The Texans are three weeks from postseason play and have rapidly intensifying concerns at quarterback and placekicker, two of the most critical playoff positions.
It may not be time to panic, but a regular season that seems certain to end with a No. 3 playoff seed still holds significant questions that the Texans must soon answer.
It wasn't just that they lost Sunday for the first time in eight games. It was the way the Texans (10-4) went down, revealing two potentially enormous holes for which they likely lack reasonable alternatives.
For the first time since his debut three weeks ago in Jacksonville, rookie quarterback T.J. Yates played like a fifth-round rookie. And the performance might've been worse than the numbers indicated.
He was 19-of-30 for 212 yards with two interceptions. But of the 19 completions, more than half (10) went to running backs or fullback Lawrence Vickers. On the whole, Yates's inability to stretch the field was reminiscent of, well, his predecessor Matt Leinart.
The absence of star wideout Andre Johnson isn't an acceptable excuse. Yates had open receivers all over the field against a depleted Carolina secondary -- particularly tight ends Owen Daniels and Joel Dreessen -- but either couldn't identify them or misfired on the throw.
A particularly brutal attempt came on a Texan field-goal drive late in the third quarter, when Daniels was left all alone behind the Carolina defense but Yates short-armed the pass.
"I just got to be able to see the game better," Yates said after the game. "It's hard to put your finger on. I wish I knew why I was always off. You got to go back at the film. Maybe it's footwork, maybe it's mechanics. We'll be able to look at the film and fix it and move on."
It's not time for head coach Gary Kubiak to pull the plug on Yates, who played very well in wins over Atlanta and Cincinnati. That's especially true considering backups Jake Delhomme and Jeff Garcia each have less than a month's experience with the Texan offense.
But whether he publicly admits it or not, Kubiak should remain open to the idea if similar struggles occur Thursday at 1-13 Indianapolis.
Both backups are veterans with NFL postseason experience, and it's not as if the Houston offense requires Tom Brady to be efficient. Even without Johnson, options roamed wide open in the Carolina secondary for nearly the entire second half.
Yates simply couldn't make routine reads and throws, and any chance of a rally was lost.
"He played like a young player today," Kubiak said of Yates. "He did not play as sharp, read-wise and stuff. I don't know if that's getting a little rattled early in the game or what, I don't know. But, we had our opportunities for some big plays and we didn't make them. So he's got to play a lot better. "
This wasn't just a story of the Texans coming out flat following the biggest win in franchise history, as many fans and local media members argued following the game. There's some truth in it, of course, as evidenced by the immediate 7-0 hole that the Texans dug themselves following an Arian Foster fumble.
But in the big picture, the team did much of what it needed to do. The Texans held a prolific Carolina offense to 316 yards, and Foster rushed 16 times for 109 yards and a touchdown -- one of his better outings of the 2011 season.
The difference came in the efficiency. When the Panthers had the ball in a position to score, they used imaginative playcalling and timely throws from Cam Newton to score touchdowns on all four occasions. On the other side, the Texans had two promising drives stall and result in field goals when Yates couldn't execute inside the 20-yard line. Another ended with a Yates interception on a play where no Texan receiver was even in the vicinity of the pass.
The errors were compounded by woeful field goal kicking from Neil Rackers. Trailing just 7-0 in the early going, Rackers badly misfired on a 49-yard kick that would've given the Texans offense a lift.
It was his sixth miss of the season, and his third in the last three weeks. This comes after Rackers missed just three field goals in the entire 2010 season.
Moreover, his made 34-yard kick in the third quarter snuck in by a matter of inches. Rackers's confidence appears to be waning, and there's not much time left to find it.
"He's part of the concern," Kubiak said of Rackers. "He's missing big kicks and he's been pretty automatic for us."
The flaws aren't necessarily fatal. Rackers has a long career as a successful kicker to draw on, and Kubiak gave him a vote of confidence following the game by saying he wouldn't look at free-agent alternatives.
In Yates's case, the talented supporting cast on offense that allowed him to succeed in his first two starts is still in place. The throws and reads he missed on Sunday weren't too complex for him to make.
But for the Texans to be a legit Super Bowl contender, both players figure to need some sort of positive reinforcement heading into the postseason.
Even with the playoffs and No. 3 seed likely locked up, much remains for the Texans to prove.
Don't forget to check our updated 2011 Texans Season Interactive Game Card.
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