T.J. Yates and the AFC South champion Houston Texans will welcome NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers to Reliant Stadium in a battle of first-year quarterbacks. It may appear that there's not much at stake in this interconference battle, but the Texans are still trying for the AFC's No. 1 seed and their eighth win in a row.
Yates, a fifth-round draft pick out of the University of North Carolina, took over when backup quarterback Matt Leinart was lost for the season in a 20-13 Texans' win at Jacksonville on Nov. 27. Leinart was starting in place of Matt Schaub, who was already done for the season with a foot injury. Yates rallied the Texans from a nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter of last Sunday's 20-19 win over rookie signal-caller Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals, putting his team ahead for good with a six-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Walter with two seconds remaining.
The Texans needed to win and for Tennessee to lose against New Orleans in order to capture the franchise's first-ever division title, and that goal has been achieved. Yates and the rest of his teammates watched the Titans lose to the Saints in the locker room, and celebration ensued with T-shirts and caps.
Texans head coach Gary Kubiak was pleased with the outcome, but said there's still more work to do.
"They were pretty excited, but I told them we didn't really play [well]," Kubiak said. "Believe it or not, at this point we were not on top of what we were doing, but we found a way to win and that's what this game is about."
Kubiak may want to watch a few Denver Broncos games and gain a certain respect for winning ugly. Either way, the Texans are guaranteed to finish with only their second record above .500 in their history, as the 2009 squad was the first to do it with a 9-7 ledger.
Houston is also headed to the postseason for the first time, but may not have the architect of their stingy defense for the upcoming tournament. Coordinator Wade Phillips revealed this week he'll be taking a leave of absence to deal with health issues, though he is expected to return later this season.
Phillips has led the defense to a historical turnaround, as it is allowing 274.9 yards per game this season compared to 376.9 permitted in 2010. The Texans' 102-yard improvement is the best of any team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
Linebackers coach Reggie Herring is expected to call defensive plays until Phillips is healthy enough to return.
Meanwhile, Newton has advanced tremendously as a rookie this season, even though the Panthers will miss the playoffs for a third straight year and fifth time in the past six seasons.
It was a tale of two halves for Newton in last Sunday's tough 31-23 home loss to the Atlanta Falcons, as the No. 1 pick in this past April's draft completed nine of his 14 passes for 147 yards and two touchdowns through the first 30 minutes but threw two costly interceptions in the second half. Newton did not rush for a touchdown for only the fourth time this season as well after setting a quarterback record with his 13th score on the ground two weeks ago.
Carolina's defense fell apart at the end and gave up a 75-yard touchdown to Falcons rookie wide receiver Julio Jones with 4:17 remaining in the game. The loss, which was Carolina's fourth in six games, ended a season-best two-game winning streak and pushed the Panthers further back in the NFC South.
Head coach Ron Rivera was nevertheless unhappy about blowing a big halftime lead, something that has happened on several occasions for his team.
"When you lead 12 out of 13 [games], you have a chance to win games," Rivera said on Monday. "We're a lot better than we're giving ourselves an opportunity for. We've got to grow up and get past a lot of things. We've got to get past, 'It is what it is,' because it's not. We are better than that, and we have to start playing like that. We have to start growing up."
Veteran wide receiver Steve Smith added by saying with the season winding down, it's time to start auditioning for jobs next season. Smith stated that it's unfortunate that some current players will not be employed next season, though his job status is certainly secure after the type of season he's had. Smith became the 35th player in NFL history to amass 10,000 receiving yards after compiling 125 yards on six catches against Atlanta.
Rivera would also like to see Carolina clean up its act in the penalty department. The Panthers are fourth in the league in penalty yardage with 891, behind only Oakland, Seattle and Detroit.
The Panthers and Texans have faced one another only twice previously, with Houston taking both matchups. Carolina was a 14-10 loser in its only prior visit to Reliant Stadium, which took place in 2003, and the Texans also topped the Panthers in Charlotte by a 34-21 score in 2007. Carolina's only victory in the city of Houston in its history took place on Nov. 24, 1996, a 31-6 rout of the Oilers at the Astrodome.
Kubiak moved to 1-0 lifetime against the Panthers with the above-mentioned 2007 win, while Rivera will be meeting both Houston and Kubiak for the first time as a head man.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Newton (3,573 passing yards, 15 TD, 16 INT) is tied for third in the league with 16 interceptions and had his fourth multi-pick game of the season last week. Still, the Panthers are averaging 399 yards per game thanks to the former Heisman Trophy winner, who has 28 total touchdowns in 2011, an NFL record by a rookie. He is also the third rookie to pass for 3,500 yards in a season, joining Peyton Manning and Sam Bradford. The offensive line was shuffled a bit against the Falcons, as left tackle Jordan Gross was inactive because of a sprained ankle. Travelle Wharton moved from left guard to left tackle, and Mackenzy Bernadeau took over at left guard. Center Ryan Kalil then suffered a shoulder injury during the game and regular right guard Geoff Hangartner moved over from his spot, with Bryant Browning making his NFL debut at Hangartner's post. Kalil was able to return on Carolina's next series, however. Smith (67 receptions, 1217 yards, 5 TD) had 125 yards on six catches last week and posted his sixth 100-yard receiving effort of the season. He leads the team in receptions catches this season and has made a catch in a team-record 72 straight games.
