Texans 20, Bengals 19: Historic Season Doesn't Have to Stop with Division Title
Sign of the times.
Photo by Marco Torres
The popular opinion of the 2011 Houston Texans has been that while they were an inspiring story, injuries would prevent them from being a true Super Bowl contender.
After Sunday, consider the latest in a long line of Texan myths officially debunked.
When Matt Schaub (and subsequently Matt Leinart) went down for the year, pundits questioned whether the Texans could win via defense and a strong running game. The usual response was that they could to an extent, but not enough to contend with league heavyweights come January.
Even after an impressive win against likely playoff-bound Atlanta a week ago, accolades were quickly followed with some version of "Yeah, but." For example, CNNSI's Peter King, in last week's Monday Morning Quarterback column, conditioned his Texans praise with:
"Not to say the Texans are going to be much of a factor in the playoffs with T.J. Yates at quarterback...".
No more, Peter. Not after this.
On his own 20 with 2:33 remaining and no timeouts, Yates calmly guided the now 10-3 Texans -- with both his arm and his legs -- to a 13-play, 80-yard drive that culminated in the game-winning touchdown pass to Kevin Walter with two seconds remaining.
Oh, and it also came on the road against the league's No. 6 defense. Without Andre Johnson, and without any threat of running the ball via Arian Foster and Ben Tate.
There was no playaction and no misdirection. The Texans couldn't "hide" Yates with creative playcalling, as so many analysts predicted they would. The game came down to his ability to lead a winning drive, and Yates delivered -- in an identical spot to where so many skeptics said the Texans, without Schaub, would be hopeless.
"There's nothing he can't do," head coach Gary Kubiak said of Yates. "It's just a matter of getting the reps."
Credit Kubiak for trusting his rookie signal-caller, who had been a third-stringer until Schaub's injury. After Yates's early interception Sunday, Kubiak wasn't gunshy. He went right back to the air and let Yates build confidence by completing a 27-yard pass to Owen Daniels.
For the day, Yates threw for a career-high 300 yards and two touchdowns, also adding 36 more yards on the ground. His 17-yard scramble on 3rd-and-15 in the final minute was something neither Schaub nor Leinart could've done and single-handedly kept the drive alive.
"It did not look like we had any chance of getting out of here with a win," Kubiak said. "But we have a young quarterback who believes in what he's doing."
None of this is to downplay the significance of the current moment. It's the first time the city of Houston has sniffed the NFL playoffs since 1993, and the Texans recognize its importance.
The visiting locker room in Cincinnati erupted when the Saints held on to defeat Tennessee, and thousands of fans lined up to meet the team upon their home arrival to Reliant Stadium on Sunday evening. Championship T-shirts and hats were sold out around Houston within minutes.
"It's pretty crazy," Yates said. "A lot of people in this organization have waited a long time for this."
But this isn't the end of the ride. In fact, Sunday represented a beginning of sorts.
This was the game the Texans always lose. Every break went Cincinnati's way in the first half. Johnathan Joseph dropped what should've been an interception return for a touchdown. Ben Tate fumbled at the 2-yard line when the Texans seemed poised to score and take the lead. Neil Rackers missed a field goal, and the Texans were screwed out of a timeout on an official's poor instant replay decision.
The Texans of old might have folded -- or at the very least, not been able to completely recover. Not these Texans, though.
"We got over the hump because we refused to let adversity take us the other way," Kubiak said.
The final drive brought back memories of the Oakland game in early October, when the Texans fought so valiantly without Johnson but had their hopes dashed when Schaub threw an interception in the end zone on the game's final play.
It also reminded of last season's Monday-night game against Baltimore, when the Texans captivated the football world with a pair of late touchdown drives to tie things up, only to lose in overtime on a back-breaking interception return.
But these Texans know how to finish. And when Yates's toss found Walter's arms in the Cincinnati end zone, nearly a decade's worth of Texan frustration felt washed away.
These Texans are winners. They can be come January, too.