HOUSTON – When T.J. Yates(notes) learned last winter that he'd been invited to the NFL scouting combine, the former University of North Carolina quarterback had reason to smile. The invitation came with a caveat, however.
The good news was that Yates would be heading to Indianapolis. The bad news? He'd be arriving early, staying late and icing his right forearm repeatedly. As one of three quarterbacks designated as a combine arm, Yates' job was to serve as a human ball machine, launching throw after throw in drills for offensive skill players, linebackers and defensive backs.
By the end of his stay, Yates was in grin-and-bear-it mode.
"They invite you, but it's pretty much the last three guys" who are combine arms, Yates recalled Sunday after helping the Houston Texans to a 17-10 victory over the Atlanta Falcons in his first NFL start. "You go on the first day and stay all the way to the last day to throw to the defensive guys and stuff. It was kind of annoying because you're there for eight days straight.
"I was ready to get out of there, especially on the last day. I probably threw like 150 deep balls to [defensive backs] during their drills. Just a hired arm."
The hired arm became a camp arm last summer, a few months after the Texans took Yates in the fifth round of last April's draft. He ultimately earned a roster spot as the team's third-string quarterback. And when starter Matt Schaub(notes) and backup Matt Leinart(notes) were lost to season-ending injuries in back-to-back games last month, Yates became one of the least likely passers entrusted to guide a playoff contender in recent memory.
Though Yates' numbers weren't especially impressive on Sunday, he was poised, assertive and accurate – and he had more zip on his passes than most people outside of the Texans' locker room anticipated. You'll likely be seeing more of him in the coming weeks as Houston (9-3) closes in on its first-ever AFC South title and postseason appearance, even as the Texans continue to endure an unseemly wave of injuries to key players.
[ Playoff picture: Texans in No. 3 spot in AFC ]
As the Falcons (7-5) learned in front of 71,545 fired-up fans at Reliant Stadium, Houston is a deep, resilient team, one which doesn't share the AFC's best record with the Baltimore Ravens, New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers arbitrarily. The Texans, who won their sixth consecutive game on Sunday to retain their two-game division lead on the Tennessee Titans with four to play, rely on a punitive defense and a physical running attack to beat down opponents, and they're not wavering in the face of this abrupt transition at quarterback.
"All year we've heard, 'Oh, they're good, BUT …,' " said right tackle Eric Winston(notes), who is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season as part of what may be football's best offensive line. "If people want to keep saying that, that's fine. We know who we are."
"We're a run-first, play-good-defense team that's not going to give up a lot of turnovers – and we're gonna get the ball downfield, no matter who our quarterback is," Winston said.
A day earlier, as he munched on a cheeseburger at a restaurant near the Galleria shopping mall, Winston was asked what he expected out of Yates in the rookie's first career start.
"Your guess is as good as mine," he said, laughing.
Winston then cited Yates' even-keeled demeanor and surprisingly quick grasp of the offense last summer as reasons for optimism, noting that "when he's out there, it doesn't seem like it's too big for him."
The subject turned to the Texans' then-top-ranked defense – Houston, allowing 274.1 yards per game, slipped into second Sunday, slightly behind the Steelers (273.8) – and its dramatic turnaround. The league's third-worst unit last season has undergone a scheme and personality change under the tutelage of new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who relocated across the state after being fired as the Dallas Cowboys' head coach in November 2010.
"For the first time," Winston said, "we have an identity on defense. When you have that, even when you have injuries, you can plug guys in and they'll still be able to produce."
The same concept apparently applies to coach Gary Kubiak's offensive system, which may have owed its survival after last year's disappointing 6-10 season to the uncertain labor landscape and looming lockout. Owner Bob McNair – desperately seeking his first trip to the playoffs in the franchise's 10th campaign – was criticized by some for bringing back Kubiak for a sixth year.
Good call, it turned out: On Sunday, Kubiak evened his career record at 46-46 while coaching with a bravado that belied his "Kubiaverage" label.
The game turned on a 19-play, 85-yard drive that bridged the third and fourth quarters and netted the winning points on halfback Arian Foster's(notes) one-yard touchdown run with 6:05 remaining. The defining moment for Houston came after Yates (12-of-25, 188 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions) scrambled eight yards to set up a fourth-and-1 on the Atlanta 9-yard line.
