Yates helps Texans to playoffs; Lions get closer

Two of the biggest stories in the NFL playoff picture featured a guy unfamiliar to most fans and a penalty no official saw.

While Tim Tebow produced his latest miracle in Denver and put the Broncos alone in first place in the AFC West with three games to play, there is an even better Johnny Come Lately story playing out in Texas. Houston Texans quarterback T.J. Yates won his second straight start by throwing a touchdown pass with two seconds remaining for a 20-19 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.

T.J. Yates passed for 300 yards and two touchdowns against the Bengals.
(Getty Images)

In the process, Yates helped end nearly a decade of frustration in Houston.

Meanwhile, the Detroit Lions finally seem postseason-bound in spite of their undisciplined style of play. The penalty-crazed Lions had another 10 flags on Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, turning what should have been a blowout into a moment of desperation. The penalties were combined with both an atrocious run defense (269 yards allowed and Adrian Peterson didn’t even play) and a just as lame run offense (72 yards) to turn a 21-point lead into a 34-28 nail-biting win that came down to the final play – albeit a controversial one that also helped put the Lions in complete control of their playoff chances.

When officials inexplicably missed a facemask penalty against Detroit linebacker DeAndre Levy (it was only quarterback Joe Webb’s facemask he grabbed, after all) and Webb fumbled, the Lions avoided what could have been an emotion-killing loss. Subsequently, they improved to 8-5 and have the No. 6 seed in the NFC in their control for now (Atlanta has the No. 5 spot at 8-5 by virtue of having beaten the Lions earlier this season).

“We’re right there, we can’t let go now,” said Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch, who was talking about Detroit’s playoff hopes, not Webb’s facemask. At least we think that. The Lions were 5-0 at one point before losing five of seven and their poise in the process (they entered this game fourth in the league in penalties). Through all of that, they are trying to break a streak of 11 years without making the playoffs.

[ Related: Texans currently have top seed in AFC ]

As for Yates, it was only three weeks ago that he was just looking to break in. He hadn’t even dressed for a game until Nov. 27. Now, he’s holding onto the starting job for a team tied with three others for the best record in the AFC. Not just that, but the Texans are actually leaning on him.

With Cincinnati loaded up to stop the run (Arian Foster was limited to 41 yards on 15 carries), Houston had Yates throw the ball 44 times. He ended up with 300 yards passing – hardly what anybody would have drawn up for this team. Still, Yates continued to show unusual poise for a guy in this situation.

Joe Webb fumbles on the last play while being tackled by DeAndre Levy.
(Getty Images)

“I don’t think he knows he’s not supposed to be doing this stuff,” Houston coach Gary Kubiak said.

What Yates is doing is also saving a season that has seen the Texans already lose linebacker Mario Williams and quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart. In addition, Yates didn’t have top receiver Andre Johnson on Sunday because of a second hamstring injury.

No matter. The Texans kept this game close long enough that a critical pass interference penalty against the Bengals put Yates in range for his game-winning TD pass (his second scoring pass of the game). That, combined with a Tennessee loss, gave Houston the AFC South title. By itself, that’s not a huge accomplishment, particularly in a year when Peyton Manning wasn’t around. But when you consider all the factors, it was stunning.

[ Related: T.J. Yates’ parents relegated to nose-bleed seats ]

It was something no one could have seen coming.

Just like Yates.

Here are the winners and losers for Week 14:

WINNERS

The Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski (L) trails the Saints’ Jimmy Graham for most yardage by a tight end this season by 13.
(AP)

A few weeks ago, a somewhat irrational New England fan began badgering me about how I had made a horrible mistake by leaving New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski off my all-midseason team in favor of Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints. I’ll maintain that, at the time, Graham was better. That’s irrelevant now. The point is this: Graham is having one of the greatest seasons ever for a tight end. After Sunday, he has 80 catches for 1,101 yards and eight touchdowns. Graham is a dynamic threat at the position with his speed and athleticism. That said, Gronkowski is outplaying him right now. Gronkowski has 71 catches for 1,088 yards and 15 touchdowns (an NFL record for tight ends). We are watching perhaps two of the greatest young tight ends to ever play and they are playing at a time when tight ends are used in so many ways. This is fantastic stuff to watch. Graham is probably slightly more athletic and tougher than you think. Likewise, Gronkowski is probably more physical, but he’s more athletic than you think. On Sunday, Gronkowski caught six passes for 160 yards and two touchdowns, but his second touchdown exemplified what makes him so great. Gronkowski was being covered by Washington linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, who was in good position. Gronkowski caught a touch pass over Kerrigan, broke a tackle and then went untouched for the final 30 yards. Gronkowski was fast enough on the play that no one from Washington even got close to him once he lost Kerrigan.

