Can things get any worse for the Houston Texans? First they lose Mario Williams, their best defensive player, for the season. That was followed by their All-Pro wide receiver, Andre Johnson, missing six games with a hamstring injury. Starting quarterback Matt Schaub went on the shelf after Week 10 with a season-ending foot injury and after last weekend's bye, backup QB Matt Leinart comes in Sunday and promptly goes down with a reported broken collarbone.
But don't cry for the Texans just yet. After all, they still beat the Jaguars to improve to 8-3. Losing Leinart is not hard to overcome, especially in this offense, and they even might be better off without him.
Watching Leinart play in the first half, it was clear "the King of the Check Down" was back to his old ways. Leinart refuses to drive the ball down the field, always taking the quick outlet instead of standing tall in the pocket to the last second and making the tough throw. He is nervous in the pocket and treats the ball like a hot potato, wanting to get rid of it as soon as he can. He loves completion percentage more than yards, which might look good on a stat sheet, but never helps a team win. I don't care what the Texans said he looked like in practice last week. In practice, it is easier to throw the ball down the field, largely because there is no risk at being hit. Once hitting the quarterback is a part of the game, then the King is going to revert back to his check downs.
In two quarters against the Jags, Leinart was 10 of 13 for 57 yards. He averaged 4.3 yards in his 13 attempts, which is the same as what the Houston running game normally averages per carry. Take away the 20-yard touchdown throw, which hung in the air for days, and Leinart was 9 of 12 for 37 yards, which is slightly better than three yards per attempt. If Leinart was going to do nothing more than throw the check down, then how can this injury be deemed so costly?
When rookie T.J. Yates came into the game, my first reaction was -- now that is a NFL passer. Yates came off the bench with little or no practice time and led the team down the field for a field goal to close out the half. The game did not look too big for Yates, nor did he look nervous under center. He looked like a player with excellent talent who, after a week of getting all the coaching, could execute the game plan as well, if not better, than Leinart. Yates might not have as much experience as Leinart, but was Leinart's experience really going to help him or the Texans? I strongly doubt it.
The Texans are in a bad spot, don't get me wrong, but it's the same one they were in when Schaub first went down -- they must win with their defense, their run game and their special teams. Losing Leinart does not change things; in fact, it makes things clearer. With Leinart in the game, there would be a belief that he could handle certain things because he was a high pick and has started NFL games. In reality, as was the case Sunday, Leinart cannot handle or properly execute the whole Texans offense. Leinart would have provided false hope, which is not what the Texans need right now.
In head coach Gary Kubiak's QB-friendly offense, Yates will not be asked to carry the load, but just make a few throws down the field. Having been a four-year starter in college at North Carolina, in a pro-style system, Yates can handle the volume of offense each week and will not be overwhelmed. The burden of scoring will fall on the run game and the play-making ability of Andre Johnson, who will benefit more with Yates in the game. Trust me, today the Texans are no different offensively than they were last Monday. I'd argue they are better off.
It's a tough break for Leinart to get injured as he was trying to rebuild his career, and I do feel badly for him. Maybe he was going to prove my evaluation of him wrong by driving the ball down the field, standing tall in the pocket and making all the tough throws. Maybe he did change his style of play and he was just getting warmed up in the Jaguars game. But with this injury, we will never know.
Now Yates will be the man responsible to lead the Texans to their first playoff appearance. But as it was before the injury to Leinart, the Texans' playoff fortunes will continue to lie with their ability to run the ball and make plays with their defense. And I believe they can get it done. So today is not a day for Texans fans to cry; it is a day to just keep moving forward because good things still can happen.
Things I Loved
» I loved watching rookie corner Patrick Peterson take another punt back for a touchdown, his second against the Rams this season and fourth overall, tying an NFL record. I also loved Beanie Wells running the ball with speed and power, dominating the game as he led the Cards to their second win in three weeks against the Rams. Wells ran for 228 yards in front of the Rams faithful. Normally in dome stadiums, because of the trapped crowd noise, it is hard for the opposing offense to hear the snap count and it affects the run game. But that was not the case in St. Louis, as the Cards dominated the line of scrimmage and Wells was the difference in the game. Peterson is one of the most dynamic young players in the league, and each week he continues to amaze me. He makes playing in the NFL look like he is still in the SEC. He is a dominating player who will continue to get better with each game.
