I should probably start this off by making some pronouncement that 2011 was the year of the rookie in the NFL. Cam Newton broke records and dazzled fans with one of the best seasons a rookie
quarterback ever produced. Aldon Smith sacked the hell out of opposing quarterbacks, rookie and veteran alike. Patrick Peterson entered the record books with four punt-return touchdowns.
It's fitting that in the unofficial year of the rookie, two teams -- the Houston Texans and the Cincinnati Bengals -- march into the playoffs led by rookie quarterbacks. Unlike the names mentioned above, neither Andy Dalton of the Bengals or T.J. Yates of the Texans were first round picks. Dalton, out of TCU, was a second rounder, and the Texans pulled North Carolina's Yates out of the fifth round.
Dalton and Yates face off this weekend as Cincinnati travels to Houston to open the Wild Card weekend. This is the first time since 1966 that two rookie signal callers started a playoff game against each other. Yates also has the distinction of being the first ever rookie quarterback picked that late in the draft to start a playoff game.
There is precedent for what both young men are doing. In 2009, the New York Jets advanced to the AFC Championship game with rookie Mark Sanchez under center. Like those Jets, both the Texans and Bengals will look toward a tough defense to lend a hand. The year before Sanchez did that, both Matt Ryan of the Falcons and Joe Flacco of the Ravens, the first two quarterbacks picked in the 2008 NFL Draft, made a trip to the playoffs. Atlanta lost in the wildcard round, but Flacco and the Ravens went all the way to the AFC Championship. Flacco also had an elite defense and a bruising running game lending a hand. Notice a pattern here?
Either Dalton or Yates will advance to the Divisional round of the playoffs. Which rookie quarterback has the better chance of playing again next weekend?
Andy Dalton started all 16 games for the Bengals, and was pretty impressive throughout. Cincinnati's front office set him up for success by drafting wide receiver A.J. Green one round ahead of Dalton, even though the Bengals secretly hoped that Green would be catching passes from Carson Palmer. Together, Green and Dalton became the first rookie quarterback and receiver duo to pass for more than 3,000 yards passing and have more than 1,000 receiving yards in NFL history.
In addition to Green, Dalton got a big hand from his offensive line and a good running game led by Cedric Benson. Round out that cast of characters was a sure handed tight end, Jermaine Gresham, who caught more than 65 percent of the passes thrown his way.
One of the more impressive stats from Dalton this year was his ability to work well when blizted. On 200 dropbacks where the opposing defense blitzed, Dalton completed 56.4 percent of his passes, threw eight touchdowns and just two interceptions.
T.J. Yates' arrival was somewhat less heralded. In fact, it might best be compared to those horror stories from the Russian Front in WWII, where reinforcements were thrust onto the battlefield unarmed and told to pick up a weapon off the ground. Yates replaced Matt Leinart (remember him?) in Week 11, Leinart being a replacement for starter Matt Schaub.
With less to go on than Dalton, Yates is more of an unknown. His best game in five starts came against none other than the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 13. He completed 26 of 44 passes for 300 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. With Yates' help, the Texans overcame a 16-3 halftime deficit for a narrow 20-19 victory. Both of Yates' touchdown passes came in the second half of that game.
In Yates' corner is a versatile running game headlined by Arian Foster. He also has one the league's best receivers in Andre Johnson, who looks to be healthy for the playoffs, healthy enough at any rate.
Houston also has one of the league's better offensive lines anchored by center Chris Myers and tackles Eric Winston one the right and Duane Brown on the left. According to Pro Football Focus, Myers is the league's top interior lineman. Brown is ranked sixth among all offensive tackles; Winston ranks 11th overall and fourth among tackles as a run blocker. There isn't a safer place for young quarterback to be outside of the womb.
Consistent with the model that helped Mark Sanchez and Joe Flacco as rookies, both the Dalton and Yates are helped by very good defenses.
Houston's defense ranks fourth in the NFL for points allowed (17.4 points per game) and second in yards allowed (285.7 yards per game). The Bengals are also a top ten defense in both those categories, ranking ninth in points allowed (20.2) and seventh in yards allowed (316.2).
So which rookie quarterback will be playing in the next round of the playoffs?
The Texans are three-point favorites, and that jives with most predictions. The contributions from Yates aside, their defense is loaded, from front to back with very good players that make it hard for any offense to score points. However, Yates isn't the only one making his first playoff appearance; this is Houston's first trip to playoffs ever.
On the other hand, Dalton certainly looks like the better quarterback, and Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has just enough weapons to create mismatches against the Texans.
With two stout defenses, the rookie quarterbacks are likely to end being more of a footnote in this game than the feature story, as has been the case for other rookie quarterbacks in the playoffs. On the other hand, I wouldn't rule out the chance to surprised by either player.
For more on the Bengals, visit Cincy Jungle. Follow the Texans at Battle Red Blog. SI.com has a complete playoff primer, and SB Nation NFL will keep you updated with all the happenings as the postseason progresses.