As the fans loudly voiced their displeasure over what they perceived as an erroneous spot, it seemed as though Kubiak might throw a challenge flag in an effort to get the first down via replay review. He promptly rejected that possibility and resisted the temptation to kick a go-ahead field goal, sending his offense back on the field. To say the move was well received by Kubiak's players was an understatement.
"I think everybody on the sidelines was wanting to go for it, not just Kubiak," said cornerback Johnathan Joseph(notes), the former Cincinnati Bengals standout who might have been the NFL's best free-agent signing of the offseason. "That's our mentality – we're not gonna want to sit around and wait. We want to put our foot on the gas pedal."
Said Yates: "We were all real confident. I mean, we can get half a yard. If we can't get half a yard, we shouldn't be out there."
Foster (31 carries, 111 yards) got seven, slipping through a hole to his right and bulling ahead to the Atlanta 2 to set up the winning score. The Texans' defense twice thwarted Falcons drives in the final minutes, stopping a fourth-down play from the 20 and surviving a last-second Matt Ryan(notes) throw to the end zone that cornerback Kareem Jackson(notes) kept rookie wideout Julio Jones(notes) from heroically pulling down.
Ryan, a Pro Bowl performer in 2010, had a choppy afternoon, completing just 20 of 47 passes for 267 yards while throwing a pair of first-quarter interceptions. He also overthrew wideouts Roddy White(notes) and Jones on deep balls that could have gone the distance on two of the game's first three plays from scrimmage and struggled against constant pressure from a Texans defense that lost its star pass rusher, Mario Williams(notes), to a season-ending torn pectoral muscle in early October.
That was one of many injuries that Kubiak and his players have shrugged off while taking advantage of the opening provided by Peyton Manning's(notes) neck surgery and the resulting collapse of the Indianapolis Colts. Houston suffered another blow when All-Pro wideout Andre Johnson(notes), in his second week back after having missed six games with a right hamstring injury, pulled up on a third-quarter deep route and went to the turf clutching his left hamstring. He'll undergo an MRI Monday morning.
If Johnson is forced to miss more time, don't expect Kubiak to become timid. He made a point of incorporating some ambitious, aggressive plays into Sunday's game plan, telling his players in Saturday night's team meeting, according to Winston, "Hey, if you guys think we're gonna dumb things down for T.J. and only give him a certain amount [of our offensive package], you guys are wrong."
Said Kubiak: "I just wanted them to know that people were saying that we're going to cut things back – that's bull. He's our quarterback. If we simplified things, we'd be settling. We're not going to do that."
From Yates' perspective, hearing Kubiak publicly affirm his faith "was really cool." Even cooler, perhaps, was the sound of tens of thousands of fans chanting "T.J., T.J." after the rookie zipped a quick slant pass to tight end Joel Dreessen(notes) for a three-yard touchdown and a 10-0 lead five minutes into the second quarter.
Three plays earlier Yates had showcased his arm by firing a 50-yard pass to Johnson over the middle. And perhaps his most impressive throw had come late in the first quarter when Yates rolled to his right, set his feet and delivered a gorgeous spiral down the sideline to Johnson, who uncharacteristically dropped it.
"T.J. is very comfortable with this offense," Johnson said afterward. "He has a lot of confidence in his play. And it shows, man. Look at him out on the field [Sunday]. It shows that he's confident, that he doesn't panic. He stays calm. He doesn't really say much. He just goes out and plays."
That makes sense given that nine months ago, Yates was happy just to be a combine arm. And if it makes him feel any better, there are others in the Texans' locker room who know what it's like to be all dressed up with nowhere to throw.
"He was a slappy?" Kubiak asked, using the popular NFL term for scrub, when told of Yates' combine duties. Kubiak, a longtime backup to Broncos Hall of Famer John Elway, then added, "Ha, kind of like I was."
And the Texans' newly signed backup quarterback and safety valve Jake Delhomme(notes), who nearly won a Super Bowl at Reliant Stadium eight years ago, expressed no outrage, either, upon learning of Yates' combine fate.
"He was one of those?" Delhomme asked. "Hey, at least he went. I wasn't [expletive] invited. And if they'd asked me to be [a combine arm], you're damn right I would've jumped at it."
Now, against all odds, Yates is being asked to help get the Texans back to Lucas Oil Stadium, site of Super Bowl XLVI. And if he and his teammates somehow pull it off, he definitely won't mind staying another eight days in Indy.