» I loved watching the Raiders win the game against the Bears with their special teams and their ability to create turnovers. Sebastian Janikowski had six field goals, three over 40 yards, as the opportunistic Raiders defense put its offense in scoring position. What was most impressive about this game was that the Raiders showed great resolve in their ability to win. Even without their running game, they still found a way to make plays. With every win, the Raiders gain confidence and will become more dangerous when they get their full complement of players back, especially running back Darren McFadden.
» I loved watching Denver's defensive front dominate the Chargers by creating havoc with every throw. Philip Rivers was under heavy pressure all game, getting sacked three times and never having any time to drive the ball down the field. With Tim Tebow gaining all the attention, it really has been the Broncos defense that has been sensational. They have only allowed 36 points the past three weeks, thus keeping their offense in the game. With rookie Von Miller dominating, and Elvis Dumervil looking like he did two years ago, the Broncos can bring pressure off the edges and make it hard for opposing quarterbacks to ever feel comfortable in the pocket.
Things I hated
» I hated watching the Chargers play nickel defense in overtime when the Broncos went to three receivers. Denver proceeded to run the ball and got in position to kick the game-winning field goal. The Chargers fell into the matchup trap. They thought if Denver goes to nickel, we must go to nickel, which normally makes sense -- unless the quarterback of the other team is Tim Tebow. The Broncos only went to three receivers to run the ball, with no intention of throwing it, as they just wanted to spread the field to create running lanes. Some might say, if you don't match them, then they can throw the ball, but that is exactly what teams should want the Broncos to do. Force Tebow to throw it. Teams must treat Tebow as the unconventional quarterback, not the norm.
» I hated watching the Buccaneers play defense, as they let Titans RB Chris Johnson finally have his breakout day. The Bucs have allowed an average of more than 350 yards of offense in the past seven games, and in nine of their past 11. The Bucs are a bad tackling team, they cannot play off blocks and they allowed Johnson to average more than eight yards a carry, with just a long run of 30 yards. The Bucs have many issues, and until they fix some fundamental problems with their defense they are never going to challenge for a playoff spot.
» I hated watching the Chiefs play on offense Sunday night, especially QB Tyler Palko. He clearly is overwhelmed by being the starter. The Chiefs played their hearts out against the Steelers, flying around the ball, and all they needed was a little help from Palko and they could have earned the upset. I cannot understand why the Chiefs would claim Kyle Orton and not require him to report until Friday. After watching Palko play in New England, the Chiefs should have instantly made Orton the starter as soon as the claim went in. I realize Orton would not have known the offense, but anything would have been better than having Palko play another week.
Things on my mind
» Please, please, please, no Brett Favre talk this week. Please!
» Tom Brady was back to being ... Tom Brady on Sunday. He destroyed the Eagles defense. Watching Brady play, you got the feeling that he was in complete control, which he was, and could do anything he wanted to the Birds defense, which he could. It is post-Thanksgiving and Brady is hot. Watch out.
» The Eagles gained a ton of yards, but when the game was on the line, it was clear they were overmatched by the Patriots. The Birds could not make plays when it counted most -- on third down and in the red zone.
» Mark Sanchez threw four touchdowns, leading the Jets to a come-from-behind win against the Bills. But where was the great Jets defense down the stretch? Once again on the last drive of the game, the Bills moved the ball down the field and if receiver Steve Johnson does not drop an easy catch, which could have been a touchdown, the Jets might have lost. The Jets got the win, but their overall team problems have not gone away.
» The Bengals fought back to beat the Browns, and the deadly combination of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green proved to be too much for the Browns to handle. When the Bengals have all of their offensive skill players on the field healthy, they are an explosive team. Green needed only three catches to gain 100 yards.
» The Browns might want to think about getting a new long snapper. Each week their field goal snaps have been poor and it has cost them points.
» I cannot figure out why the Chargers went into a shell offensively when they moved into field-goal range during overtime. And even though Ryan Mathews played well, a few of his runs late in the game could have been bigger had he just made one tackler miss.
» Why don't teams jam, double team and re-route Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez in the red zone? Allowing him free access is a recipe for disaster.
» At one point during the first quarter, Colt McCoy was 3 of 5 for 58 yards and a touchdown, but ended up 16 of 34 for 151. That means on his final 29 passing attempts, McCoy threw for less than 100 yards. That clearly is not good enough.
» The Jags offense is hard to watch, and Blaine Gabbert refuses to stand in the pocket strong and make tight throws. He has been really disappointing in his accuracy and his overall toughness in the pocket.
» The Skins had "the good Rex" play in Seattle, as Grossman led them to a nice road win against the Seahawks. Grossman still threw two picks, but he had more than 300 yards passing and connected down the field with Anthony Armstrong.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi