CINCINNATI -- Maybe this is ridiculous. Maybe this will look stupid in a few years, or even a few weeks. But after watching the Texans' 20-19 victory against the Bengals on Sunday, I'm not sure Andy Dalton was the top rookie quarterback in this game.
And I'm not sure I could have named the other guy before last week.
Don't get me wrong. I had heard of the other guy, T.J. Yates. He played collegiately at North Carolina, and North Carolina had major issues last year that drew my attention, so I knew who Yates was. But he played for the Texans? Until last week, I'm not sure I knew that. He hadn't played all year, sitting early because Matt Schaub is a star, then sitting some more when Schaub was injured because Matt Leinart is, um, handsome? I don't know what else Leinart has on Yates.
Because T.J. Yates is a winner.
He's a lot like Andy Dalton, in other words. Bengals fans are going to see this story as a knock on Dalton, and it's not. He's a fine quarterback, and maybe his ceiling is higher than that of Yates. I'm not an NFL scout, and unlike a lot of guys in my business, I won't pretend to be one. Dalton was picked early in the second round by the Bengals in 2011, 35th overall -- 117 spots ahead of Yates in the middle of Round 5 -- so obviously scouts were higher on Dalton than Yates eight months ago.
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But would they be higher on Dalton than Yates today?
And if so, why?
Since Leinart went down because of a collarbone injury, Yates has started two games and won both. It's a small sample size, but it's the only one we have. In two-plus games, Yates has a passer rating of 82.3, which is about the same (though slightly better) than Dalton's rating of 82.1 through 13 games. What does it mean? Nothing conclusive -- in either direction.
But unlike Dalton, whose best plays Sunday were up-for-grabs throws to the ridiculously talented A.J. Green, Yates has done it mostly without superstar receiver Andre Johnson, who was inactive Sunday after leaving the Falcons game last week because of a hamstring injury. For six of his eight quarters as starter, Yates' top targets have been tight end Owen Daniels, who is very good, and a cast of role players like Kevin Walter, Jacoby Jones and Joel Dreessen.
And still he threw for 300 yards and two touchdowns Sunday against a solid Bengals defense. Yates also ran for 36 yards, including the non-scoring play of the game: a 23-yard scramble on third-and-15, putting the ball at the Bengals' 17 with 28 seconds left.
"I felt like I was running forever," Yates said. "I bet I looked so slow. I was pretty gassed at that point. ... Coach [Gary] Kubiak told me that if nothing is there, just get out and go."
That third-down scramble came in the middle of the kind of drive that rookie quarterbacks -- especially rookies who were drafted in the fifth round and are playing only because the starter and his backup are injured -- simply do not make. Trailing by six points, only 2½ minutes to play, 80 yards from the end zone? With no timeouts?
|Suddenly the injuries to Matt Schaub and Matt Lienart don't seem so fatal. Rookie T.J. Yates looked like a 10-year veteran in leading an 80-yard, game-winning touchdown drive in the final minutes. The Texans are very much in the conversation as contenders in the AFC thanks to the surprising development of the former third-string QB.|
|Marvin Lewis called this the biggest game in his nine years with the Bengals and after blowing a nine point fourth-quarter lead it's among the most heartbreaking. Cincinnati had to win, and to allow rookie QB T.J. Yates to engineer an 80-yard drive in the final two minutes is inexcusable and could very likely decide their playoff fate.|
|By Paul Dehner |
On the road?
Rookie quarterbacks don't win that game.
But Yates drove those 80 yards, converting third-and-3 from the Texans' 38 with a short pass to Daniels, then converting third-and-15 from the Bengals' 40 by scrambling 23 yards. From there, Yates capitalized on a pass-interference call on Bengals cornerback Adam Jones at the 6 by finding Walter in the end zone with two seconds left. That tied the score at 19, and Neil Rackers' extra point made the score 20-19.
"That [kind of drive] starts with the quarterback," said Kubiak. "You don't do those things if someone doesn't have total control of the situation. The young quarterback bailed us out of some really tough situations."
The win gives the Texans a 10-3 record -- and thanks to New Orleans' victory Sunday at Tennessee, the AFC South title. The Texans have clinched the division, and now are playing for postseason position. They are tied with the Patriots, Ravens and Steelers for the best record in the AFC, though the Ravens have a tiebreaker edge on Houston thanks to a 29-14 victory at Baltimore on Oct. 16.
Still, the Texans are playing for home-field advantage that could extend deep into the playoffs, and they are in improbably good hands. Is Yates as good as Matt Schaub? No. Of course not. Schaub was a Pro Bowl quarterback, and if he returns from that prickly foot injury in 2012, Yates will go back to the bench. In the meantime, though, Yates wins games. He has won two in a row, the Texans have won seven in a row, and three winnable games remain for Houston: home dates with the Panthers (Dec. 18) and Titans (Jan. 1) sandwiched around a trip to winless Indianapolis on Dec. 22.
The Texans could win all three of those games. They could enter the playoffs on a 10-game winning streak, the kind of thing that would earn all sorts of attention, although it must be said -- even as I write glowingly about the Texans and their rookie quarterback -- that they really haven't beaten anybody during this win streak. Houston has defeated six teams (Jacksonville, twice) with a combined record of 34-44, only one of them with a shot at going to the playoffs. That's Atlanta.
And that's who Yates beat last week.
In his first start of the season. Despite the third-quarter loss of his best receiver, Andre Johnson. In a game that was tied at 10 in the fourth quarter, when Yates directed a monster drive that went 85 yards, took 19 plays and used up almost 11 minutes of game clock.
Rookies don't do that, but T.J. Yates did it last week. And then he did something even crazier this week. What will he do next week? No clue, but he'll do it against Cam Newton -- the only rookie quarterback I'm positive is better than he is.