Quarterback Ryan Lindley (14) celebrates with teammates after his first touchdown pass of his career Sunday.
The third-stringer was in place at quarterback, not the situation a team would want heading into a playoff game and definitely not a playoff game on the road.
But when it was over, the third-stringer helped engineer the win, however improbable as it might have been, and T.J. Yates remains the hero of the Houston Texans' first-ever postseason win.
The recent history of backup quarterbacks starting playoff games is not kind to the teams forced to go without their starters into the postseason. The Cardinals are going to do that – likely with Ryan Lindley, but still hoping for Drew Stanton – and believe Lindley can provide a Yatesian boost to get them past the Carolina Panthers Saturday.
Winning under those circumstances, "those are the things you talk about for years," said Mike Tirico, the ESPN play-by-play man
calling the game.
For every Kurt Warner (1999) or Tom Brady (2001) to replace an injured starter during a playoff season and lead their team to an unexpected Super Bowl title, there are lots of teams that have not been able to win a playoff game with a backup. Besides Yates, the most recent examples both came in Vikings' losses, with Joe Webb losing to the Packers during the 2012 season, and Tavaris Jackson falling to the Eagles in 2008.
"I don't think anything different is expected of us in that locker room," coach Bruce Arians said. "We don't look at it as a team with a third-string quarterback. It's our starting quarterback. He's a Cardinal so we'd look for the same level of efficiency that'd we'd see if Carson (Palmer) or Drew were out there."
That's the kind of confidence Arians has pushed Lindley's way since Stanton went down with his knee injury Dec. 11 in St. Louis.
"That's what (Arians) preaches," Lindley said. "I don't know how to describe it, except he respects you as a person and not where you are status-wise. It's wherever you are at that moment. If you are on the field and you are the guy in the middle of the huddle, then he expects what he expects from a starting quarterback."
Arians said Stanton – who was not at practice Tuesday during the portion open to media – needs to practice only one day to show Arians he physically can do it and be able to play Saturday. That means Stanton would have to be on the field by Thursday at the latest.
It also means Lindley sounds likely, and after he played well in the first half Sunday against the 49ers – 260 yards passing and a pair of touchdowns – Arians thinks it can work.
"That's as good a first half of football as we've had anybody play quarterback this year," Arians said. "It gave everybody confidence. It's hard for a team in December to start looking for a new identity offensively, but we've got new (running) backs, a new tight end, a new quarterback, so we're all kind of searching."
Back when Brady came in the lineup, Drew Bledsoe was hurt in Week Two. Warner knew he was going to be the starter in
preseason, when Trent Green got hurt. Over the last 20 years, the backups who get into playoff games usually aren't so lucky.
Jeff Garcia did pilot the Eagles to a playoff win over the Giants in 2006 in place of Donovan McNabb, but Todd Collins couldn't help the Redskins over the Seahawks (2007). Arians was coaching Kelly Holcomb in 2002 when the Browns fell to the Steelers. The Bears lost to the Eagles behind Shane Matthews (2001), Gus Frerotte couldn't get the Broncos past the Ravens in 2000, Scott Zolak's Patriots lost to the Jaguars in 1998 and Dave Krieg and the Lions lost to the Packers in 1994.
Perhaps the most infamous situation where a backup started a playoff game came in 1999, when Buffalo turned to Rob Johnson after a healthy Doug Flutie started all but the regular-season finale – and the Bills should have won, only to lose on the "Music City Miracle."
"Lindley is the key," ESPN color analyst Jon Gruden said. "I thought Bruce Arians did a remarkable job with him in San Francisco. They put (Lindley) under center, they reduced the game plan, they did some things he was comfortable doing. (He must) stay away from the turnovers. Even though he played better, the three turnovers doomed Arizona."
Yates didn't get in the lineup in 2011 until after Matt Schaub got hurt and then backup Matt Leinart – in what was Leinart's last real shot in the NFL after his scattershot Cardinals' tenure – got hurt in his first start. Yates made it work.
Of course, Yates had Arian Foster at running back, while the Cardinals are still finding out how Kerwynn Williams and Stepfan Taylor work best together, and how Darren Fells can flourish at tight end. The Cardinals have a good offensive line and receivers, but the Cards have to run the ball and Lindley has to be smart.
Maybe then he can match what Yates did on that day in Cincinnati.
"It's hard to find a playoff team with a more nationally anonymous combo at running back and quarterback than the back-by-committee and the third quarterback with Lindley," Tirico said. "(Winning) would fit right in the pedigree of Bruce Arians, where everything looks like it's against you yet they succeed."
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