It seems only fitting that in this year when so many rookie quarterbacks have gotten the call, that for the first time in NFL history, two rookies face each other in a playoff game. But their circumstances couldn’t be more different as Andy Dalton and the Bengals travel to Houston to face T.J. Yates and the Texans.
Dalton was thrust into the starting role from the beginning of the season. Carson Palmer had demanded a trade, and ultimately received one, and Dalton was drafted to take over the starting job right away. Dalton led the team to a 9-7 record and performed well, throwing for 3,398 yards and 20 TDs, and developed an excellent chemistry with fellow rookie wide receiver A.J. Green. He looks like the emerging star he was expected to be when the Bengals selected him with the 35th pick overall at the beginning of the second round.
Yates was selected in the fifth round, 117 picks later, and made his way onto the roster as the third quarterback. He was thrown into the limelight six weeks ago, with a team that was 7-3, after the Texans lost quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart in back-to-back games, elevating Yates from third string to the starter. He won the first three games he played in before dropping the last three games of the season – including disappointing losses to the 2-14 Colts and the 6-10 Panthers.
“I don’t think either one of the young guys has really gone out there and acted like they’re rookies,” Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said. “So, I think that in the case of both players, they’re kind of a little bit ahead of their time. The focus has got to be on how they prepare and how the rest of the guys play up to these guys’ ability.”
Yates has only thrown for 949 yards this season, averaging 146 yards per game, with 3 TDs and 3 INTs. And in the three-game losing streak to close the season, he has no TDs and 2 INTs.
“My situation is obviously a lot different than Andy’s. He was drafted there to be the starter and unfortunate circumstances here in Houston led to me being the one playing,” said Yates, who makes his sixth career start in his first playoff game.
“But you’ve just got to take advantage of every opportunity you get,” he added, “and it’s pretty cool to be a part of it.”
Given that Dalton has had the whole season to grow into his role, and considering the way the Texans backed into the playoffs with three straight losses, you would think that the advantage would go to Cincinnati. But these teams met only a month ago, and Yates and the Texans won that matchup with a closely contested 20-19 final.
And Yates led the Texans from behind, scoring 10 points in the final 5:31, including a 6-yard TD pass to Kevin Walters with 0:02 left to seal the victory. For a young player, being able to look back to that game, the biggest win of his short career, can give a player a strong measure of confidence.
Asked if the loss four weeks ago was in their minds, Bengals receiver A.J. Green said, “You can’t let it get to you. Like coach Lewis said, ‘This is a new season.’ Who’s playing the best four weeks of football and who’s going to be playing in the big game?”
The teams know each other now, and that will not only make the rookies more comfortable, it will also help the defenses as they develop their game plans to stop these two talented young QBs.
Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said, “I didn’t know a lot about him before [that first game]. The kid has got a lot of poise. He makes good decisions. He reminds me a lot of our quarterback.”
Zimmer went on to add, “This is going to be a different game.”
Both teams also have top notch defenses to rely on. Houston is fourth, and Cincinnati ninth, in points allowed per game. And they are ranked second and seventh in yards allowed.
So this looks to be another close, hard-fought contest like their first match up, with good defenses, good running games, and talented young quarterbacks. And unfortunately, Dalton has been hampered this week with the flu, which caused him to miss Wednesday’s practice, and be taken to the hospital for treatement. He was back on the field on Thursday after spending Wednesday night “by the sink and toilet,” but in a game this tight – illness and lost preparation time can make all the difference.
We’ll give the advantage to Yates and the Texans, although this could easily be the closest and most entertaining game of the weekend.