As I suspected, the desperate New York Giants brought their "A" game against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, and Eli Manning(notes) was very, very good. Alas, Aaron Rodgers(notes) was even better, especially on the rapid-fire, last-minute drive that set up Mason Crosby's(notes) 31-yard field goal, gave Green Bay a 38-35 victory, pushed the Packers to 12-0 and essentially ended any semblance of suspense in the MVP race. It's Rodgers, by a landslide. But what he really wants, naturally, is a second consecutive Super Bowl MVP trophy. … The coach of the year race is probably over, too: In his first year in San Francisco, Jim Harbaugh has already led the 49ers to an NFC West title and their first playoff appearance since 2002. The Niners (10-2) clinched both with a 26-0 thrashing of the Rams at Candlestick Park, keeping St. Louis from crossing its 35-yard line and celebrating halfback Frank Gore's(notes) coronation as the franchise's all-time rushing leader. Harbaugh's 49ers aren't flashy, but don't sleep on this team. … Granted, I've been responsible for reporting much of the internal and external skepticism surrounding Tim Tebow's ascent as the starting quarterback of the Broncos. But I also have eyes and ears: The kid is 6-1 since taking over for Kyle Orton(notes) – and Denver (7-5) is now tied with the Oakland Raiders (7-5 after a gruesome, 38-14 defeat to the Miami Dolphins) atop the AFC West. My new philosophy: Just go with it. On Sunday, Tebow threw the ball surprisingly well and led an impressive, game-tying field-goal drive in a 35-32 road victory over the Minnesota Vikings, whose defensive backs seemed to have a hard time running with the Broncos' receivers. It's always something, with a common theme – Tebow and his teammates are finding ways to win games that many others in their situation don't. Consider that overarching theme when assessing these comments from several Minnesota players with whom I communicated after Sunday's game. Vikings Player 1: "I can throw to wide-open people. Let's face it, we suck." Vikings Player 2: "He gets it done somehow. Our DBs could not cover their receivers. I can't explain it. He looks so bad in warmups throwing it, it's crazy. Maybe he is the second coming." Vikings Player No. 3: "It's very hard to deny at this point that he's got something special." … While the Falcons flail about, the New Orleans Saints (9-3) have seized control of the NFC South with four consecutive victories, including Sunday night's 31-17 triumph over the Detroit Lions at the Superdome. If you're one of those people who's starting to wonder if Drew Brees(notes) and the Saints' unstoppable offense is a fair match for Rodgers and the Packers' unstoppable offense – and/or if New Orleans is approaching its championship level of two years ago – you have company on the inside. "For the guys who were here in 2009 I feel like we are right there," linebacker Scott Shanle(notes) told me Sunday night via text. "We just beat four damn good teams. I think we've taken the next step." … Madonna, named Sunday night as the halftime singer for Super Bowl XLVI, should be celebrating hard, for this means much more to her once-booming career than it does to the NFL's entertainment cred (or lack thereof). In an effort to spice things up and increase the retro feel of the event, I'm wondering if I can persuade my old friend – and the Material Girl's ex-squeeze – Dennis Rodman to attend. … Finally, the Kansas City Chiefs' 10-3 victory over the Bears in Chicago reinforced the notion, addressed in this column last week, that it's always better to take a shot at the end zone than to take a knee to end a half (or game tied in regulation). Kansas City scored the game's only touchdown, and its first offensive TD in 12 quarters, when Tyler Palko(notes) threw a 38-yard pass up for grabs, Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher(notes) swatted it downward and scatback/receiver Dexter McCluster(notes) somehow got his hands under it for the score on the final play before halftime. Hail Mary – and hail Todd Haley for doing the smart and obvious thing.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. The horrible, repressive, sexist, reactionary regime that the United States helped bring to power in Afghanistan, and the brutal mistreatment of women it proliferates.
The Texans used any means necessary to disrupt Matt Ryan.