Kubiak told his players that it will be tough to construct a game plan against Newton, since he's talented enough to win with both his right arm and his legs. Texans linebacker Brian Cushing (86 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INTs) also said Newton is a special player who runs an uncharacteristic scheme at this level. Cushing leads the team in stops and will be needed quite often on Sunday against not only Newton, but running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Houston didn't record any interceptions against the Bengals, but outside linebacker Connor Barwin (40 tackles) added to his team-leading total of 10 sacks with one on Dalton. Barwin owns 7 1/2 sacks in his last five games. Fellow outside linebacker Brooks Reed (39 tackles) is second on the team with six sacks, while defensive ends J.J. Watt (43 tackles) and Antonio Smith (19 tackles) both have five. The Texans' defense will be playing with their minds on Phillips, who hopes to return to his post soon. Cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph (40 tackles) and Jason Allen (36 tackles) both have four interceptions.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
Yates (558 passing yards, 3 TD, INT) passed for a career-best 300 yards with two touchdowns and an interception -- his first of the season -- last week. With the injuries to Schaub and Leinart, it's now his turn to shine. Yates is 2-0 as a starter and has the Texans flying high right now, and who knows how good the rookie can be if wide receiver Andre Johnson (31 receptions, 2 TD) was healthy. Hamstring issues have limited Johnson to just six games this season, but he has been jogging during practice this week. He's still listed as day-to- day, but will likely be held out at least another week with the team having clinched a playoff berth. Kubiak was pleased to see his top wideout running around, however, and said it was a step in the right direction. Prized running back Arian Foster (957 rushing yards, 8 TD) was held to just 41 yards and no touchdowns on 15 carries last week, and didn't score a rushing touchdown after going six weeks with at least one. Foster needs 43 rushing yards to reach the 1,000-yard for the second year in a row. Tight end Owen Daniels (51 receptions, 3 TD) leads the team in catches and receiving yards (644) and had a season-best 100 yards last week against Cincinnati.
Carolina will try to rattle the rookie Yates and collected three sacks against Atlanta's Matt Ryan in its previous game. Defensive end Antwan Applewhite (20 tackles, 2 sacks) sacked Ryan in the end zone for an eight-yard loss that resulted in a safety in the second quarter, while tackle Jason Shirley recorded his first career sack in the loss. Linebacker James Anderson (117 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and end Charles Johnson (40 tackles, 9 sacks) also combined for a sack to push the total to three. Johnson leads the team with nine sacks this year and has produced 17 sacks in his last 20 games dating back to last season. Carolina did not force any turnovers against the Falcons and hopes Yates will be rushed to make some poor decisions. The team has a negative-five turnover ratio this season, going 4-0 when having a positive turnover margin but 0-9 when being either even or on the negative side in that category. Safety Sherrod Martin (50 tackles) has a team-high three interceptions this season, while secondary mate Charles Godfrey (76 tackles) has two picks.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Panthers kicker Olindo Mare has been in the doghouse lately, and the team lit a fire under his behind this week by signing kicker Adi Kunalic, an undrafted rookie out of Nebraska. Mare missed a 36-yard field goal try against the Falcons by pulling it wide left, but had made 30 field goals in a row when he was in a groove with Seattle back in 2009. Both he and the Panthers hope that can happen again, and Carolina may need the veteran to come through if the game is close.
The Texans have won three in a row at home and are an impressive 5-1 as the host this season. They'll definitely be up for this one with Phillips out for health reasons and the No. 1 seed in the conference still up for grabs, so the Panthers will have to match their opponent's intensity.
Carolina will try to unleash Williams and Stewart on Houston's stingy defense in the early going. Williams had 87 yards and a touchdown on only seven carries against the Falcons and set a team record with a 74-yard scoring run in the second quarter. He leads the team with 656 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 126 attempts this season and ranks as the franchise's all-time leader with 967 rushing attempts, 4,867 rushing yards, 35 rushing touchdowns, a 5.03 yards-per- carry average and 16 games with 100 or more rushing yards. The Texans can't forget that Newton is also a dangerous threat to take off as well.
The Panthers are a team on the rise and can prove that with an upset of the AFC South-champion Texans and a big road win Sunday. In order for that to happen, however, mistakes and penalties have to be kept at a minimum and Newton must keep his passes from going into the hands of Houston players. Newton can't do it all alone, and will need his two top running backs prepared for a hard-hitting affair. The Texans will dedicate this game to Phillips, the team's defensive genius, but a failure to contain Newton and the Panthers' offense will eventually be too much to overcome on this afternoon.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 24, Texans 16