Carson Palmer was coming off another strong campaign and Matt Schaub made it through another 16-game season healthy and ready to ascend the ranks of elite NFL quarterbacks.
So much for stability.
Palmer is now with the Oakland Raiders and Schaub is out for the season with a Lisfranc injury, opening the door for a pair of rookie quarterbacks — Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton and Houston’s T.J. Yates — to step into the spotlight for Saturday’s wild-card playoff opener in Houston.
In a draft that saw quarterbacks Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder all selected in the first 12 picks, few would have predicted Dalton (the fourth QB taken) and Yates (the eighth) would be the first to get a taste of the NFL playoffs.
“It shows how much the game has changed these days,” Yates said. ”My situation is obviously a lot different than Andy’s. He was drafted there to be the starter and unfortunate circumstances here in Houston led to me being the one playing.
“But you’ve just got to take advantage of every opportunity you get, and it’s pretty cool to be a part of it.”
Yates certainly has taken advantage of that opportunity, winning his first three NFL games including a come-from-behind 20-19 victory at Cincinnati on Dec. 11 that clinched the division title and the franchise’s first playoff berth.
Meantime Dalton has been about as solid as Marvin Lewis and the Bengals could have hoped. He completed 58 percent of his passes for 3,398 yards and 20 touchdowns while throwing 13 interceptions and was at his best during the team’s five-game winning streak in the middle of the season.
“I don’t think either one of the young guys has really gone out there and acted like they’re rookies,” Lewis said. “So, I think in the case of both players, they’re kind of a little bit ahead of their time. The focus has got to be on how they prepare and how the rest of the guys play up to these guys’ ability.”
The closest either quarterback has come to experiencing they type of pressure they’re sure to face on Saturday was in last year’s bowl season. Dalton was named offensive player of the game after leading TCU to a 21-19 Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin while Yates helped the North Carolina Tar Heels rally for a wild 30-27 overtime victory against Tennessee in the Music City Bowl.
Saturday is sure to be a whole new ballgame for both young quarterbacks. Which one will step up to the challenge?
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NFL Playoffs: Wild-card weekend schedule, previews