The stars and even their backups keep falling for the Houston Texans.
This team has weathered season-ending injuries to linebacker Mario Williams and quarterback Matt Schaub as well as playing for six games without Andre Johnson, yet managed to remain atop the AFC South standings.
Now this resilient bunch will face its toughest test when rookie third-string quarterback T.J. Yates makes his first NFL start against the Atlanta Falcons (7-4) on Sunday.
Yates saw his first NFL action in a 20-13 win over Jacksonville last week after backup Matt Leinart was injured. Leinart broke his left collarbone and is out for the season, leaving Yates as the Texans' best option (for now) as they try to secure their first playoff berth.
This certainly isn't the scenario the Texans envisioned when the season began. Still, they insist there's no reason for panic and that they'll deal with this setback just as they've handled everything else thrown at them this year.
"Nothing's changed. We've been dealing with injuries all year," Johnson said. "Everybody's running around here like things are supposed to be bad, but the team is fine."
Johnson has plenty of reasons to be confident. The Texans (8-3) have the league's top defense (measured by yards allowed), the third-most potent running game and have won five straight heading into Sunday's game.
Yates, a fifth-round pick out of North Carolina, doesn't seem daunted by his new responsibility.
"I wasn't expecting for it to come under these circumstances and this quick in my career, but I've been preparing for it all season long just in case something like this was going to happen," he said.
Yates was 8 of 15 for 70 yards against Jacksonville after Leinart was injured in the second quarter.
Falcons coach Mike Smith isn't expecting much of a drop-off with Yates in at quarterback.
"It is a system offense. Coach (Gary) Kubiak's offense has a system and it's really based, in my mind, around the running game and the running game sets up everything else," Smith said. "The way that they've thrown the ball, it's all predicated off the run game. Even though it's not going to be the quarterback that we thought it was going to be three weeks ago, I don't anticipate seeing any changes in terms of what they're going to try to do offensively."
Atlanta cornerback and former Texan Dunta Robinson agrees.
"It's going to be a little bit different, but the way that their offense works, it really doesn't matter who they have at quarterback," Robinson said. "All (Yates) has to do is take care of the football and not really try to do too much, not make any mistakes. But they still have all of their weapons and we're more focused on those guys than we are who's playing quarterback and what's going to happen at quarterback."
The Texans will have to run the ball more effectively than last week, when they finished with 88 yards rushing, well below their almost 152 yards a game average. It won't be easy against a defense yielding the second-fewest yards rushing a game in the NFL at less than 84.
Running back Arian Foster said Houston's focus this week shouldn't be on how Yates will perform, but rather how each player can help the rookie.
"I've got to make sure I play the best that I can for him and for our team," Foster said. "I think if everybody takes that mind frame and just doesn't worry about who's at quarterback and just worry about doing your job, it's going to make his job that much easier."
The Falcons are also looking to make a playoff push and have won two straight to sit second in the NFC South behind New Orleans. Their recent success has been aided by the solid play of Matt Ryan, who has thrown for 578 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions in those last two games.
Smith knows Ryan and his offense will be in for a challenge against a Houston defense that is getting better every week. Smith is impressed with the turnaround Wade Phillips has orchestrated in his first season with the Texans, and calls him one of the top defensive coordinators in NFL history.
"They are very sound and not necessarily overcomplicated, but man, do they give you fits," Smith said. "When you get done watching that tape, you can see why they're 8-3 and the No. 1 team in the AFC with the best record."
The Texans had seven sacks against the Jaguars, four from outside linebacker Connor Barwin, a third-year player who is having a breakout season. He has 34 tackles and leads the team with 8 ½ sacks.
He said the team's quarterback woes don't increase the expectations for the defense. They're simply looking to improve no matter what's going on with the offense.
"I don't look at it as pressure," he said. "You kind of have to elevate your game a little bit and kind of play better, but no matter what's happening during the season, as the season goes on, as these games become more important, I think you always want to think you need to elevate your game."
Robinson, drafted in the first round by the Texans -- he played his first six seasons in Houston -- isn't surprised by what the team has done this year. He could see the pieces coming together before he left before the 2010 season.
"You knew it was a matter of time," he said. "You knew this team was going to be successful. We got better and better every year. They're a team with not a lot of holes. There's not a lot of weaknesses on this team, period. We got our hands full this week."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.