Texans Reach Playoffs, Remain in the Shadows

They are used to those, the team having spent its entire history waiting for Peyton Manning to falter, waiting, too, to find its own killer instinct. The Texans have drafted smartly, signed good free agents and have been in contention before, only to stumble down the stretch, contributing to an identity as perhaps a team that lacked the appropriate mettle to be a champion.

But on the day the playoff picture gained a measure of clarity, the Texans clinched the first playoff spot in franchise history Sunday because their rookie third-string quarterback, T. J. Yates, threw for almost as many yards as the defense allowed the ’ offense .

This is a new-age Texans team, with quarterback Matt Schaub standing on the sideline on crutches as Yates led the winning drive in the closing seconds, and the defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, laughed out as the Dallas Cowboys’ coach last season, engineering a remarkable turnaround in which the . It has made the Texans an unpredictable playoff team in a season that promises more of them.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Yates told reporters after the game. “A lot of people in this organization have waited a long time for this. This is a special day for this team and this organization.”

And yet, the Texans were not even the headliner Sunday. , the unorthodox quarterback whose staggering ability to save the from the brink of disaster, led the Broncos to after they trailed by 10-0 late in the fourth quarter.

The Broncos, 1-4 when Tebow was made the starter, are . Tebow remains a highly inefficient — and deeply enthralling — quarterback. The Broncos’ defense is the real cornerstone for most of those victories. But Tebow’s penchant for elevating his play late in games has captivated the N.F.L., and it will get its truest test next week, when the Broncos host the New England Patriots.

New England can score so many points that Tebow’s late-game heroics would have to start much earlier. But the on Sunday spotlighted the problems with their defense. The Patriots allowed 463 yards, getting hurt by the run and the pass against a last-place team.

Defense has been a problem for the Patriots all season, but with the secondary banged up, and no improvement in sight, it is clear that a New England playoff run will be predicated almost completely on Tom Brady’s arm. Last season, the Patriots were eliminated in the first round with a defense that struggled to hold leads.

“You kind of don’t want to give up those yards in the first place,” Patriots safety James Ihedigbo said. “But at the same time, we’re going to bow our necks once we get down there and say, ‘Hey, they’re not getting in the end zone.’ ”

The Texans were the third team to clinch a division title — the Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco 49ers had already done so — and the Broncos’ victory then secured a playoff spot for the New Orleans Saints. But Sunday dented the hopes of the Bengals and the Tennessee Titans, resuscitated the Jets and the Atlanta Falcons, and highlighted the difference in the Saints’ offense when it does not play under a roof.

It did, though, confirm one thing. The Green Bay Packers are a terrifying team.

— one of the three teams in contention in the A.F.C. West — might have been their most complete game of the season. Aaron Rodgers was routinely brilliant, but the running game — often a nonfactor as Rodgers has carved up the N.F.L. — broke several big runs. And the defense, which has been susceptible to deep passes this season and is statistically among the worst in the league, shut out the Raiders in the first half.

After the Saints, playing outdoors for the last time in the regular season, scored 10 fewer points than their season average in a 22-17 victory at Tennessee, and after the Patriots allowed the Redskins to move the ball effectively, it is clear that the Packers are in a class by themselves.

The only thing that seems able to foil another run to the is the one thing that cast a pall over Lambeau Field on Sunday: injuries to key players, like receiver Greg Jennings, who was carted to the locker room with a knee injury.

That is why the Packers will soon have a difficult decision to make. San Francisco’s surprising loss to the Arizona Cardinals imperils the 49ers’ hopes for a first-round playoff bye. If the Packers win next week, they will secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

That will leave them two games with . It is a delicious decision, and in the final three weeks of the season, it may not even be the most thrilling one.

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