Texans quarterback T.J. Yates is given some encouraging words from wide… (David J. Phillip / Associated…)
The Houston Texans have never made the NFL playoffs, but they're heading into the stretch run with a two-game lead in the AFC South, the league's No. 2 defense and No. 3 running game.
And they have a rookie quarterback in T.J. Yates, a fifth-round pick who was an afterthought invitee to the scouting combine and spent most of this season as a third-stringer behind Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart.
Yates might sound like a 16-year-old kid holding the keys to a Maserati, but that's not how his teammates look at him — especially after his respectable performance in Sunday's 17-10 victory over Atlanta. Making his first NFL start, he completed 12 of 15 passes for 188 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions.
"I knew he was going to come out poised," tackle Eric Winston said Monday by phone. "I knew he'd embrace the moment and the moment wouldn't be too big for him."
That's good, because the moments are only going to get bigger. Yates is among a handful of young quarterbacks thrust into the spotlight for teams still alive in the playoff race.
Denver's Tim Tebow is the most prominent of these players, having started the season as the Broncos' third-string quarterback. With the help of an excellent defense, he has guided the team to five consecutive road victories, the longest such streak since the John Elway-led Broncos of 1998.
But the Chicago Bears have put the ball in the hands of a young quarterback too. Caleb Hanie is starting in place of Jay Cutler, out because of a thumb injury. The Bears, in the thick of the wild-card hunt at 7-5, have lost both games Hanie has started, and the young quarterback has been intercepted three times in each.
Bears Coach Lovie Smith said Monday the team is not considering signing another quarterback, even though speculation has swirled that the team might look at Donovan McNabb, released by Minnesota last week, or maybe even the retired Brett Favre.
"We have our quarterbacks here now," Smith said, according to the Chicago Tribune. "There are quarterbacks here; we have two of them — we really have three of them. And another one is rehabbing and will come back, hopefully, this year."
The rehabbing one is Cutler. The other three are Hanie, backup Nathan Enderle and newly signed third-stringer Josh McCown.
Does that mean the Bears will stick with Hanie until the bitter end? Not necessarily. But he's the man of the moment, no matter how brief that moment might be.
Chicago lost at home Sunday to Kansas City, which is quarterbacked by Tyler Palko. The first and only touchdown of his NFL career came on a Hail Mary pass at the end of the first half, one that bounced off the hands of Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher and into the arms of Chiefs receiver Dexter McCluster.
At 5-7, the Chiefs aren't in the thick of the playoff race, but they're not dead either. What remains to be seen is when (or whether) Kyle Orton will return. The Chiefs claimed him off waivers when he was released by Denver, but Orton was hurt on his first play against the Bears, suffering an injured right index finger when he was hit on a flea-flicker pass.
If the first-place Broncos are still battling for a playoff spot in their final game of the regular season, and Orton is ready to play for the Chiefs, that could set up a must-watch reunion. The Chiefs finish the season at Denver.
Miami's Matt Moore has strung together several impressive performances, helping direct the left-for-dead Dolphins to four victories in five games. Over that five-game stretch, Moore has eight touchdowns and one interception.
The Dolphins, who lost their first seven games, have shown they still have a pulse, most recently with their 34-14 victory over Oakland on Sunday.
"We've been on a wild ride here," said Moore, knowing full well it's far from over.