New York Jets fans are rejoicing now that their team controls its chances to make the playoffs after it beat the Kansas City Chiefs, and both Cincinnati and Tennessee lost. However, the most important thing to take away from the game is the sublime performance from quarterback Mark Sanchez. Yeah, the Chiefs aren’t great, but Sanchez was efficient in completing 13 of 21 passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for one as the Jets took control of this game early. In the past two games, Sanchez has avoided obvious mistakes, like interceptions. Over Sanchez’s three seasons, the Jets are 15-5, playoffs included, when he doesn’t throw a pick.

For anyone who is still questioning the trade Atlanta made to get wide receiver Julio Jones, you obviously haven’t seen him play. Then again, he has missed four of 13 games with injuries, so those fans have excuses. Jones had three catches for 104 yards on Sunday and scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to fuel the Falcons’ comeback win over Carolina. In nine games, Jones has 37 catches for 670 yards and four touchdowns. Now, the Falcons just have to keep his hamstrings in shape.

[* Yahoo! Sports Radio: Falcons’ Jaquizz Rodgers on his first career TD]

Drew Brees (L) gets a pass away under pressure from the Titans’ Karl Klug.
(AP)

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees deserves as much credit as you can imagine for upping his streak of games with a touchdown pass to 40 as he chases Johnny Unitas’ record of 47. Even in this era of extreme passing, no one had ever gotten past 36 (Brett Favre) until Brees. The funny part is that Brees’ streak doesn’t include four playoff games in which he also threw for a touchdown. That would make the streak 44 for him. As for Unitas, if you included the two NFL championship games he played in during the streak, he’d be at 49.

[ Related: Santa proposes to Titans cheerleader ]

In what is already a great season for Aaron Rodgers, it was nice to see him tie the Green Bay touchdown pass record with two more on Sunday. Rodgers has 39 this season, tying the mark Brett Favre set in 1996, when the Packers won their lone Super Bowl title with Favre. Rodgers should obliterate that mark by the end of the season, just another notch in the argument that Rodgers is better than Favre and that the Packers were smart to get rid of him. Yeah, there’s the longevity argument, but that’s pretty much going to be the only point in Favre’s favor pretty soon.

As for the Packers, the loss of Greg Jennings served as a reminder of the constant argument between trying to pursue an undefeated season and keeping players healthy. The Packers were up 31-0 when Jennings got hurt. That said, ask the 1996 Denver Broncos about what it’s like to ease up on the way to the playoffs. The Broncos were 12-1 with three games remaining. Denver lost two of the three as it rested players and then lost to Jacksonville in its first playoff game. Likewise, Pittsburgh in 2007 lost three of its final four games and then lost in the first round of the playoffs (also to Jacksonville), which is why Steelers coach Mike Tomlin pushed his team so hard at the end of 2008 and eventually won the Super Bowl.


LOSERS

Marion Barber, center, fumbled during the Bears overtime drive.
(Getty Images)

I thought Washington Redskins wide receiver Santana Moss (see below) had a bad day, but then Marion Barber decided to give one away for the Chicago Bears. Barber wasn’t alone as the Bears’ secondary also gave the game away, yielding too many yards on some of Tim Tebow’s throws. However, Barber took lead billing in this fiasco. Barber’s failure to stay inbounds during the final two minutes of regulation and his fumble in overtime were so enormous that you have to wonder if he’ll ever recover from these mistakes. Heck, if Jimmy Johnson was coaching Chicago, Barber might not have been on the flight back to Chicago.

