NFL Preview - Atlanta (7-4) at Houston (8-3)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - At some point, someone in the Houston Texans' organization must've done something egregious.
Because there's simply no other way to explain the level of snake-bittedness that's befallen the franchise in the recent past, and has been taken to a sadistic new level in 2011.
After knocking, in some years louder than others, on the postseason door for the past few seasons, it seemed the Texans had effectively bashed it in while winning seven of their initial 10 games and establishing themselves as the new bully on the block in the AFC South.
Then, presto...a few days after a Week 10 win at Tampa Bay, it's revealed that starting quarterback Matt Leinart will miss the balance of the season with a foot injury, forcing Houston to turn to former Heisman winner and heretofore NFL disappointment Matt Leinart.
But rather than re-asserting his value with a top-flight team in a ready-made second career chance, Leinart instead joined Schaub on the shelf after suffering a season-snuffing broken collarbone just 13 passes into what ended as a 20-13 defeat of Jacksonville last Sunday.
The consecutive quarterback KO's left frazzled head coach Gary Kubiak to turn to rookie fifth-round draft choice T.J. Yates, who managed the post-Leinart portion of the win over the Jaguars and was anointed this week's starter over career journeyman Kellen Clemens and emergency signee Jake Delhomme.
Yates will make his NFL starting debut Sunday against visiting Atlanta at Reliant Stadium.
Yates, Delhomme and Clemens shared midweek snaps in preparation to meet the Falcons, leaving Kubiak to simply smile and shrug his shoulders at the recurring adversity.
"Hopefully it's going to work real good," Kubiak said. "It's interesting. I've been doing this a long time, and I've never been through this. But I tell you what, this team is very upbeat and understands its challenges."
Against Jacksonville, Yates finished a drive that resulted in a field goal and went 8-of-15 for 70 yards without an interception in a sooner-than-anticipated pro debut.
"I've been preparing for it all season long, just in case something like this was going to happen," he said afterward.
Quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp said Yates has developed as quickly as a rookie could in the wake of a lockout-scrubbed offseason.
"He's done a fine job with his knowledge of the offense," Knapp said. "He's definitely prepared himself for this situation. The only thing we're all going to have to go through is the learning curve he has, as a rookie. But we feel very confident that he's going to have his mind and game ready to go on Sunday."
Yates started 44 games at the University of North Carolina and set school records for career passing yards (9,377), single-season passing yards (3,418) and completion rate (62.3 percent).
Delhomme had been caring for racehorses on his Louisiana farm since being cut by Cleveland in the offseason prior to his call back to the NFL. He arrived in Houston Monday after a 3 1/2-hour drive.
"I really and truly wasn't sure if I was ever going to play again," Delhomme said. "I was okay with that, I was at peace. But this opportunity came about, and when you can come and be a part of a team that's making a push, there's nothing like it. That's why you play the game."
The Texans have a two-game lead in the AFC South and have won a franchise-best five straight games.
Atlanta trails first-place New Orleans by a game in the NFC South, but was dealt a 26-23 home overtime loss by the Saints on Nov. 13. The rivals will also meet in New Orleans in Week 16.
The only loss in the last five games for the Falcons was the aforementioned much-maligned defeat to the Saints, in which Atlanta head coach Mike Smith chose to go on a fourth-down play in his own territory. The drive was stopped and New Orleans quickly cashed in with a deciding field goal.
Still, Atlanta showed some resilience and kept itself in the Wild Card playoff hunt last week, recording a 24-14 home win over Minnesota to get to 7-4.
The Falcons have the NFC's No. 2 Wild Card position heading into Week 13, but remain within striking distance of a pursuit pack comprised of Detroit (7-4) and the New York Giants (6-5).
Chicago, also at 7-4, has the No. 1 Wild Card slot through 12 weeks.
In Houston, Atlanta faces the No. 1 defense in the league, but offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey claims the Texans' success is more about execution than exotics.
'It's not hard to decipher," he said. "We know where they are going to be. They are not complicated by any means. They play the scheme extremely well. They have the personnel to play the scheme extremely well, and they play at a very high level with effort and intensity."
This game will mark only the third lifetime meeting between the Falcons and Texans, with the teams having split the first two matchups. Houston prevailed by a 17-13 count in Atlanta's lone visit to Reliant Stadium, which took place in 2003, while the Falcons posted a 26-16 win in a 2007 clash with the Texans at the Georgia Dome.
Atlanta is 0-3 in games played in Houston since recording a 31-27 decision over the Houston Oilers at the Astrodome on Nov. 29, 1981.
