Decimated by injuries to key starters on both sides of the ball, the AFC South-leading Houston Texans, behind a rugged defense, surprisingly steady play from third-string quarterback T.J. Yates, and the usual punishing running from Arian Foster, hung on to defeat the Atlanta Falcons 17-10 Sunday.
Yates, making his first start after season-ending injuries to Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart, handled the offense without egregious error and even tossed his first NFL touchdown pass. But it was the pressure of the Texans' defense, though they failed to record a single sack, which kept the Falcons' Matt Ryan out of step all afternoon. Ryan was off target from the start, overthrowing wide open receivers downfield on two of Atlanta's first three offensive plays. Two game-changing penalties negated Falcons defensive touchdowns and in the end ruined their chances for victory.
Houston got 111 rushing yards and a touchdown from Foster. The gifted, undrafted running back from the University of Tennessee, with his straight-up, long-striding gallop, is the spitting reincarnation of Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson. Atlanta still had one final shot on the game's last play. Ryan, who earlier had thrown two interceptions, arched an end zone pass from the Houston 30 to wide receiver Julio Jones, the Falcons' No. 1 draft selection. But the leaping Jones let the game-tying touchdown slip right through his hands. With the win, Houston holds a two-game AFC South-division lead over Tennessee. Atlanta falls to 7-5, two games down to New Orleans in the NFC South.
SURPRISE, SURPRISE: It's not really a surprise anymore, but the Denver Broncos won for the sixth time in their last seven starts-all with Tim Tebow under center. The miracle that is Denver continued with a 35-32 victory in Minnesota and relied more on the southpaw QB than in previous wins, when the Broncos' defense was the team's mightiest weapon. Against the Vikings, Tebow did not perform typically. The usual run-first/pass-second combo that is Tebow's standard M.O., reversed itself, as the former Heisman Trophy winner passed for a career-best 202 yards and two touchdowns, rushing for just 13 yards and no scores. Now 7-5, Denver moved into a first-place tie with Oakland in the AFC West...Ditto for Miami, as far as surprises go. After dropping their first seven games, the Dolphins have won four of their last five, wiping out Oakland on Sunday 34-14. The Raiders had led the AFC West coming into the contest. During the current streak, Miami, which lost by just one point to Dallas, has outscored its opponents 139-54.
ANGLING FOR THE CORNER: Last Thursday night's Philadelphia-at-Seattle offering was a refreshing throwback for viewers, and it didn't even require bringing out the throwback uniforms. When was the last time you saw running backs as the featured offensive component for both teams rather than the quarterbacks? With both teams playing with less than stellar passers, Seattle's Marshawn Lynch and the Eagles' LeSean McCoy put on jaw-dropping clinics of how to move up and down the field without throwing every down. It was a welcome change from the ritualistic aerial bombardment that we've all had to adjust to since the NFL decided that offense was the only way to sell the game...Green Bay improved upon its definition of perfection, now 12-0 after the Packers' last-second 38-35 win over the New York Giants.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: CAM NEWTON: Tim Tebow may be thought of as the NFL's resident running quarterback, but it's Carolina's Cam Newton who broke Steve Grogan's 36-year-old NFL record for most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in a season (13). Newton's one-man offensive fireworks in the Panthers' 38-19 win over Tampa Bay included three rushing touchdowns and a TD pass to go with his 204 yards passing without a pick.
Alan Ross is the author of 32 books, including Away from the Ball: The NFL's Off-the-Field Heroes. E-mail him at: email@example.com
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