Top 20 Games of 2011

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Game 15: Texans at Bengals Week 14

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Young guns.

What, or who, do you think of? Emilio Estevez, Lou Diamond Phillips, Kiefer Sutherland or a pre-cuckoo Charlie Sheen?

How about the rookie class of 2011? Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and Andy Dalton qualify, no?

While it still might be a tad cheesy to call rookie quarterbacks "young guns," it's not any worse than a) comparing Young Guns to Tombstone (there is no comparison) or b) thinking that the NFL version of young guns -- rookie quarterbacks -- will make some momentous impact in their first year under center, right? For all of his potential and productivity, Cam Newton's indelible mark was made more in fantasy football than real football. After all, Carolina was still a 6-10 football team.

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Well, I guess this isn’t entirely true when it comes to Andy Dalton. Although Dalton didn’t put up Cam’s 4,000 yards passing or 15 rushing touchdowns -- or produce an 8.8 on the NFL Richter -- he limited mistakes and did enough to guide the Bengals to a 9-7 record and a return to the playoffs. Dalton made his own mark in 2011 with 3,398 yards and 20 touchdown passes, and was just one side of a youthful QB bout in our No. 15 game of 2011.

Why was the redhead from TCU even starting for the Bengals in the first place? The 2011 season was supposed to be Carson Palmer’s ninth campaign in Cincinnati. Disgruntled with the franchise, though, Palmer decided he’d rather hang ‘em up than play another snap for the stripes. (Bengals owner Mike Brown initially said he wouldn’t “reward” Palmer by trading him elsewhere, but eventually reneged when the Raiders offered up a king’s ransom.) So, Dalton essentially became Cincy’s starter the day he was drafted. And here he was, starting against a stout Texans defense with serious playoff stakes on the line.

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If Dalton’s chances of making such a positive rookie impact were thin, then T.J. Yates' were damn near nonexistent. The former North Carolina product was never supposed to see the field, firmly entrenched at No. 3 on the depth chart. But when Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart hit injured reserve in back-to-back games, Yates suddenly found himself in the starting lineup against a solid defense in a game with major playoff implications.

The Houston Texans, Bob McNair's 10-year-old franchise, were playing for their first playoff spot (and division title) ever. A Houston win, and Tennessee loss to the visiting Saints -- our 17th top game of 2011 -- would do the job. Meanwhile, the Bengals were desperately trying to stay in the AFC North race, and more importantly, were tied with four other clubs for the last wild-card spot.

So, what happened? Is that the end of the story? Hardly.

Dalton was quietly efficient, per usual, completing 16 of his 28 passes for 189 yards, a touchdown and no picks. Late in the second quarter, he hit fellow rookie A.J. Green in stride to convert a fourth-and-3 before connecting with Jerome Simpson on a touchdown pass to put the Bengals up 13-3. Houston would climb back into the game, thanks in large part to a whale of a fourth quarter from Yates, but still trailed 19-13 late. After a Texans stop (thanks in part to a horrific spot), each team's fate hinged on 80 yards of real estate and Yates' arm.

Sort of.

Because in the biggest drive of this game, the Bengals’ division hopes and the entire city of Houston's hopes actually rested on Yates’ feet on a third-and-15. The rookie had Dan Marino's foot speed if not his experience, and yet he managed to gain 18 yards out of the pocket when the Texans had to have it.

After that gift from a loose defense, the football Gods provided another when Pacman Jones was called for pass interference -- a brutal call that nicely illustrates the do-anything-for-the-offense M.O. of the competition committee these days. Third-and-10 from the 23 was now first-and-goal from the seven. Yates delivered with a scoring strike to Kevin Walter with two seconds left, icing the game and delivering the franchise’s first playoff berth.

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Yates finished the game with 300 yards passing and two touchdowns, playing without the Texans’ best player, Andre Johson. Not bad, rook.

Controversial call 1: It sure looked like the Bengals got a bad spot on their last possession. A perfectly executed shuttle pass to Bernard Scott appeared to pick up the 15 yards Cincinnati needed to get a first down near midfield, especially with Scott

Controversial call 2: While Yates balled out on the final drive, he got some help from the zebras. On third-and-10 from the 23, Jones was called for a T-I-C-K-Y-tack pass interference at the six, giving the Houston offense 17 yards of real estate and a little flexibility in play calling. Huge play, bad call.

Same ol’ situation: One of the more underreported stories of the Texans’ season, and their success, was the production Gary Kubiak got out of his tight ends. Owen Daniels and Joel Dreessen combined for 82 catches, 1,028 yards and nine touchdowns in 2011. Dreessen was extremely valuable in the red zone with six touchdowns, including a six-yarder in the third quarter of this game.

He’s a testy guy too, at least to this reporter

Best player on the field: Yates. That's right, the Tar Heel was the queen on the chessboard at Paul Brown Stadium, going 26-for-44 for 300 yards, two touchdowns and one game-winning drive -- great numbers for a rookie or a 12-year vet. Yes, he did throw one big interception, but he also walked off the field as the first quarterback in Texans history to clinch a playoff berth, so there you go.

Record breakers: This was the first game in league history where two rookie quarterbacks (Dalton and Yates) started for winning teams this late in the year.

Taking it one step further, these two clubs would meet less than a month later in the AFC wild-card round. This marked the only time in league history where two rookie quarterbacks started against one another in a playoff game. The Texans handled the Bengals that day with a 31-10 win.

Why this game is No. 15: Texans-Bengals featured two solid defenses facing off in a game that came down to the final drive. The win came with just a couple ticks on the clock and secured the first playoff berth in Texans history. Moreover, of the five meetings between rookie quarterbacks during the 2011 season, this was easily the biggest game with the highest stakes.

Why not higher?: At the end of the day, there are just too many marquee matchups in front of this one. The bad calls levied against the Bengals represent a small rain cloud over this game, but not enough to boot it out of the top 20.

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