Carolina 28, Houston 13
Like a college student after one too many all-nighters during final exams, or Lindsay Lohan after a typical Tuesday night, the Houston Texans finally hit the wall.
All the injuries, the starting a third-string rookie quarterback, the losing defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to kidney surgery, the endless drama of a dream season that's often defied NFL convention . . . all of it . . . smacked into the AFC South Champions and left them 28-13 losers to an under .500 Carolina Panthers team.
It's not all that surprising that reality intruded on the Reliant Stadium party just when it seemed ready to reach new heights. But it's still awfully bad timing. For with the loss, the Texans (10-4) find themselves in danger of falling two games behind the Ravens and one behind the Patriots and the Steelers in the race for the AFC's two first-round playoff byes. All three of those fellow 10-3 powers are playing later games.
If Yates struggles early against Indianapolis in a quick turnaround primetime Thursday night game, all bets are off.
Even more damaging, the legend of T.J. Yates took a serious beating with just two regular season games remaining before the Texans need a quarterback who can win the playoffs.
Houston's seven-game winning streak is over and the search for answers is beginning.
Yates was bad enough in the first half that there was rumbling in press box and the stands that veteran Jake Delhomme might be getting a look in the second half. Gary Kubiak stayed with Yates, who over and under threw open receivers, short armed passes and telegraphed two interceptions into triple coverage. If Yates struggles early against no-longer-winless Indianapolis in a quick turnaround primetime Thursday night game, all bets are off.
Yates finished 19 of 30 for 212 yards, those two picks and a not-so-nifty 56.5 quarterback rating.
Not that it's all the quarterback. The Texans clearly miss lifeline wide receiver Andre Johnson more than ever (it's hard to imagine Johnson returning before the regular season Jan. 1 finale against the Tennessee Titans though). Tailback Arian Foster's fumble on the second offensive play of the game delivered a jarring early blow, one that even his excellence later (109 yards rushing on only 16 carries, 58 yards receiving on five catches) couldn't quite negate. Wide receiver Kevin Walter — last Sunday's last-second hero — went out of bounds and illegally came back in, negating a touchdown pass when Yates did put the ball on target to a wide-open receiver.
Still when Foster punctuated a 68-yard drive by squeezing under the pile for a one-yard touchdown, the Texans trailed only 21-13 with 13:48 remaining. From 21-0 down to courting a miracle?
Not quite. Not today.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton — looking like the best player on the field for much of the day — led another long drive and DeAngelo Williams ran in untouched from 24 yards out for a two-score advantage.
Soon, the Texans' Slaughterhouse was clearing out. Playing its first game without its defensive coordinator, who is still recovering from surgery and will miss the Indy game as well, the Texans defense gave up more than 19 points for the first time since Oct. 16, which happens to be the date of their last loss. The defense didn't play that bad, but it didn't change the game either.
The Texans fell into early trouble against the Panthers with Foster fumbling on the second offensive play of the game. Carolina recovered at Houston's 26-yard line and Newton found Steve Smith on the left sideline for a 26-yard touchdown pass.
Smith beat the Texans best cornerback, Johnathan Joseph, 1-on-1. This is the other side of Houston's high-risk, high-reward defense. Even all-pro defensive backs are going to get bettered sometimes when left out on an island.
While Newton had Smith — a four-time Pro Bowl selection with more than 10,000 career receiving yards and 80 touchdown catches — Yates found himself leaning on journeyman wideout Bryant Johnson, who came into the game with two catches this season and 20 total over the last two years, early. Johnson caught two passes in the first quarter of this game, but no one would say the Texans' offense was clicking.
Houston would fall down 14-0 and just when it looked like the Texans' offense settled into a rhythm with Foster and Ben Tate alternating bruising carries, a holding call forced them into a third-and-13. And Yates promptly forced the ball into triple coverage, attempting to connect with Walter. Linebacker Jordan Senn — the same guy who forced Foster's fumble — leaped in front of the throw for an easy pick.
Kubiak met Yates as the quarterback came to the sideline, demanding to know what exactly he'd seen that would cause him to throw the ball there. When the Panthers turned that turnover into their third touchdown of the first half — ending the drive with a playground trick play quick snap fumblerooski to seldom-used fullback Richie Brockel who went in untouched from seven yards out against the Texans confused defense — the AFC South Champs trailed 21-0 in their own building.
It's hard for a team that's already clinched a playoff berth with three weeks remaining in the regular season to unravel, but the Texans are anything but Zen.
A smattering of boos even greeted the Texans as they walked off the field at halftime, though to some fans credit, they quickly tried to counter that with cheers for a team that's won 10 games even though it's down to its third-string quarterback.