Sunday December 11th, 2011

The Texans swarm Kevin Walter to celebrate his game-winning touchdown catch. (Mark Zerof/US Presswire)

When Matt Schaub went down with a season-ending injury, all the Houston Texans players and coaches expressed complete confidence in Matt Leinart. And then the same thing happened when T.J. Yates stepped in for an injured Leinart.

"We trust Yates," the Texans told us. "He doesn't play like a rookie."

Sure, we all thought and rolled our eyes. No way Yates can step in, with no NFL experience, and do the job.

Then, the 2011 fifth-round pick led a late game-winning drive against Atlanta in Week 13. And Sunday, he one-upped himself, rallying the Texans from a 16-3 halftime deficit and 19-10 fourth-quarter hole to eke out a 20-19 win over the Bengals (box | recap).

At some point we might just have to admit this is the Texans' year.

How else do you explain Kevin Walter coming wide open at the goal line -- so wide open you had to wonder if he had run out of the stands or something -- with two seconds left? Yates, apparently ever calm and collected, fired a strike. Walter made the catch and tumbled into the end zone.

Just like that, with Tennessee losing a tough one to New Orleans, the Texans had clinched their first-ever playoff berth and an AFC South title.

Houston looked out of it at halftime, down 13 to a Cincinnati team desperately in need of a win to keep its playoff drive on track. But then, as it's done all season, the Texans' defense delivered a huge play.

On the second snap of the third quarter, Connor Barwin sacked Cincinnati QB Andy Dalton and popped the ball loose. Houston jumped on it at the Bengals 17. Four plays later, Yates hit Joel Dreessen for a 6-yard touchdown to cut the Cincinnati lead to 16-10 and, almost out of nowhere, the Texans had life.

The comeback task still looked daunting, though, with 2:33 left in the fourth quarter, when Yates stepped onto the field. He needed 80 yards against an underrated Cincinnati defense.

He still needed 40 yards about a minute later when Houston faced a 3rd-and-15 in Cincinnati territory. No problem there, either -- Yates scrambled for 17, spiked the ball to stop the clock, then got the benefit of a pass interference call to move Houston down to the 6.

From there, it seemed inevitable that Houston would finish the job.

And on the other side, away from the Texans' latest jovial celebration, there was only misery.

Cincinnati came into Sunday at 7-5, clinging to the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC. Even if the home fans weren't fired up for a key home game -- and judging by the mostly empty stadium, they were not -- the Bengals came out and took it to the Texans in the first half.

Even when Houston put a drive together to get down to the Cincinnati 1 in the second quarter, the defense rose up and hammered Ben Tate in the backfield, forcing a fumble and a turnover.

By the end of the second quarter, the Bengals looked well on their way to their eighth victory. Less than two hours later, they have to be wondering if their season just slipped away.

They probably will not take much solace in the fact that the Texans keep doing this, no matter the opponent, no matter the circumstances. On the one hand, you have to wonder how many more major injuries this team can endure (they were also missing Andre Johnson, who suffered another hamstring injury last week). And on the other hand, it feels like -- despite all their banged-up players -- the Texans are living life right, winning a single-season franchise record seventh consecutive game Sunday.

No matter what happens over the final three weeks of the regular season, the Texans will be in the postseason, playing at least one game at home in front of their rabid fans.

Some of the other playoff contenders might look at Yates calling plays and Johnson struggling to stay healthy and hope to draw Houston in round one.

On paper, they might be right -- in spite of a tough, aggressive defense, the Texans have the look of a team that will run out of steam at some point. And yet, here we are, 13 games into the regular season, and they just keep winning games, week in and week out. Sunday, it was all thanks to Yates' incredibly clutch performance down the stretch. The Texans told us all along that the rookie had it in him. We've all seen the proof now.

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