- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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HOUSTON -- When Gary Kubiak issued his weekly quarterback quiz on Saturday night, T.J. Yates gave a gold-star performance.
After which the excited proctor shared details with the full class room.
“When I tested him I was so impressed and I went in there and told the whole team, ‘I wish you could have been in there, he’s ready to play,’” Kubiak said.
"If anybody was skeptical,” right tackle Eric Winston said, "that stopped it right there.”
The prepared rookie third-string quarterback helped propel Houston to a 17-10 win against Atlanta, a team that came to Reliant Stadium with wins in five of its past six games.
The quarterbacks have changed, from Matt Schaub to Matt Leinart to Yates, but the Texans' results have stayed the same. The win was their sixth in a row and kept them entrenched as the favorite to win the AFC South and in line to capture one of the conference’s top seeds.
“It’s three weeks, it’s three different quarterbacks,” Kubiak said. “But it’s the same team.”
Beyond the nice quarterback play, that team showed a piece of just about every element you want as you head toward the playoffs: An ability to grind out rushing yards, mental and physical toughness, a swarming pass rush that made a good quarterback uncomfortable, resiliency following tough moments (and injuries) and a propensity for finding enough plays on both sides of the ball.
“That’s by far, here of late, the best team that we’ve played,” Atlanta coach Mike Smith said.
Yates threw for 188 yards and a touchdown, posting an 86.8 passer rating and displaying calm, moxie and mobility. I asked him about where the cool composure comes from, and he said it’s not so much a football things as just his personality extending into the game. He’s not particularly excitable, but that doesn’t mean he can’t send a big message.
Not long after Andre Johnson dropped a great pass, Yates went back to the well-covered star, who muscled a 50-yard reception away from the defender. When John Abraham flew past Winston and buried Yates with a quick, hard sack, the quarterback bounced up quickly to make it clear he wasn’t hurt and wasn't going to flinch.
For all the home team’s good work, the Falcons pulled even at 10-10 late in the third quarter and it looked like the game might turn their direction. But the Texans responded with a massive drive: 19 plays that covered 85 yards, ate up 10 minutes and 41 seconds, and provided the winning margin.
Kubiak called for an Arian Foster run on a fourth-and-1 from the Atlanta 9-yard line, reasoning he had just the right play and it was going to take more than a field goal to win. Foster gained 7, and was in the end zone two plays later.
“The offensive line did a good job to allow us to keep pounding them and pounding them,” Tate said. “In games like this, you know the other team will stay stout -- second quarter, still stout, third quarter [still stout]. At the end we saw a little wearing down. By the end we knew it was a matter of time before we could break the big runs off.”
The defense then made two very solid stands after the Falcons advanced as far as the Houston 20-yard line on the first foray and the 25 on the second.
“The pressure was on our team in the fourth quarter and they came through,” Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said.
At 9-3 three-quarters of the way through the season, the Texans are a win away from the highest win total in franchise history and seem destined for the city’s first NFL playoff berth since the Oilers were in the 1993 postseason.
Several players admitted that -- new starting quarterback or not -- they felt disrespected by being cast as underdogs for this game.
“I thought it was a little bit ridiculous, but you know, Vegas does their thing and we do our thing,” Winston said. “The skepticism that was going around the city? I guess a people that aren’t close to football and hear 'third-string quarterback' and know a lot of teams can’t win with their second-string quarterback right now.”
In previous seasons when they felt like they had a playoff team, the Texans might have looked too far ahead at the win total it would take to get there and not have been able to handle biting off such a big chunk.
Now expectations are all about more sensible portions. They’ve got a cliche that works for them -- they just try to go 1-0 each week -- and focus exclusively on more immediate goals.
“For the first time since I’ve been here, we’re not trying to win five games in one week,” Winston said.
Then he shushed playoff talk.
“Don’t say it,” he said. “It’s like a no-hitter, don’t even talk about it. We’re not even going to talk about until it happens. Then you can douse me in Gatorade if you want.”