newton completed just 19 of 39 passes for 276 yards and two TDs. He was also picked off twice, bringing his total to 16 - tied for third-most in the league.
Much of the Panthers' struggles can be directly attributed to their inability to take care of the football. Carolina has committed 20 turnovers in its losses and one in its wins.
Houston has taken both meetings with Carolina, winning 34-21 on the road in the last matchup Sept. 16, 2007.
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