Houston (9-3) at Cincinnati (7-5)

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By MATT BEARDMORE, STATS Writer Friday, Dec 9, 2011 Kickoff: 1:00 pm EST Sun Dec 11, 2011

The injuries keep piling up for the Houston Texans, but they have still found a way to string together a franchise-record six straight wins.

The slumping Cincinnati Bengals would settle for one victory at this point.

With All-Pro wide receiver Andre Johnson out, rookie third-string quarterback T.J. Yates will be under center for the Texans on Sunday when they could clinch their first AFC South title with a team-record 10th win.

Now that Matt Schaub (foot) and Matt Leinart (collarbone) are out for the season, the Texans (9-3) have given the keys to their offense to Yates, a fifth-round pick from North Carolina.

Houston, though, is not expecting the rookie to carry the club, especially with Arian Foster and Ben Tate leading the NFL’s third-ranked rushing attack at 152.6 yards per game. The Texans are also second in total defense allowing 271.4 yards per game and points allowed per contest with 15.8.

Yates was sacked three times and missed a few throws in his first NFL start last Sunday, a 17-10 victory over Atlanta, but Texans coach Gary Kubiak will gladly take a 188-yard effort with a touchdown and no interceptions.

“Just his play, in particular, was encouraging,” Kubiak said Monday. “He can get a lot better, and there are so many things he’ll learn from throughout the course of the game, and watching himself on tape, play that many plays.”

Yates also has the benefit of learning the ropes from two of the most experienced backups in the NFL. Jake Delhomme signed with the Texans last week and 41-year-old Jeff Garcia will be the No. 3 quarterback Sunday after inking a deal Wednesday.

Yates, though, will not have Johnson to throw to after the team’s all-time leading receiver suffered a mild left hamstring injury last week. It was Johnson’s second game back after missing six following surgery on his right hamstring.

“It’s very disappointing,” Johnson said. “You work your butt off to get back after missing six games and then to have something like this to happen again is very frustrating. But at the same time, the team’s in a great position. I’m just trying to do everything I can to get back, so that I can get back out on the field and play.”

Without Johnson, the Texans will go for a season record for wins. If that happens and second-place Tennessee falls to New Orleans on Sunday, Houston will clinch the South and its first playoff berth.

The Bengals’ road to the postseason is not as clear cut, as they have dropped three of four following a 5-0 run. Cincinnati’s last three losses have come against Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

“Anybody would have a tough time with that stretch but they’re right in the middle of a playoff race,” Kubiak said. “They are a playoff football team as of right now.”

Cincinnati didn’t play like one last Sunday, committing 10 penalties in a 35-7 loss at Pittsburgh. Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, though, knows the Bengals have three home games left and a chance to break out of the pack of five 7-5 teams to secure a wild-card spot.

“We can’t let this affect the next four,” Dalton said of the Bengals’ most-lopsided defeat since falling 37-0 to the New York Jets on Jan. 3, 2010.

However, facing the league’s third-ranked passing defense could be a major test for Dalton, who was 11 for 24 with 135 yards last Sunday before sitting during the fourth quarter with the game out of reach.

If Dalton connects with wide receiver A.J. Green for a TD, they will tie St. Louis’ Tony Banks and Eddie Kennison (1996) for the third-most combined TDs for a rookie quarterback and rookie wide receiver in league history with seven.

The Bengals have lost two in a row to the Texans after winning the first three meetings. The last time these teams played, Houston won 28-17 on Oct. 18, 2009, for its first victory in Cincinnati in three tries.

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