CINCINNATI – A rookie got the Houston Texans to a place they've never known, one that seemed ready to disappear when their top two quarterbacks got hurt last month.
Instead, T.J. Yates made a little Lone Star history.
The fifth-round draft pick led the most important drive in Texans history on Sunday, taking Houston 80 yards in little more than 2 minutes with no timeouts against the Cincinnati Bengals. His 6-yard touchdown pass with 2 seconds left gave Houston a 20-19 win and a division championship.
Everyone knew who the star was in the Texans' biggest moment.
"We realized what was on the line there," tight end Owen Daniels said. "It is unbelievable what T.J. was able to do, finding people down the field, avoiding the rush and making plays. It was so smooth. I've never seen anything like it."
The Texans (10-3) have never done anything like it during their 10-year history as an expansion team. They've won seven in a row despite losing quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart in consecutive games to season-ending injuries.
In stepped Yates, who took them the final step in his second NFL start.
"It's pretty crazy," Yates said. "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."
In a few wild minutes on Sunday, it all came together.
They needed to win and have Tennessee lose at home to New Orleans to clinch their first AFC South title. They celebrated on the field when Yates brought the first half of the playoff equation. Then, still in uniform, they huddled around a television in the locker room and watched the Titans lose 22-17.
They screamed collectively then passed out championship caps and T-shirts. Receiver Andre Johnson, one of the most long-suffering Texans, got a game ball.
"I'm just happy for the city of Houston," said Johnson, who was sidelined by a pulled hamstring. "They deserve it. We've got great fans who have stuck it out with us. Words really can't describe it. It's something I've been waiting for for a long time."
It seems the Bengals (7-6) are going to have another year of waiting. They've lost four of their last five, and now need help in order to get the AFC's final wild-card berth.
"It's a defeated feeling today," safety Chris Crocker said. "I can't even put into words how bad this hurt."
Cincinnati knew it had to beat a team with a rookie quarterback in order to stay in the playoff chase. With their season on the line, the Bengals couldn't do it.
"A rookie quarterback beat us today," Crocker said. "He did it with both his arm and his feet. I don't even know what to say. Wow."
Yates scrambled 17 yards on third-and-15 to keep the final drive going. A pass interference penalty on Adam "Pacman" Jones put the ball at the 6-yard line with 12 seconds left. After an incompletion, Kevin Walter lined up wide right, cut to the middle of the field and was uncovered at the goal line for the winning catch.
The kid had come through when it mattered most.
"Hey, we're champs!" receiver Jacoby Jones said. "All my years I've been playing, I've never been on a team that got over the hump."
Only 41,202 fans — the second-smallest crowd in Paul Brown Stadium history — showed up to watch the Bengals turn themselves into a long shot for the playoffs. They were coming off a 35-7 drubbing in Pittsburgh that essentially eliminated them from the AFC North race.
Now, they're going to need help getting the final wild-card berth.
"As far as the team goes, they are very disappointed and I'm going to have to pump some air in them," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "Before this game, we controlled our own destiny, and now I can't tell you what is going to happen."
Houston's stingy defense came through after the Texans fell behind 16-3 at halftime. Andy Dalton was sacked and fumbled, setting up Yates' 6-yard touchdown pass that got the Texans some momentum early in the third quarter.
Yates finished 26 of 44 for 300 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
"It did not look like we had any chance of getting out of here with a win," coach Gary Kubiak said. "But we have a young quarterback who believes in what he's doing."
Notes: The Bengals managed only 81 yards in the second half. Cedric Benson carried eight times and lost a yard overall in the half. ... Cincinnati's Mike Nugent kicked field goals of 22, 47, 49 and 28 yards. ... RG Bobbie Williams hurt his right ankle in the second quarter and didn't return. ... The crowd was smaller than one of the University of Cincinnati's two games at Paul Brown Stadium this season. The Bearcats drew 48,152 fans for a game against West Virginia on Nov. 12. Their game against Louisville on Oct. 15 drew 40,971.