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Star-tossed Texans keep on truckin' with No. 3 QB

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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HOUSTON -- They win without Andre Johnson. They win without Mario Williams. And they win without Matt Schaub.

But now look what the Houston Texans are doing: Winning with rookie T.J. Yates, their third starting quarterback in three weeks, and, yeah, that's significant when it's someone like Atlanta they're besting.

The Falcons are supposed to be one of the NFC's heavyweights, but they didn't have enough strength, offense, defense ... something ... to overcome Houston's defense, Houston's running game and Houston's latest quarterback.

"It's been three weeks with three different quarterbacks," said coach Gary Kubiak, "but it's the same team."

Consider that a warning to the rest of the AFC. For weeks, opponents waited for the Texans to wilt, convinced they would return to the pack with the loss of Schaub, their starting quarterback. But it didn't happen, and it's not going to happen.

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Houston not only is a dead-bolt cinch to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history; if the season were to end today, the Texans would be the No. 2 seed in the AFC.

They have the league's top-ranked defense. They have a pass defense that went from dead last a year ago to second in the NFL today. They can run. They can pass protect. They make few mistakes. And now they have a rookie quarterback who looks as if the game isn't too big for him.

That would be Yates, who passed his first exam by staying out of trouble, making just enough plays to succeed and outplaying his opponent, veteran Matt Ryan. Yates was supposed to be the guy who would buckle under the pressure, but he wasn't -- and that should give Houston hope that maybe, just maybe, he won't hold the Texans back in January.

"I mean, if we can do it today," said offensive tackle Eric Winston, "why can't we do it every day?"

Good question.

Once, that answer was: Because the quarterback's not good enough. Logic said the Texans would be OK without Schaub, might be OK with Matt Leinart, but would be doomed in the playoffs with a rookie third-stringer at the position. Except they just beat the NFC's top playoff seed of 2010 with that rookie third-stringer, and they didn't do it by holding him back.

Nope, Yates had to make plays, and he did -- with fans chanting, "T.J., T.J., T.J." after his first NFL touchdown pass.

"The sky's the limit for T.J.," said linebacker DeMeco Ryans.

Maybe. But entering the game, conventional wisdom said the Texans would do everything they could to make life uncomplicated for their quarterback, with running backs like Arian Foster and Ben Tate getting most of the touches on offense and the defense doing what it always does -- keeping opponents within reach.

Then the contest began, and the Texans had Yates throw four consecutive times on their second series, twice more on the third and three times on the fourth -- with the quarterback connecting on a 50-yard pass to Johnson to set up their first touchdown. And that's when conventional wisdom went kaput.

"So you didn't try to make him play mistake-free?" someone asked Kubiak.

"I didn't approach him that way," he said. "I think if you're playing one game, maybe you'd have to approach something like that. But he's our quarterback for the rest of the year. So it's important that we go ahead and move forward; that we leave our expectations the same.

"I don't want to cuff him. I just want him to go play. I just want to see him get better each week. My approach with him is to stay aggressive because we need him to grow up real fast. That's what we're going to have to expect him to do."

Nowhere was that more apparent than on a game-winning, 19-play drive that not only consumed 10:41 but was completed without Johnson, who limped off with another hamstring injury, this one to his left leg.

Granted, Yates completed only one pass on the drive, but big deal. He commanded the huddle, pushed the team forward and made a key third-down scramble that set up a fourth-and-1 the Texans converted when Foster got the call.

Basically, Yates made the plays he had to make to keep the Texans out of trouble, and pardon Kubiak if he wasn't surprised. After quizzing his quarterback Saturday night on the upcoming game plan, Kubiak said he was so "impressed" with how well Yates responded that he was convinced he ... and the Texans ... would be OK.

They were. And they are.

"I think I played all right," said Yates. "But there are definitely some mistakes I can delete."

OK, so there was a fumble returned for a touchdown. But that was called back because of penalties. And there was an interception that was returned for a touchdown. But that was overruled because of penalties. Look at the final sheet, people: Yates didn't screw up. Moreover, he made enough big plays to push the Texans through their latest round of adversity -- against a quality opponent, no less.

"It's what this team does," Yates said.

But it's what this team did with T.J. frickin' Yates. And that should wake up people to Houston.

"I guess you could see we made a statement," said defensive back Danieal Manning. "But we always believe in this room. We believe in each and every guy, and it's like a chain reaction. It's contagious around here. But that's the tale of our season. Guys go down and guys step up."

Which begs the question: How far can Houston go with a rookie quarterback? Well, the Texans had enough faith in Yates that they didn't make a major move after backup Leinart was sidelined a week ago. They had enough faith in him that they didn't compromise their offense, either. Now, they have enough faith in him to think -- and, no, this is no misprint -- that they may be, just may be, as difficult to beat as they were with Schaub because ... well, let Foster explain.

"Because we have a defense that's playing well," he said. "We have receivers that can make plays. [We have] a solid offensive line. We have running backs who can make plays. We have weapons around him to help him.

"I keep saying 'help' like he's handicapped. He's a good quarterback. It's fun to watch him grow, and I think he's going to do nothing but grow more."

Based on what I just witnessed, it's hard to argue.

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