CINCINNATI -- The Houston Texans have won the AFC South.
Led by their defense and rookie quarterback T.J. Yates, the Texans overcame a mistake-filled first half to rally for a last-second victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. Yates threw the game-winning six-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Kevin Walter with two seconds remaining.
The Texans (10-3) won 20-19 after trailing 16-3 at halftime and, with the Tennessee Titans losing to the New Orleans Saints, clinched their first-ever division title and playoff berth.
"It was an ugly football game for us, but the end result was great for the organization," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "We did not play well, we turned the ball over and did not stop the runs in the first half. It did not look like we had any chance of getting out of here with a win, but we have a young quarterback who believes in what he's doing. I'm just happy for everybody."
Yates, making his second-career start and first on the road, went 26-of-44 for 300 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. The fifth-round draft pick from North Carolina saved his best for last, leading two 80-yard scoring drives in the fourth quarter. The last drive is likely to be remembered in the city of Houston for a long time.
Down 19-13, the Texans got the ball at their own 20-yard line with 2:33 left to play. They were out of timeouts.
"We were pretty calm," Yates said. "We knew that the defense had done a great job giving us the ball back. I knew we could move the ball and we just had to convert when it was needed."
Convert they did. Yates, a third-stringer until three weeks ago, quickly moved the Texans to their own 46-yard line with passes of 11, seven and eight yards to tight end Owen Daniels, the last of which was a spectacular one-handed grab by Daniels on third-and-three.
Yates followed that with a 19-yard pass over the middle to Walter, then spiked the ball at the Cincinnati 35 with 1:15 remaining. He was sacked for a five-yard loss on the next play.
On third-and-15 from the 40, Yates scrambled 17 yards up the middle for a first down. Wide receiver Jacoby Jones then drew a pass interference penalty on cornerback Adam Jones at the six-yard line with 12 seconds remaining. After an incomplete pass intended for Walter, Yates found his man in the middle of the end zone to win the game.
"It was the coverage we wanted," Walter said. "The linebackers dropped and I was coming across the middle. As long as those linebackers drop with the other routes, that middle is wide open. T.J. threw a great ball; I just had to catch a ball and just get in the end zone."
A sloppy first half put the Texans in a 13-point hole. Jones dropped a deep pass on the first play of the game that could have gone for an 85-yard touchdown. Cornerback Johnathan Joseph dropped a sure interception in the end zone, leading to a Bengals field goal. Yates threw an interception late in the first quarter that led to three more points for Cincinnati.
In the second quarter, running back Ben Tate lost a fumble on first-and-goal from the one-yard line. The Bengals responded with a 97-yard touchdown drive, going up 13-3 on a 17-yard scoring pass from rookie quarterback Andy Dalton to Jerome Simpson. Texans kicker Neil Rackers missed a 47-yard field goal in the final minute of the second quarter, and the Bengals wound up with a 49-yard field goal seconds before halftime.
"We came out very flat," Texans linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "It wasn't the team that we've seen for the past few weeks. At halftime, Gary talked to us and told us basically we need to step our game up and show up in the second half and find a way to close this game up."
The Texans must have gotten the message loud and clear. They allowed only 81 yards and six first downs after halftime. Bengals running back Cedric Benson lost one yard on eight carries after carrying 13 times for 92 yards in the first half.
Outside linebacker Connor Barwin sparked the turnaround by sacking Dalton and forcing a fumble on the second play of the third quarter. Linebacker Brooks Reed recovered at the Cincinnati 17-yard line, and Yates hit tight end Joel Dreessen for a six-yard touchdown pass four plays later.
The Bengals went up 19-10 with a 28-yard field goal late in the third. In the fourth quarter, Yates led a 13-play, 88-yard drive ending with a 33-yard field goal by Rackers with 5:35 remaining. The Texans' defense allowed two first downs before stopping the Bengals near midfield and forcing a punt.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
"It is unbelievable what T.J. was able to do, finding people down the field, avoiding the rush and making plays with his feet," said Daniels, who had a game-high seven catches for 100 yards. "It was so smooth. I've never seen anything like it.
"I don't know if (winning the division) has really sunk in yet, but it feels good. It's an unbelievable credit to everyone in the organization and to everyone that has fought through the hard times, and all the players that fought through today to make it happen."