sistaff
Tuesday November 15th, 2011

Matt Leinart

A promising Texans' season appears to be in the hands of former USC standout Matt Leinart. (Landov)

This, finally, after nine seasons of frustrating and failure, felt like the Texans' year. All of a sudden, though, the picture no longer looks so rosy.

Houston had survived injuries to Andre Johnson and Arian Foster, and a season-ending injury for Mario Williams, to become the AFC's hottest team. But coach Gary Kubiak announced Monday that starting QB Matt Schaub suffered a "significant foot injury," with at least one report surfacing that Schaub's done until next year.

That leaves the upstart Texans' fortunes in the hands of Matt Leinart.

You didn't forget about him, did you? The ex-USC star and one-time future franchise quarterback of the Arizona Cardinals, Leinart has been behind Schaub on Houston's depth chart since last season. He's made just one start in the past four years and hasn't thrown a pass since 2010, but barring a miraculous recovery by Schaub, he'll now be tasked with getting the Texans into the playoffs for the first time.

Houston took control of the AFC South race with a 41-7 drubbing of Tennessee a few weeks back and still hold a 1.5-game lead on the Titans. However, this injury could be a game-changer.

It may not be Curtis Painter filling in for Peyton Manning -- Schaub has not reached Manning's elite level and Leinart, well, has to be better than Painter, right? -- but in terms of how it could impact this Houston team, the potential for a complete letdown is there.

Schaub's 10th in the league in yards passing, ninth in touchdowns and sixth in QB rating. The good news for the Texans is that he's not a one-man show, like Manning apparently was in Indianapolis. Houston still boasts a ferocious rushing attack, led by Arian Foster, and the NFL's second-best defense.

For the near future, at least, Leinart's job will be to not lose games for Houston, while letting the defense and ground game win them.

Will that strategy be enough to keep the ball rolling?

Whether anyone realizes it or not, the Texans not only lead their division right now, they lead the entire AFC with a 7-3 record. If the playoffs started today, Houston would have a first-round bye, then home-field advantage until the Super Bowl. So, Schaub's injury not only gives the Titans some life in the division race, it should be a boost for the Steelers, Patriots, Ravens and any other AFC team thinking of playing postseason games in front of their fans.

If there is any silver lining here for Houston, it's that Schaub's injury happened right before the team's bye week. Leinart will have two full weeks to ready himself to step in to the lineup in Jacksonville on Nov. 27.

He might have a healthy Andre Johnson back in the lineup by then too, which would make his job infinitely easier.

That said, there are not many teams -- and there may not be any teams -- that could lose their starting quarterback in the middle of the stretch drive and still finish with a flourish. Consider what would happen to the Packers' fortunes without Aaron Rodgers, the Giants without Eli Manning or the Patriots without Tom Brady.

Schaub has stayed further under the radar than those guys, but he means as much to the Texans as any of those QBs mean to their respective teams. The Texans' break-through season just hit a major speed bump. Whether or not they still can get to the finish line near the front of the pack will depend on Leinart.

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