One of the greatest movie lines ever is one of the last ones from “Chinatown,” when one of the characters issues the universal explanation for all things bad and lawless by saying, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” Well, the NFL’s Chinatown is Cincinnati. The Bengals had a chance to maintain control of a playoff spot with a win over Houston, which continues to play the out-of-nowhere Yates. Not only did the Bengals lose, they did it with the help of a penalty in the end by Pacman Jones, of all people (of course it would be Pacman). Now, the Bengals not only have to basically run the table against St. Louis, Arizona and Baltimore, they need both the Jets and Tennessee to lose along the way. Sure, it’s all plausible, but you just have to wonder about the Bengals in these situations. Forget it, Jake – it’s Cincinnati.

New York Jets safety Jim Leonhard may have suffered a season-ending loss for a second straight year. Leonhard, who is reportedly out for the season with a knee injury, was hurt after snatching an interception that set up New York’s second touchdown. It was Leonhard’s first interception since the final game he played in the 2010 season. While the Jets are only 8-5 this season with Leonhard, they were 9-2 last season with him. He is considered the brains of the Jets’ secondary, making all the coverage calls. Last season, after Leonhard got hurt, it took the Jets nearly five weeks to adjust to his loss. The Jets gave up an average of 23.4 points a game without Leonhard last season, including 45 against New England in the first game without him and 38 against Chicago. They gave up more than 23 points only once in the first 11 games with Leonhard in the lineup.

Christian Ponder hit the rookie wall so hard that you have to wonder if his name is Wile E. Coyote. Over the past two games, Ponder has thrown five interceptions and lost two fumbles. Three of the seven turnovers have been returned for scores, including two by Detroit on Sunday. Of the other four turnovers, one set up a touchdown, another set up the game-winning field goal by Denver last week and one came after the Vikings had gotten to the opposing 8-yard line (also against the Broncos). That’s 21 points directly allowed, another 10 set up and at least a field goal lost. That’s 34 points lost by Ponder’s mistakes the past two games. Brutal, and plenty of reason for him to be pulled for backup Joe Webb.

[ Related: Week 14 photo gallery ]

Santana Moss (L) has the ball knocked loose in the fourth quarter.
(Getty Images)

Wow, was Santana Moss putrid on two of the final three plays against New England, which the Redskins lost 34-27. First, Moss had a potential game-tying (depending on whether the Redskins had gone for two or not) touchdown catch with 1:15 remaining wiped out when he was called for offensive pass interference. Second, two plays later on third down, Moss dropped an easy pass from quarterback Rex Grossman and in the process practically handed the ball to linebacker Jerod Mayo for the game-sealing interception. That erased a good game for Moss, who caught a 49-yard touchdown pass and finished with a season-high 81 yards receiving. It also wasted one of Grossman’s best games of the season.

When you see a team like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers go belly up as badly as they did Sunday in Jacksonville, you have to wonder if the players are trying to get the coach fired. That would seem surprising given that coach Raheem Morris was so popular before this season. But it does go back to the old theory that sometimes coaches are popular because they are too permissive. On Sunday, the Bucs played about as undisciplined as imaginable. The Bucs had seven turnovers (two were returned for scores by the Jaguars) and 12 penalties. To put this loss in perspective, Jacksonville scored 41 points. The Jags hadn’t scored 41 points in any combination of two games to this point this season.

Oakland Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer continued his season of drastic ups and downs with an awful game at Green Bay. Palmer’s three interceptions sealed another one-sided loss for the Raiders. At times, Palmer has been brilliant (he was terrific during a three-game winning streak). But he has also thrown three interceptions in three of the four games the Raiders have lost with him since getting him in trade from Cincinnati.

There’s not a lot to complain about in Green Bay these days, but tight end Jermichael Finley needs to start producing better than he is right now, particularly if wide receiver Greg Jennings is badly hurt (Jennings left the game on a cart in the third quarter). Finley dropped three passes in a dramatic win over the New York Giants last week. On Sunday, he allowed a potential touchdown pass to be taken away by Oakland safety Mike Mitchell. Yeah, it was a nice play by Mitchell. Still, Finley, who wants to get paid in a big way this offseason, could have made the catch.

