HOUSTON -- Garrett Graham already had his number called, contributing in an expected capacity as the Texans' third-string-turned-backup tight end with a 24-yard catch in the third quarter Sunday at Reliant Stadium.
Late in the fourth quarter, Graham experienced the unexpected. Starting outside linebacker Brooks Reed had played way too many snaps in a game that meant little to the Texans, and reserve Bryan Braman had departed prematurely due to a stinger. Graham was drafted as the "next man up" despite not having taken a snap on defense since high school.
"I was excited. I didn't know what was going on at first," Texans inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans said while flashing a broad smile. "I was like, OK, we're going to throw him out there at outside linebacker.' He did a good job staying outside. He did his job and we got a caused fumble on there. He's our secret weapon to get us that turnover there at the end."
As Ryans noted, the Texans earned the right to tinker with rotations, to rest starters who would have played otherwise and to attempt a two-point conversion with 14 seconds left when an extra point would have sufficed. What were dire straits for the Titans was anything but for the Texans, who lost 23-22 and will lug a three-game skid into the playoffs.
Texans coach Gary Kubiak took a glance at the big picture and embraced its beauty. Pro-Bowl selections Arian Foster and Johnathan Joseph were given the afternoon off, and tight end Owen Daniels was inactive with a bothersome knee injury that won't be nearly as debilitating next week.
Starters were pulled as the game unfolded, leaving the outcome to be decided by backups. Quarterback T.J. Yates played one series, dinged his non-throwing (left) shoulder, and was relieved. Receiver Andre Johnson returned from a left hamstring injury and played 18-20 snaps before spending the second half on the sideline. The two particulars on the failed two-point conversion - center Thomas Austin and quarterback Jake Delhomme - were not on the roster when the Texans broke camp.
"The question I had, I wanted to play Andre 15 plays, so you play Andre 15 plays, Arian 15, we have somebody play in the game, some guys to play in the game," Kubiak said. "Those decisions were made more with J-Joe (Joseph) and Arian from problems that we had in other areas, playing guys in the second half of the game, trying to suit up eight offensive linemen, trying to suit up five wide receivers."
It was fitting that even the Texans' depth was compromised by injuries. Rookie tackle Derek Newton, a seventh-round pick out of Arkansas State, replaced right tackle Eric Winston and was subsequently lost to a leg injury. There were some tense moments when Yates, the Texans' third starter under center this season, retreated to the locker room after leading the team on a near-flawless 13-play, 90-yard touchdown drive.
Even in the defeat, the Texans took solace in the performance of their reserves. Linebackers Tim Dobbins and Jesse Nading combined to force the turnover that gave the Texans the football at the Tennessee 36 with 1:49 remaining. Delhomme and Bryant Johnson combined on the five-yard scoring play that pulled the Texans to within one with 14 seconds left. Running back Ben Tate and fullback James Casey were exceptional.
"It says that we have depth. It says that we have quality players all across the locker room," Foster said. "And I think that's a tribute to this organization and our talent scouting. We have guys that can play."
Foster dismissed talk about flagging momentum. By winning seven consecutive games and claiming the AFC South title four weeks ago, the Texans (10-6) positioned themselves to play a game like this. Victory is always the primary objective, but allotting rest for key contributors took precedent against the win-starved Titans (9-7). That decision was prudent in advance of the most significant game in franchise history.
The Texans had turned the page on this loss by the time they were asked to discuss it. They have bigger goals in mind, and if playing a third-string tight end at outside linebacker benefited those goals then so be it.
"Rest or not I don't think the team is going to have a problem with adrenaline next week," Texans inside linebacker Brian Cushing said. "You know what's at stake. Guys are going to be so intense and so pumped up to play in a playoff game that you're really not going to think about how you feel."
Said Foster, who was informed of his inactive status on Sunday: "I know you have to be healthy to play games. Some of our best players were resting. You have to be as healthy as you can going into the playoffs."
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