Arian Foster rolled up 111 yards on the ground -- his fifth 100-yard game of the season -- and added another 41 through the air. (ZUMAPRESS.com)
With its third-string quarterback running the show, its star wide receiver in the locker room with an injury and its league-leading defense, the Texans faced a decision in the fourth quarter Sunday. With a 4th-and-1 on Atlanta's 9, Houston coach Gary Kubiak could have taken an easy three points for a 13-10 lead and asked his defense to lock it down for the remaining seven minutes.
Instead, he called on Arian Foster and Houston's offensive line.
And just as they have all season long, no matter how many obstacles have stacked up in their faces, the Texans delivered. Foster plowed through the right side of the line for seven yards, carrying Atlanta defenders with him. Two plays later, Foster went to his left and into the end zone to cap a 19-play, 85-yard drive that took nearly 11 minutes off the clock.
Still having doubts that Houston is the real deal? You shouldn't be. That one drive proved yet again that the Texans are right where they belong.
T.J. Yates was far from perfect in his first career start, and Houston will rightly be worried about Andre Johnson's hamstring, but the Texans just keep winning.
They're doing it in old-school fashion too, with a ground game and stout defense. There may be better or more talented teams in the NFL. There isn't one playing with more confidence or toughness.
That includes the San Francisco 49ers, who are, to some extent, the Texans of the NFC. Both teams are in prime playoff position -- Houston atop the AFC, San Francisco in second in the NFC -- and both are better than the sum of their parts.
How else can you explain Yates, a fifth-round draft pick last April, not just keeping his team alive but outplaying Matt Ryan? It was Ryan who threw two early picks (though Yates was bailed out of one potentially deadly pick-six late, during that game-winning drive, by an Atlanta penalty). It was also Ryan letting his team take a delay of game penalty on 4th-and-1 in the closing moments, then throwing incomplete on 4th-and-6.
If Atlanta was supposed to be more skilled or more experienced, it didn't show Sunday.
Maybe -- with apologies to the Ravens, Steelers and Patriots -- this Houston squad really is the team to beat in the AFC. Who's to say otherwise? We're 13 weeks into the season, and no one's figured out how to stop the Texans' run game or consistently score on its defense.
The Texans close with games against Cincinnati, Carolina, Indianapolis and Tennessee. If it keeps taking care of business, the AFC playoff would go through Houston, where a raucous group of hungry fans has been waiting and waiting and waiting for a contender.
The defense has been a revelation this year under coordinator Wade Phillips. Sunday, the Texans didn't even register a sack, yet still forced those two Ryan turnovers, kept Michael Turner to 44 yards rushing and shut down a potent Atlanta attack.
With its defense playing as well as it is, Houston really doesn't need that much from its quarterback. Yates was able to be the prototypical "game manager" Sunday -- responsible for just taking care of the ball and hitting a pass here and there.
His ability to do that let Foster and Ben Tate batter Atlanta to the tune of 152 yards rushing.
It's impossible to underestimate how impressive the Texans' run game has been this season. Even with Matt Schaub in the lineup -- and especially with Matt Leinart and now Yates -- opposing defenses have known all along that option one for the Texans is to run the football. And still no one's been able to prevent them from doing that. Houston entered Sunday third in the league in yards rushing at 151.7 yards per game and topped that number against Atlanta.
Kubiak's team isn't doing anything fancy or exotic. It's laying its cards on the table at the opening kick and saying, "Come on, beat us."
No one has since Oct. 16, as the Texans have run off a come-hell-or-high-water win streak of six games to grab a stranglehold of the AFC South race.
There's a good chance that somewhere along the line, between now and whenever Houston's season concludes, Yates will have to step up and win a game. When that time comes, he'll have a chance to take this great Houston season and turn it into something magical.
Until then, though, the Texans can just keep rolling along. Run the ball. Limit turnovers. Play defense.