CINCINNATI – Eighty yards to cover, little more than 2 minutes left, no timeouts to help. Rookie quarterback T.J. Yates faced his biggest challenge as he lined up for the snap.
With savvy and a scramble, he pulled it off.
Yates led the biggest drive in Texans history on Sunday, one that put them in the end zone and the playoffs.
He threw a 6-yard touchdown pass with 2 seconds left for a 20-19 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals that sent the expansion team into the playoffs for the first time.
“It’s pretty crazy,” Yates said. “A lot of people in this organization have waited a long time for this. This is a special day for this team and this organization.”
In the span of a few wild minutes, everything broke their way.
With their seventh straight win, the Texans (10-3) moved to the threshold of the playoffs. They hugged on the field then headed to the locker room, where they huddled around a television set and watched the final minutes of Tennessee’s game play out.
They needed a Titans loss to clinch the AFC South.
When time ran out on the Titans, preserving New Orleans’ 22-17 victory, the Texans screamed, hugged, and donned black championship caps and white T-shirts. Injured receiver Andre Johnson, who didn’t play because of a strained hamstring, got a game ball for his part in turning the team into a winner.
“Words really can’t describe it,” Johnson said. “It’s something I’ve been waiting for for a long time.”
Since their inaugural season in 2002, the Texans have been little more than a tease.
They’d come close to reaching the playoffs, only to fade and fumble in the big games. They couldn’t quite get that breakthrough win.
An unlikely rookie took them the last step.
Yates, a fifth-round draft pick, got his chance when Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart suffered season-ending injuries in consecutive weeks. Making only his second start, Yates led the Texans on their biggest comeback of the season.
With everything on the line for both teams, the Bengals (7-6) couldn’t stop him.
“A rookie quarterback beat us today,” safety Chris Crocker said. “He did it with both his arm and his feet. I don’t even know what to say. Wow.”
Yates scrambled 17 yards on third-and-15 to keep the drive going. A pass interference penalty on Adam “Pacman” Jones put the ball at the 6-yard line with 12 seconds left. After an incompletion, Kevin Walter lined up wide right, cut to the middle of the field and was uncovered at the goal line.
Offensive tackle Duane Brown ran to Yates and repeatedly slapped his helmet in celebration.
The kid had come through when it mattered most.
“Hey, we’re champs!” receiver Jacoby Jones said. “All my years I’ve been playing, I’ve never been on a team that got over the hump.”
Only 41,202 fans – the second-smallest crowd in Paul Brown Stadium history – showed up to watch the Bengals turn themselves into a long shot for the playoffs. They’d lost three of their last four, including a 35-7 drubbing in Pittsburgh last week that essentially eliminated them from the AFC North race.
Now, they’re going to need help getting the final wild card berth.
“As far as the team goes, they are very disappointed and I’m going to have to pump some air in them,” coach Marvin Lewis said.
“Before this game, we controlled our own destiny, and now I can’t tell you what is going to happen.”
The Texans have kept winning while losing quarterbacks. They took the final step into the playoffs without Johnson, who was inactive Sunday because of a strained left hamstring.
Yates and a solid defense pulled them through. Yates went 26 of 44 for 300 yards with two touchdowns, one interception and five sacks.
Houston’s defense was the stingiest in the AFC, and came through after the Texans fell behind 16-3 at halftime.
Andy Dalton was sacked and fumbled, setting up Yates’ 6-yard touchdown pass that got the Texans some momentum early in the third quarter.
“It did not look like we had any chance of getting out of here with a win,” coach Gary Kubiak said. “But we have a young quarterback who believes in what he’s doing.”