The Texans started a rookie fifth-round pick at quarterback on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons. They lost All-Pro wide receiver Andre Johnson to another hamstring injury in the third quarter. And they still found a way to win.
Houston edged Atlanta 17-10 in a thrilling game at Reliant Stadium that wasn't decided until the final play. Arian Foster ran for 111 yards and a touchdown in rookie quarterback T.J. Yates' first NFL start. The Texans are now 9-3 and on a six-game winning streak.
"It's a great win because of everything we've been through," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "I just told the guys, it's been three weeks, three different quarterbacks, but it's the same team. It's the same 46 guys going out there every week and just battling."
Yates completed 12-of-25 passes for 188 yards after season-ending injuries to Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart in the last two games. He threw a three-yard touchdown pass to tight end Joel Dreessen in the second quarter, drawing chants of "T-J, T-J" from the home crowd.
"I didn't even hear it," Yates said with a wry smile. "I was extremely comfortable going out there. I had a good week at practice, good week of preparation. Coach Kubiak, throughout the whole week, we had a lot of talks, he instilled a lot of confidence in me, telling me we're not going to hold back on the offense, we're not going to do anything like that; we're just going to go full-speed ahead and continue on."
The Texans ran for 162 yards against the Falcons' second-ranked rushing defense, which entered Week 13 allowing only 83.5 rushing yards per game. Foster had 71 of his rushing yards in the second half.
Thirty-seven of Foster's yards came on the game-winning drive that spanned from the third to the fourth quarter. The drive lasted 19 plays and 85 yards and took 10:41 off the clock. The Texans ran the ball on 15 of the 19 plays, capped by a one-yard touchdown by Foster on second-and-goal.
"On third down, they were running the ball and getting seven or eight yards and getting first downs instead of trying to pass it," Falcons defensive end John Abraham said. "It was deflating."
The Falcons had a chance to tie the game on the final possession. They got the ball at their own 33-yard line with 59 seconds left and no timeouts. Quarterback Matt Ryan completed passes of 17 yards and 20 yards before spiking the ball at the Houston 25-yard line with 16 seconds remaining. That was followed by three incompletions, the last of which was defended in the end zone by cornerback Kareem Jackson, to end the game.
Jackson and cornerback Jason Allen both picked off Ryan in the first quarter. The Texans didn't record a sack but had 10 quarterback hits, including four by outside linebacker Connor Barwin and three by rookie defensive end J.J Watt. Ryan completed only 20 of his 47 passes (42.6 percent) for 267 yards.
"Anytime you get a quarterback that goes 20-of-47, then you got a lot of pressure and a lot of good coverage," Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. "When they throw it for that many times, it usually results in 300 or 400 yards. I thought we played well holding them to 10 points."
The Falcons had two defensive touchdowns overturned by penalties. Early in the fourth quarter, linebacker Mike Peterson picked off Yates and returned the ball 31 yards for a touchdown. But Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson was flagged for defensive holding, giving the Texans a first down instead.
Midway through the first quarter, Yates tried to throw the ball away on third-and-eight from the Atlanta 15-yard line. He was hit as he threw what looked like an incomplete pass. Everybody on the field stopped as the ball rolled around for a few seconds. Then, Falcons safety James Sanders scooped up the ball at the 10 and ran it back 90 yards to the end zone. Officials ruled it a touchdown, but the points came off the board because the Falcons were flagged for a player running on to the field during the return. Kubiak challenged the ruling of a fumble to no avail.
"I thought his arm was going forward," Kubiak said. "He (referee Bill Leavy) told me it wasn't enough to change it."
Johnson had four catches for 97 yards before his injury. He made a highlight-reel 50-yard grab in the second quarter, prying the ball away from Falcons cornerback Dominique Franks. That set up Dreessen's touchdown catch, his fifth of the season, which put the Texans up 10-0.
The Falcons then scored 10 unanswered points, capped by a four-yard touchdown catch by Roddy White late in the third quarter.