The Houston Texans have had to overcome their fair share of injuries on their path to the top of the AFC South.
Their road to the postseason stands to become a bit more turbulent with an inexperienced rookie quarterback under center.
After losing its top two QBs to season-ending injuries, Houston turns to T.J. Yates in hopes of extending the longest single-season winning streak in team history Sunday against the visiting Atlanta Falcons.
Two weeks after starter Matt Schaub suffered a severe foot injury, No. 2 quarterback Matt Leinart fractured his left collarbone shortly before halftime during a 20-13 victory at Jacksonville last Sunday.
That thrust Yates, a fifth-round pick out of North Carolina, into action and he went 8 of 15 for 70 yards in his NFL debut. While Yates led a drive that resulted in a field goal and gave the Texans a 10-point lead at the break, Houston compiled just 47 yards and two first downs in the second half.
Still, the Texans held on for their fifth straight victory.
"I'm very proud of this team," coach Gary Kubiak said. "It's hard to win in this league, and when you face some of the adversity we've faced and will be facing again, and to continue to find a way to win, that's a sign of a very solid football team."
Houston (8-3), two games ahead of Tennessee in the division, has persevered despite injuries to All-Pro wideout Andre Johnson and star running back Arian Foster. Johnson returned from a six-game absence to catch two passes for 22 yards versus the Jaguars.
A now-healthy Foster has been instrumental during the win streak, compiling NFL bests of 156.6 yards per game from scrimmage and eight touchdowns in the five contests. While he'll be counted on to lead the way offensively as the Texans try to inch closer to their first playoff berth, Houston will also need a solid performance out of Yates.
"I do think a lot of this young man, ya'll know that. He's worked very hard with this team. I think he has a lot of ability," Kubiak said. "It is a tall task, but this is a good football team and we'll rally around him. We'll work our tails off with him and I know he'll do his job too and we're going to give him the opportunity and I'm looking forward to see how he does."
Houston added some much-needed depth Tuesday, reaching a deal with 36-year-old quarterback Jake Delhomme. He'll compete with recently signed Kellen Clemens for the backup job, and all three QBs shared snaps in practice Wednesday as they scrambled to prepare.
While Houston's offense has been in a state of uncertainty, the defense has continued to thrive. The Texans rank second in the NFL with 16.3 points allowed per game and are surrendering a league-low average of 268.4 yards.
They'll surely be in for a test against a Falcons team that has won five of six, its only loss in that stretch coming by a 26-23 score in overtime against NFC South-leading New Orleans on Nov. 13.
Atlanta (7-4) is one game behind the Saints and in a three-way tie with Chicago and Detroit for the two wild-card spots.
"We've always said that we always want to position ourselves to be a relevant team in November and December, and the teams that have sustainability are the ones that are relevant in November and December," coach Mike Smith said.
While the Falcons have been surging, they've hardly dominated opponents. One week after building a 20-point lead and escaping with a 23-17 win over Tennessee, Atlanta held on for a 24-14 victory over Minnesota on Sunday.
The Falcons took a 17-0 lead into halftime last week but needed to hold off a Vikings rally, making a goal-line stand in the fourth quarter.
"As much as we like to blow a team out, we understand that can't happen all the time," linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "The concerning part for me as a team is our consistency throughout the game. We have to figure out a way to put four good quarters together, rather than in chunks.
"I believe when we do that, we will be where we want to be in terms of consistency and in all aspects of the game."
Matt Ryan went 27 of 34 for 262 yards and three TDs, recording a season-best 128.2 quarterback rating. The Falcons are 20-0 when Ryan posts a rating over 100.0.
Ryan has been looking Roddy White's way often over the last two weeks, as the three-time Pro Bowl receiver has 17 receptions for 267 yards and a score in those contests.
The Falcons will be without starting cornerback Brent Grimes due to a knee injury that will keep him out at least two weeks. Atlanta is thin at the position with nickel back Kelvin Hayden doubtful to play.
Atlanta and Houston have met twice, with the Falcons taking the most recent matchup 26-16 on Sept. 30, 2007.