Kubiak lost his only prior encounter with the Falcons with that 2007 result, while Smith will be taking on both the Texans and Kubiak for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan aims for their sixth win in row against AFC foes. In his past five matchups versus the AFC, he has completed 108-of-167 passes (64.7 percent) for 1,393 yards, 11 touchdowns, two interceptions and a 107.7 rating and aims for a fifth straight game against the AFC with a 100-plus rating. Last week, he completed 27-of-34 throws (79.4 percent) for 262 yards with three touchdowns and a 128.2 rating. The Falcons are 20-0 when Ryan has a 100-plus rating over his career, and he's won eight of his past nine December starts. Since joining Atlanta in 2008, running back Michael Turner has 47 rushing touchdowns, the second-most in the NFL. When he has 23-plus rushes as a professional, Turner's teams are 21-1 (.955). In his past seven outings versus AFC teams, wide receiver Roddy White has 60 catches for 913 yards (130.4 per game) and seven touchdowns. He has surpassed 100 yards in six of those seven games. White also has 435 receptions since 2007, most in the NFC. Tight end Tony Gonzalez has 59 receptions on the year and needs one for an NFL-record 13th consecutive season with 60 or more.
On defense, the Texans allow an NFL-low 268.4 yards per game and with 35 sacks, they need three to surpass the franchise record of 37 from 2005. Rookie linebacker Brooks Reed, a second-round pick in last April's draft, aims for a sixth consecutive game with a sack, while opposite-side starter Connor Barwin had a career-best four sacks last week. Rookie end J.J. Watt, Houston's first- round selection in this past draft, had a career-high two sacks against Jacksonville. Second-year cornerback Kareem Jackson, a first-round choice in 2010, has 29 tackles and two forced fumbles on the year.
Statistically speaking, the Falcons on offense are 12th in scoring (23.5 ppg), 13th in total yards (365.9 ypg), 11th in passing (248.2 ypg) and 14th in rushing (117.7 ypg). Houston's defense is second in points allowed (16.3 ppg), tops in fewest yards allowed (268.4 ypg), second against the pass (175.8 ypg) and fourth in rushing defense (92.5 ypg).
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
The rookie Yates, the 152nd overall pick in April's draft, will make his first NFL start and is a native of Marietta, Ga. Houston is tied with Oakland for an AFC-best 14 rushing touchdowns in 2011 and is the only team in the NFL with two running backs with at least 700 yards on the ground in Arian Foster (805) and Ben Tate (712). Since 2010, Foster is tied with Minnesota's Adrian Peterson with an NFL-best 23 rushing touchdowns and aims for a sixth consecutive game with at least one rushing score. Wide receiver Andre Johnson recorded his 700th career catch last week in his 120th game, making him the second-fastest to reach that milestone in NFL history. Only Marvin Harrison (114) did so in fewer games.
On the Atlanta defense, end John Abraham had a sack in these teams' last meeting back in 2007 and has 106 1/2 career sacks, second-most among active players. Cornerback Dunta Robinson was a first-round pick (No. 10 overall) by Houston in 2004 and played six seasons with the Texans from 2004-09 in which he recorded 13 interceptions. End Ray Edwards had a sack in his only career game against Houston, which came in 2008 while with Minnesota. Second-year linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, a first-round pick in 2010, has 89 tackles and three sacks on the season.
By the numbers, the Houston offense is fifth in scoring (26.6 ppg), eighth in total yards (379.7 ypg), 16th in passing (228.0 ypg) and third in rushing (151.7 ypg). On defense, the Falcons are 13th in points allowed (20.6 ppg), ninth in total yards allowed (329.2 ypg), 23rd against the pass (245.7 ypg) and second against the run (83.5 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
With a third-string rookie starting at quarterback, the Texans will clearly rely on horses Foster and Tate -- though that approach might play directly into the hands of a run-stuffing Falcons defense. Yates will have to make some plays to prevent Houston from being one-dimensional on offense.
Given a full week to prepare, it'll be interesting to see Yates' level of composure and the benefits he derives from working with the No. 1 offense after being named the starter.
On the Atlanta side, several members of the defense spent the week away from practice with nagging injuries. The Falcons will need all hands on deck to handle a prolific Texans group, even with an inexperienced quarterback.
Part of the reason Foster and Tate were so good to begin the season was the presence of Schaub and the threat of air success. With Leinart and now with a third-stringer, the Texans can expect foes to load the box and dare Yates to win games for them. While it might happen against lower-tier opponents like Jacksonville and Indianapolis, it's harder to imagine the fifth-rounder handling the Falcons in his debut.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 21, Texans 14
12/01 13:15:54 ET