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Matt Schaub, Andy Dalton holding back would-be contenders

The Houston Texans were headed for a biceps-flexing victory over the powerful Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, clinging to what remained of a 17-point second-half lead while marching toward a potential game-clinching field goal, when a calamitous chain of events underscored all that is maddening about this tantalizingly talented team.

First, coach Gary Kubiak made the dubious decision to put the ball in quarterback Matt Schaub's hands.

Seconds later, Schaub put it right into the hands of Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, who raced 58 yards for a game-tying touchdown -- and the Texans watched a hotly contested matchup slip through their fingers.

By the time Seattle pulled out a 23-20 overtime victory at Reliant Stadium on Steven Hauschka's 45-yard field goal, the Texans had been slapped in the face by the reality that when it comes to battling pro football's toughest teams, their quarterback isn't up to the challenge.

It's a feeling, incidentally, to which at least one other would-be contender can relate: The Cincinnati Bengals, who received another reminder Sunday -- in a 17-6 defeat to the Cleveland Browns -- that third-year quarterback Andy Dalton isn't good enough to allow them to compete, in the bigger picture, with the NFL's elite.

At least Dalton, a 2011 second-round draft pick who has started from the get-go, still carries a shred of theoretical potential. In the case of 32-year-old Schaub, now in his seventh season as the Texans' starter, we pretty much know what his upside is -- and it's essentially holding down a team's ambitions.

Back when the Texans were the perpetual underdogs trying to break into the postseason for the first time in franchise history, Schaub wasn't so much of an anchor. He ran Kubiak's offense proficiently, was consistently productive and moved well enough in the pocket not to be a total liability. The standards were lower, and Schaub routinely exceeded them.

Last season, however, Schaub played poorly down the stretch, and a team that looked Super heading into December flamed out with a 2-4 finish, bookended by resounding defeats to the New England Patriots (the latter in a divisional-round clash). Houston entered this season with a stacked roster that includes defensive end J.J. Watt, the 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year -- but without having upgraded the most important position.

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As we saw Sunday, that means the Texans (2-2) can only do so much. After outplaying the undefeated Seahawks all afternoon, Houston led 20-13 and faced a third-and-4 from the Seattle 40 with 2:51 left in regulation. One conversion, and the Texans likely could have bled the clock while settling into field-goal range.

With Schaub looking about as comfortable as a man preparing for a colonoscopy, the smart play was to have him hand the ball to Arian Foster and let the star halfback try to run for the sticks behind a powerful offensive line.

Instead, Kubiak went with the precise play that Sherman hoped he would, which called for Schaub to execute a play-fake to his left (to Foster) before rolling right and looking for veteran tight end Owen Daniels on a swing pass.

Later, when I asked Sherman (via text) if he was surprised that the Texans would throw it in that situation, he replied, "I was, but it's a play (on which) I picked (off the pass) in practice."

Sherman, as is his habit, purposely baited the quarterback, including safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor in his ruse. "It took all of us," Sherman said. "(We talked about it) as soon as our defensive coordinator made the call."

Chancellor did his part by blitzing and rushing straight at Schaub rather than falling for the fake. At that point, the quarterback should have cut his losses and either taken a sack or thrown the ball away. Instead, he floated a high, lazy pass toward Daniels, and Sherman swallowed it up like a "First Take" interview question.

Sherman scooted for the tying score -- the third interception for a touchdown that Schaub had thrown in three games. The cornerback's right shoe stayed behind on the turf, a symbolic remnant for the benefit of Schaub, who was about to get kicked around by a grumpy fan base.

The previous week, someone displayed a "Cut Schaub" sign on the I-45 bridge. If that seemed a tad extreme, consider that after Sunday's game, some fans outside Reliant burned his jersey.

And, of course, people in my business felt compelled to point out the obvious: It's tough to imagine the Texans getting past the divisional round of the playoffs (their final destination in each of the past two seasons) with this kind of quarterback play.

In reality, the bulk of the anger shouldn't be directed at Schaub. Rather, Texans fans should be ticked off at general manager Rick Smith, who didn't explore other options, and Kubiak, who clearly has more faith in his quarterback than logic suggests he should.

It was telling that after Sunday's game, Daniels admitted to CSNHouston.com that he thought Kubiak should have called a running play on third-and-4.

"We run the plays that are called, that they tell us to run," Daniels said. "I'm not the coach, but we have a pretty darn good running back and guys up front, and that's a situation where I wish we would have run it."

Ya think?

Daniels won't get much sympathy from his counterparts in Cincinnati, as a Bengals team that suffered first-round playoff defeats to the Texans in each of the past two seasons grapples with its own limitations.

The Bengals, as I told you before the season in picking them (somewhat ambitiously, it turns out) to win the AFC, might have more top-to-bottom talent than any team in the conference. Alas, when your quarterback is holding you back, it's hard to compete with the Bradys and the Mannings -- or, on Sunday, even the anonymous guy under center for that other team from Ohio.

In losing to a Browns squad that eight days earlier was presumed to have given up on its season (after having traded running back Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts), the Bengals (2-2) had almost nothing to offer offensively. That was largely on Dalton, who was outplayed by a journeyman, Brian Hoyer, making his third career start.

Though the Bengals spent high draft picks last April on a halfback (Giovani Bernard) and tight end (Tyler Eifert) to complement star wideout A.J. Green and give Dalton additional firepower, Dalton's not showing signs of developing into anything more than a decent quarterback. And it isn't just a matter of putting forth underwhelming performances in games: Sources say Dalton also routinely produces uneven efforts on the practice field and that coaches, rather than admonishing him to improve, tend to offer primarily positive reinforcement.