2. The sloppy, unsteady sequence that doomed the Falcons' potential game-tying drive with less than three minutes remaining. Things imploded after Ryan drove Atlanta from its own 20 to Houston's 20, where the Falcons faced a third-and-1. Rather than handing the ball to Michael Turner(notes) or using the powerful halfback as a play-action decoy, Falcons coach Mike Smith and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey had Ryan attempt a relatively low-percentage pass to Jones in the left corner of the end zone, and it fell incomplete. Presumably, the Falcons should have been prepared for a subsequent fourth-down call. Somehow, however, Atlanta was called for delay of game, nullifying an apparent first-down completion to White. Then, compounding the madness, Smith called the Falcons' second timeout after the penalty. Ryan, under pressure on fourth-and-6, threw a pass to White that was deflected by defensive end Antonio Smith and basically had no chance. The lost timeout turned out to be huge: After the Falcons stuffed Foster on three runs to force a punt, Atlanta got the ball back with 59 seconds remaining, with at least 46 fewer seconds than it would have had if it had been able to use two timeouts and the two-minute warning to stop the clock. And that led to a rushed final sequence that also fell short, and a defeat that kept Atlanta tied with the Lions and Bears in the wild-card chase. Look, I think Smith is a very good head coach. Predictably, he was quite upset by the sequence when I ran it by him as he left the locker room and headed toward the Falcons' team bus after the game. "Well, that's something that we pride ourselves on – not having procedural things go wrong in those types of situations," he said. "We didn't execute very well." The Falcons still have a very realistic shot to make the playoffs as a wild card, but this has been a choppy, strained season for Smith's team, for whatever reason. If it continues to have issues with clock management and poise under pressure, as the Falcons did Sunday, it will not reflect favorably upon his leadership. .
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
Jason Garrett – dude. Your Dallas Cowboys had a chance to take a two-game lead in the NFC East, but the way you wigged out and clumsily overanalyzed the final seconds of regulation cost your team a chance to close out the Arizona Cardinals, setting the stage for an unconscionable 19-13 overtime defeat. And since I'm going to see your 7-5 team host the 6-6 Giants in what is now a battle for first place in the NFC East next Sunday night, I'm going to throw some icy commentary your way for … well, you know why. For those who don't, allow me to explain: Just as former Lions coach Marty Mornhinweg will long be remembered for choosing to kick off after winning a coin toss in overtime nine seasons ago, only to have the Bears drive for a game-winning field goal on their first possession, Garrett will gain lasting notoriety as the coach who iced his own kicker. As Dan Bailey(notes) lined up for a 49-yard field goal with seven seconds left in regulation and the score tied, Garrett panicked with six seconds left on the play clock and called a timeout that none of the players on the field seemed to know was coming. Bailey, as kickers do when the stunt is pulled by opposing coaches, followed through on his steps after the whistle – and crushed the ball through the uprights. On the re-kick, which actually counted, Bailey pushed the ball meekly; the kick was short and to the left. However, even before the ruinous timeout call, Garrett had already flubbed egregiously by not calling one earlier.
Dan Bailey is unable to convert what likely would have been the game-winning kick.
After Dez Bryant(notes) caught a pass for a first down at the Arizona 31 with 26 seconds remaining, Garrett held onto two remaining timeouts, instead allowing 19 seconds to expire before Tony Romo(notes) killed the clock with a spike. The coach's explanation to reporters was ridiculous: "We very well could have taken a timeout there. We felt like we were in field-goal range. We have yard lines that we use as guidelines before the game … Tony had them on the line of scrimmage quickly, so we went ahead and clocked it and used that as a timeout. … You see so many situations where you have negative plays in those situations." Translation: I was totally scared, and I freaked out. If the Cowboys blow this opportunity to win their division over the next four games, I expect that Jerry Jones will assign some blame to Garrett for his overly conservative approach, as the owner did after an October defeat to the Patriots. And while Jones loves a good Hollywood ending more than most owners, I have a feeling he had a hard time stomaching LaRod Stephens-Howling's(notes) subsequent Rod Tidwell impression on a 52-yard catch-and-run that ended the game in overtime. Just let me enjoy this for a minute …
TEXT/TWITTER/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Next time a team I cover gets sold, fires its coach and extends the GM on the same day I'm gonna be so prepared"
– Text Tuesday evening from Tania Ganguli, who covers the Jaguars for the Florida Times-Union.
" 'Houston, we have a QB' "
– Text Thursday from Counting Crows frontman and fellow Cal fanatic Adam Duritz, displaying enthusiasm about the recent performances by Cal's Zach Maynard, who'll lead the Bears against Texas and Rose Bowl thief Mack Brown in the Holiday Bowl Dec. 28 in San Diego.
– Text Sunday night from Broncos coach John Fox, on the performance of his quarterback, You Know Who.
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