THE SUNDAY 10

(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)

The Texans with Connor Barwin are among the league’s best defenses.
(AP)

Loved: The work of Houston outside linebacker Connor Barwin, who has been special this season. Barwin, who was limited to one game because of an injury last season, got his 10th sack of the season. This one was a strip-sack as the Texans got the ball and eventually scored a touchdown in the third quarter. The Texans have continued to be an excellent pass rush team (they entered the game tied for second in the league with 35 sacks) even after the loss of fellow outside linebacker Mario Williams (five sacks in the first five games). Hopefully, the Texans don’t get overconfident about that fact and try to low-ball Williams in his upcoming contract negotiations.

Loathed: The roughing call against New England defensive end Andre Carter in the second quarter against Washington. Yes, Carter hit Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman at the knee. However, Grossman was backing up on the play, essentially making him a moving target and Carter was engaged with a blocker. It was clear that Carter was not trying to go for the knee. On top of that, the play allowed Grossman to get away with an idiotic pass that was picked off. That said, give credit to Grossman for a nice game (even though he upped his streak of games with a pick to nine).

[ Related: Terrible roughing passer goes in Brady’s favor ]

Loved: The “Lambeau Leap” (OK, it wasn’t in Green Bay, but I’m not exactly sure the “FedEx Flop” really works) by Washington wide receiver David Anderson after he scored a touchdown in the third quarter. Anderson, who is generously listed at 5-foot-10, caught a 6-yard score and partially leapt into the seats. As it was, he got to the point that he partially stood on the railing after the score. Anderson had plenty of pent-up energy. It was his first touchdown in more than three years.

Loathed: There are times when I think Shonn Greene is ready to become a true bell-cow runner for the New York Jets. He led the Jets to a dominating win over Kansas City with 129 yards rushing and another 58 yards receiving. However, there are still little things that make you nervous about him. For instance, Greene had to have one fumble overturned by review in the second quarter and appeared to almost fumble on the next run, a 7-yard touchdown carry.

Loved: The nice scrambling move by Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco as he set up the Indianapolis defense for a 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dennis Pitta. Flacco showed terrific awareness as he got out of the pocket and danced along the line of scrimmage before flicking the ball to Pitta. In many ways, Flacco has regressed statistically this year (he is completing a career-low 56.6 percent and is averaging a career-low 6.8 yards per pass). Still, he has also shown ability to come through at critical moments.

Loathed: The silly unsportsmanlike conduct penalty Washington cornerback DeAngelo Hall picked up after he was called for holding early in the third quarter. Hall didn’t go berserk on the play. All he did was pick up the flag and toss it in mild disgust. That call is an automatic. However, the holding call as he was covering New England wide receiver Wes Welker was obvious. What exactly was Hall complaining about? The 20 yards in penalties helped the Patriots on an eventual 80-yard touchdown drive.

Offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien yells at Tom Brady after he threw an interception.
(AP)

Loved: The raw screaming from New England offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Bill O’Brien at Tom Brady. Yeah, O’Brien went too far after Brady threw an interception in the end zone in the fourth quarter, but that’s the fiery stuff you have to love about football. Yeah, a lot is going to be made out of the tiff, but that’s the great stuff about the game. Two minutes later, Brady and O’Brien were sitting together quietly on the bench.

Loathed: The absences of Washington left tackle Trent Williams and tight end Fred Davis, who are suspended for the remainder of the season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. The Redskins played a terrific game overall and came close to an upset of the Patriots. However, Washington backup left tackle Maurice Hurt had a critical holding call in the fourth quarter that negated a first down and ultimately forced Washington to punt.

Loved: That Atlanta came back to knock off Carolina. In the process, Falcons coach Mike Smith maintained an important trend: During his time as head coach, Smith is now 20-2 against teams with a losing record. That’s the kind of stuff that makes a team a consistent contender.

Loathed: The non-call on a facemask penalty on the final play of the Detroit-Minnesota game wasn’t the only bad piece of officiating. The refs in the Houston-Cincinnati game missed the exact same call in the early part of the second half when Bengals running back Bernard Scott was yanked down by Houston defensive tackle Antonio Smith. Dudes, what were you looking at?

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Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Dec 11, 2011