Though quarterback Matt Schaub and wide receiver Andre Johnson have had a significant role in getting the team within an eyelash of its first 10-win season and initial AFC South Division title, don't expect a riot if neither take part in getting the team over the hump.
Head coach Gary Kubiak's Texans get chance No. 1 to accomplish both goals when they visit the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
Schaub is already out for the season with a foot injury and Johnson seems unlikely to play yet again after straining his left hamstring last week against Atlanta in his second game back after missing six contests following surgery on his right hamstring.
Into Schaub's role again steps rookie third-stringer T.J. Yates, who made his first start last week and threw for 188 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions in a 17-10 defeat of the Falcons. Yates, a fifth-round pick from North Carolina in the 2011 draft, jumped from scout team fill-in to No. 1 on the depth chart when initial backup option Matt Leinart broke his collarbone a week earlier at Jacksonville.
"Just his play, in particular, was encouraging," Kubiak said of Yates. "He can get a lot better, and there are so many things he'll learn from throughout the course of the game and watching himself on tape play that many plays."
The win over the Falcons equaled the Texans' franchise season record of nine established in 2009 before a disappointing skid to 6-10 last year. Additionally, a defeat of the Bengals plus a Tennessee loss to 9-3 New Orleans on Sunday would clinch both Houston's first division title and inaugural playoff berth.
Either way, the team's postseason fortunes look good. With a two-game lead over a flock of teams at 7-5 still vying for one of the conference's two Wild Card slots, it would take a sizable collapse for the Texans to miss out on all available January opportunities.
Sink or swim, Yates won't lack for mentoring help.
Houston signed long-time Carolina starter Jake Delhomme prior to the Atlanta game and added another veteran, 41-year-old Jeff Garcia, to act as No. 3 this week.
Regardless of who plays, Houston's most vital skill might be turning and handing to running backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate, the workhorses for the league's third-ranked rushing attack. On the other side, the Texans are second in both total and scoring defense, allowing 271.4 yards and 15.8 points per game.
If or how much Johnson, limited to just 31 catches and two touchdowns so far in 2011, will contribute will be determined closer to game time. He was listed questionable on the early injury report, though the Texans will likely play it safe with their star wideout.
"He felt good [Wednesday], but like I said, until he gets back out here, we'll have to wait and see," said Kubiak.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati has lost three of four after a 5-2 start, dropping into the aforementioned Wild Card muddle at with Tennessee, Oakland and the New York Jets.
If the season ended after 12 weeks, the Bengals would have the second Wild Card spot, outdoing the Titans, Raiders and Jets thanks to a superior conference record.
The task this week, however, is making sure Cincinnati's 35-7 loss at Pittsburgh last week doesn't linger.
"We can't let this affect the next four [games]," said quarterback Andy Dalton, who completed just 11-of-24 throws for 135 yards against the Steelers.
These teams have faced one another five times previously, with the Bengals winning the first three matchups and the Texans taking the last two. Houston's initial victory over Cincinnati was a 35-6 home rout in 2008, which was followed up by a 28-17 decision at Paul Brown Stadium the next season. The Texans are just 1-2 in Cincinnati in their history, however, with the Bengals coming out ahead in a 2003 bout as well as a 16-10 final in 2005.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis owns a 2-2 career record against the Texans, while Kubiak is 2-0 all-time against Cincinnati as well as in head-to-head bouts with Lewis.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
Yates connected with tight end Joel Dreessen on three-yard touchdown pass for his first career scoring pass last week and acquitted himself well in his first NFL start. The Texans are first in the AFC and second in the NFL with 15 rushing touchdowns in 2011, trailing only Carolina's 19, and Foster has a rushing touchdown in six straight games, tied with Domanick Williams for the longest streak in franchise history. Since 2010, Foster has an NFL-best 24 rushing touchdowns and needs 84 rushing yards to reach 1,000 for the second consecutive season, having logged a league-best 1,616 in 2010. Wide receiver Kevin Walter spent three seasons with the Bengals from 2003-05, while tight end Owen Daniels tied a career-high with two touchdown receptions in Houston's 2009 win over the Bengals. Dreessen, meanwhile, aims for a third straight game with a touchdown catch.
On defense, Cincinnati tackle Geno Atkins has three sacks in his past four games. Linebacker Thomas Howard posted his first sack with the Bengals last week and leads the club with 66 tackles. Cornerback Adam Jones has had success as a punt returner against the Texans in the past, having scored on runbacks of 52 and 53 yards in previous meetings with Houston while then with Tennessee.
Statistically speaking, Houston's offense is fifth in scoring (25.8 ppg), 10th in total yards (376.2 ypg), 17th in passing (223.6 ypg) and third in rushing (152.6 ypg). The Bengals' defense is 14th in points allowed (20.8 ppg), sixth in total yards allowed (306.7 ypg), 10th against the pass (210.3 ypg) and sixth in rushing defense (96.3 ypg).
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Dalton, a native of Katy, Texas and second-round pick in the most recent draft, has the most touchdown passes (17) and passing yards (2,644) by a rookie in club history. Running back Cedric Benson needs 99 rushing yards to become fifth Bengal to reach 4,000 for his career and had a rushing touchdown in Cincinnati's last meeting with Houston. Wide receiver A.J. Green leads NFL rookies in receiving yards (832) and touchdown catches (seven), while his 50 catches are tied with Cleveland's Greg Little for most among first-year players this season. Green can challenge Cris Collinsworth (67 receptions, 1,009 yards in 1981) for the most catches and receiving yards by a rookie in club history. Dalton and Green have connected for six touchdowns, the fourth-most for a rookie quarterback/wide receiver duo since 1970. Tight end Jermaine Gresham has a career-best five touchdown receptions in 2011 and needs eight catches to reach 100 for his career.
Houston's defense is tied for the AFC lead with 17 interceptions and is three sacks away from surpassing the franchise record of 37 from 2005. Linebacker Connor Barwin attended the University of Cincinnati and inside counterpart Brian Cushing had an interception while registering two forced fumbles in the Texans' 2009 win over the Bengals. Rookie end J.J. Watt has 4 1/2 sacks and 39 tackles on the season, while cornerback Johnathan Joseph -- a member of the Bengals from 2006-10, has 35 tackles, a forced fumble and four interceptions for the year.
By the numbers, The Bengals are 19th in scoring (22.2 ppg), 18th in total offense (326.1 ypg), 19th in passing (218.0 ypg) and 20th in rushing (108.1 ypg). Houston's defense is second in both points (15.8 ppg) and total yards allowed (274.1 ypg), third in pass defense (183.4 ypg) and fourth against the run (90.7 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
The second installment of the T.J. Yates show will likely feature another heavy dose of Foster and Tate, though the Bengals are respectably stout (sixth in the NFL) against the run. If the ground option is removed, the Texans offense that'll probably be without Johnson could be in some trouble.
The initial shine on rookie Dalton has faded a bit since Cincinnati began facing playoff-level competition in Baltimore and Pittsburgh. It doesn't get any easier for him against the Texans, who are in the top four across the board statistically.
The ultimate playoff prospects for the Texans could be gauged by how they react this week to a road game in December against a desperate team with a good defense. If Yates and his teammates look comfortable, it could bode well for a January success story.
After years of frustrating teases, the Texans can finally stamp their ticket to the NFL's elite dance party this weekend. Though it's not the manner they intended without Schaub and a fully capable Johnson, the team's new era of defense and ground work is well-suited to a road test against a skidding foe in hostile territory. Yates manages the game and the Houston defense seals the 10- win deal.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texans 20, Bengals 13