If so, they're in denial. Kubiak might be, as well.

Most people who watched Schaub and Dalton play on this particular Sunday, however, received a cold, hard dose of reality.

Right now, without question, they're just not good enough. Speaking of which, here are our weekly queries, beginning with the team Schaub had such a splendid opportunity to defeat and descending to the flailing franchise that resorted to offering free booze to seduce its suffering patrons:

Schein: No doubting these Broncos
Forgive Adam Schein. He merely was using logic to question Denver's elite status -- a silly conceit, he now knows. READ

1) Seattle Seahawks: Should Seahawks fans be thanking me -- and the next time I'm in Houston, will I have a problem?

2) Denver Broncos: If the Broncos' running backs prefer to adopt a football-themed version of rock/paper/scissors to decide future scoring opportunities, is it fair to conclude that Peyton Manning's arm will prevail over Chip Kelly's Rocky Balboa sign?

3) New England Patriots: How much would you pay to watch a debate between Rob Gronkowski's father and his head coach about whether or not the tight end should be active for the Pats' next game?

4) New Orleans Saints: If defensive end Cameron Jordan collides with Browns tight end Jordan Cameron in next January's Pro Bowl, will it stir the spirit of Kanaloa, the Hawaiian ocean god, and provoke a massive North Shore swell?

5) Kansas City Chiefs: Who changes direction more abruptly: Dexter McCluster on a punt return or Clark Hunt's franchise in the post-Pioli era?

6) Miami Dolphins: How awkward will it be if the Dolphins are the NFL's last remaining undefeated team in 2013 -- and Don Shula, Mercury Morris, Bob Griese, et al., offer up a champagne toast when they finally lose?

7) Indianapolis Colts: Is that a "poisonous snake dog" in Jim Irsay's hand, or is he just happy to see the Jags?

8) Detroit Lions: If Nate Burleson is the (deposed) King of Multitasking, did Reggie Bush become the emperor on Sunday?

9) Chicago Bears: Who had a more ruinous day at Ford Field: Jay Cutler on Sunday or Bill Leavy on Feb. 5, 2006?

10) San Francisco 49ers: Has Captain Comeback become Brigadier Bird-Watcher -- and does that mean the Niners will have a Big Year?

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11) Cincinnati Bengals: Who played a bigger role in shutting down A.J. Green on Sunday: Browns cornerback Joe Haden or Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden?

12) Green Bay Packers: If I tell my Packer-obsessed sons that their parents sometimes mirror the "competitiveness and passion" displayed by Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers, do you think they'll buy it?

13) Baltimore Ravens: Yo, Ray Lewis -- could you have prevented those five Joe Flacco interceptions, too?

14) Houston Texans: Was Kareem Jackson paying homage to Byamba during the Seahawks' game-winning drive, or did he just commit a stupid penalty at a terrible time?

15) Tennessee Titans: In the wake of an injury to their quarterback, is the Titans' season about to become a haunting cinematic offering?

16) San Diego Chargers: If I told you Antonio Gates looked young and fit on Sunday, would you do a double-take (and give me one of my signature shrugs)?

17) Dallas Cowboys: What got abused more egregiously in Southern California on Sunday: Monte Kiffin's defense or his son?

18) Atlanta Falcons: Should we change this team's motto from Rise Up to Shrivel Up?

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19) Cleveland Browns: Trent who?

20) Arizona Cardinals: After cornerback Patrick Peterson spurred Sunday's victory over the Bucs with two late interceptions, did inactive secondary mate Rashad Johnson give him a high 4 2/3?

21) New York Jets: Was Geno Smith trying to top the infamous Butt Fumble on Sunday, or is he simply considering a second career with these guys?

22) Buffalo Bills: When Robert Woods broke into a dance behind the back of the end zone following his 42-yard touchdown catch against the Ravens, is it fair to assume it wasn't a Lane Kiffin tribute?

23) Minnesota Vikings: If Matt Cassel ever blurted out the identity of the Patriots' starting quarterback several days before a game, how bitter would Bill Belichick be?

24) Philadelphia Eagles: After telling Michael Vick he needed to be the "catalyst for everything," did Chip Kelly turn to Peyton Manning and add, "And you'll be the catalyst for my return to the college game"?

25) Carolina Panthers: When someone is persona non grata in the Panthers' locker room, do players insult him by saying, "Your Name is Chud"?

26) St. Louis Rams: Are the Rams' powers that be sure that Sam Bradford is their guy -- and, after Thursday night's debacle, is Bradford sure he doesn't want to hammer out an extension ASAP?

27) Washington Redskins: How crazy is it that, by beating the Cowboys in two weeks, these guys conceivably could be a first-place team?

28) Pittsburgh Steelers: When Ben Roethlisberger told reporters in London that "you could say we're the worst team in the league," how many Black Cat supporters hissed their objections?


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29) Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Did Greg Schiano throw his general manager under the bus and his quarterback into a suite in the same week?

30) Oakland Raiders: What took a bigger beating on Sunday: Matt Flynn's body or Reggie McKenzie's reputation?

31) New York Giants: When Tom Coughlin said the Giants' play-calling was "like throwing a dart at a board" after Sunday's drubbing in Kansas City, was he putting a figurative bull's-eye on offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride?

32) Jacksonville Jaguars: Free beer and atrocious football -- what possibly could go wrong?

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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