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.

Bears Crumble in Snowy Game Against Patriots

New England (11-2) clinched a playoff spot with its fifth straight victory and delivered a strong message to the in 9-degree wind chill and 50-mile-per-hour wind gusts that blew enormous clouds of snow throughout Soldier Field. If the last two weeks, when the Patriots beat two likely playoff teams by a combined 81-10, are any indication, they are ready for a lot more.

While Patriots Coach reviewed the game with reporters, the final moments of ’ demise was playing out on a television a few feet away. , which put them with three games to play, was pointed out to Belichick, and it drew the same shrug that a question about clinching a playoff berth did.

But Belichick was spotted mingling with players in the locker room after the game, a rare show of bonhomie in front of reporters and an indication of how happy the Patriots are with their position as they prepare to host the next week.

“It’s good, but we’re just going to keep playing,” Belichick said of the playoff spot, in his best monotone. “I’m sure when the season ends someone will tell us what to do.”

Belichick is 10-0 in snow games in part because he rarely takes the Patriots into their indoor practice facility in Foxborough, Mass. Belichick used the warm-up period before the game to examine the elements, installing and ripping up plays as the wind and footing allowed. And the Patriots indicated immediately that the weather would not alter their essential style.

operated out of the shotgun on his first play, a 5-yard completion to Wes Welker, who had warmed up before the game in shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt. Brady continued to use short passes, using the catch and run that has become the Patriots’ offensive profile to chew up the empty spaces that the Bears’ cover-2 defense gives up.

With Chicago’s pass rush thwarted by the poor footing, Brady, who completed 27 of 40 passes for 369 yards, was under little pressure, even when he did not release a quick pass. Deion Branch and Welker each finished with more than 100 yards receiving under conditions so unpredictable that Welker said that on one pass he thought he was going to have to leap, only to have the ball wind up near his belly button.

The Patriots went on scoring drives of 12, 11 and 7 plays, and the defense twice forced fumbles that were quickly turned into points.

But the signature play of the game, the thumb in the eye to prognosticators who imagined the Patriots’ passing game would be held up in the wind, came on the final play of the first half. On third-and-9 from their 41, the Patriots — , even when their opponents are inept — eschewed taking a knee and ordered up a Brady pass down the deep left sideline to Branch.

Branch was wide open when he caught the ball and ran, seconds ticking away, for the Patriots’ fourth touchdown of the first half. The Patriots had scored as many points — 33— as the Bears had yards. And Brady continued his run toward the league’s Most Valuable Player award, with .

“They don’t cancel football games very often,” Brady said. “It’s not like baseball. It was one of those days a lot of people would be cozied up by the fireplace with hot chocolate. But we work on Sundays.”

For the Bears (9-4), this game, which sent frozen fans streaming to their cars with four minutes remaining in the second quarter, provided a startling reality check. They had against largely weaker opponents, but when they beat the Eagles last week, they suddenly seemed like legitimate N.F.C. contenders. With their division rivals, the earlier in the day, the Bears had a chance to seize a two-game division lead with three games remaining.

Instead, they finished with just 185 yards of offense and allowed 475 yards by the Patriots. The Bears were angered and surprised by their performance, and face a critical game against the next Monday at a site to be determined.

“That’s an elite team there, and to get where we want to go, those are the teams we have to beat,” said Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who completed just 12 of 26 passes for 152 yards, with two interceptions. “It’s little mistakes out there, and those things add up in a hurry, especially against a team like that.”